Sceptre £17.99

Living, Thinking, Looking, By Siri Hustvedt

It's just me, myself, and everyone else

A third of the way into this volume of essays, Siri Hustvedt begins a piece entitled "Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few" with three abstruse quotations about neuroscience, art theory and psychoanalysis. They stick out, obstructively. Until then, the Norwegian-American novelist has offered up seductive but gentle observational essays about the nature of desire, or advice from one's mother, or flowers, with a dash of Freud added here and Montaigne there. So why does she then wield these "big" quotes: to impress the reader with her erudition or to cause discomfort?

It only takes a paragraph for Hustvedt to relieve the anxiety. The quotes are meant to be impenetrable. "Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few" turns out to be an essay about the academic language of three subjects in which she is widely read, and her point is that abstruse academic language excludes those who are not experts from participating in the conversation, and makes it difficult for ideas to cross the disciplines' boundaries.

Hustvedt has brought together vignettes from her life, reflections on fiction and art, and her private reading of neuroscience to frame an inquiry about how the self relates and responds to the external world. She writes in the first person, as both Freud and Montaigne did, and in doing so creates an easy thought-conversation between herself and the reader. This atmosphere makes her essays a little like a therapy session, in which she may hit upon a nerve at any moment, then explore and rationalise it.

The volume covers three broad areas. "Living" is drawn from experience; "thinking" involves more intellectual puzzles to do with, for example, writing fiction, while "looking" comprises essays on art from Louise Bourgeois to Goya. In one striking short piece in "Living", Hustvedt considers what a blessing it is not to spend one's day looking into a mirror.

"Were I to see myself in medias res, my critical faculties might never shut down, and I would barely be able to lift a finger without crippling self-consciousness."

But reflection, and how we react to it, is the core of Hustvedt's work – indeed at times paralyses the reader with its insights – and Hustvedt has great range. In "Critical Notes on a Verbal Climate", written after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hustvedt considers how George Bush used the word "freedom" in his post-9/11 declarations – an idea drawn from Enlightenment thought whose meaning has altered to include the gun-toting frontier spirit. Here, the self is looked at in relation to the other, the enemy beyond the hills in Afghanistan or Iraq. Hustvedt observes that while busy with this demonised other, America failed to notice its own interior until the bodies washed up in New Orleans.

This is not a volume that provides concrete answers. Rather, it leaves the reader feeling subjected to a soft interrogation of one's own perception of oneself.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering