Living, Thinking, Looking, By Siri Hustvedt

Despite her reading in medical texts, Hustvedt aspires to write in lay terms

O ne of the most striking novels I've read in the past decade is Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved (2003), a substantial work whose subtle plot and arresting characters seethed on the domestic periphery of New York City's art scene. Anchored by the author's passionate interests in visual art, psychoanalysis and, in a moving and fundamental way, love, the novel felt grounded in truths about humanity that transcended any particular interest in its subject matter.

The same passion impels the essays and reflections collected here. They seek to elucidate how we, consciously and subconsciously, engage with the phenomenal world. In the first section, "Living", Hustvedt plunders her Scandinavian and Midwestern heritage, probing ideas of memory, visualisation and neurological unruliness.

Despite her broad reading in medical and neuroscientific texts, Hustvedt aspires to write in lay terms, which she mostly achieves through uncluttered prose and a rigorous linearity of thought. The second section – "Thinking" – comes briefly closest to betraying this, with her 2011 lecture "Freud's Playground" proving particularly opaque. "Looking" reverts to more monographic critiques of art, with potent meditations on Kiki Smith, Giorgio Morandi and Goya.

A preoccupation that underpins this collection is the idea that perception is not a passive but a creative process. "I don't write about art to explain it," she states in her catalogue essay on Gerhard Richter, "but to explore what has happened between me and the image".

Hustvedt's arguments are attractive and plausible, and feed into her own approach to fiction. Reading is more than a cognitive act, she suggests, requiring the reader's active presence and engagement.

Hustvedt's patient, astute insights develop a clear idea of the possible interactions between art and individual – and of the transformative potential of such encounters. Seeing is creating, for Hustvedt, and the meditations collected here amount to a lucid, absorbing and vigorous exploration of how we engage with the physical world, with art and with memory.

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