Jennifer Levasseur reviews 'A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind' by Siri Hustvedt

Jennifer Levasseur reviews 'A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind' by Siri Hustvedt

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on art, sex, and the mind

by Siri Hustvedt

Sceptre $32.99 pb, 576 pp, 9781473638914

Siri Hustvedt revels in ambiguity, the in-between places where the certainties of fact fray. In her idea-driven novels such as The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), and The Summer Without Men (2011), gender is often fluid, identity unfixed, relationships precarious. Her own neurological condition that causes seizure-like flailing, which she chronicles in The Shaking Woman (2010), defies categorisation or treatment, and seems to exist in a mysterious realm between the mental and physical. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, her fifth collection of essays, builds bridges between the humanities and the sciences, while she challenges the convictions of both. Throughout Hustvedt’s compulsive and demanding work, she refuses to accept staid understandings. She writes, ‘I discover what I think because I write. The act of writing is not a translation of thought into words, but rather a process of discovery.’

In the book’s 550-plus pages, we enter a conversation with a thinker working through questions about how we experience and remember art, the nuances of neurological disorders, and where writers get their ideas. She couples these explorations with personal anecdotes and discordant sources. Divided into three parts, the essays – on such topics as the mind–body problem, Pina Bausch’s choreography, Susan Sontag’s take on pornography, and how trauma can induce physical disability – are a result of reflection on visual arts for exhibition catalogues; her own work for a scholarly collection that examines ambiguity in her oeuvre; suicide prevention for a conference in Oslo; a keynote on Kierkegaard for the philosopher’s two-hundredth birthday; and her time as a writing teacher in a psychiatric hospital. She refuses to stay within the fiction writer’s traditional safe places. ‘The truth,’ she writes, ‘is I am filled to the brim with the not always harmonious voices of other writers.’

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Jennifer Levasseur

Jennifer Levasseur

Jennifer Levasseur is co-editor of Novel Voices, Conversations with James Salter, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer at Fifty, and the literary website A voting member of the National Book Critics Circle, she has published in Tin House, Glimmer Train Stories, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, Brick, America magazine, and World Literature Today.

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