Siri Hustvedt is in her kitchen in Brooklyn – a high-ceilinged room with walls painted a deep navy and a few glass ornaments in bright reds and greens placed on shelves near the ceiling.
Her bestselling books, from 2003’s What I Loved, to 2014’s Booker-long listed The Blazing World, may have given her the reputation of being an intimidatingly intellectual 21st-century Virginia Woolf, but she is brilliant at putting me at ease. She leans forward to hear me better and when, at one point, her dishwasher beeps, she leaps up to open it so that steam pours out.
Her latest collection of essays, entitled Mothers, Fathers, and Others, showcases a wonderfully relaxed erudition. Blending family memoir and feminist philosophy, its subjects include misogyny, motherhood and what we inherit from our parents, including her own at times difficult relationship with her professor father.
“I was seeking my father’s approval and I think it’s good in many ways that I didn’t receive it,” she tells me. Why? “Well, I think it toughens you up and it’s no good to want to be patted on the head by the patriarchy.”
She also writes about the loss of her mother, in October 2019, admitting she has “never experienced a grief as pure”. Hustvedt is married to the Booker-shortlisted writer Paul Auster and the couple have a 34-year-old daughter, Sophie, a singer-songwriter. She says Sophie has been a comfort following her mother’s death. “There is a kind of ‘passing on’ that occurs,” she tells me. “It’s in the music, in the touching, in the talking.”
Far from being bereft as her daughter has flown the nest, Hustvedt now delights in their relationship as adults. “I regained emotional room when she went to college. I absolutely did not experience empty nest syndrome. I know other women have. I guess it helps that Sophie and I are really very good friends now.”
In Mothers, Fathers, and Others, Hustvedt addresses the misogyny she has encountered. There is the feminist college professor, a woman whom Hustvedt hoped would be her mentor, who tells her: “What are you doing in graduate school? You look like Grace Kelly.” It’s a violent comment, I say.
“It was… and I’ve never looked anything like Grace Kelly… A good friend of mine who knew the professor later told me she had a problem with pretty women,” Hustvedt says, laughing a little in good-natured embarrassment that she is considered a pretty woman.
Hustvedt also recounts that when she attempted to join a philosophy seminar while a graduate student at New York’s Columbia University in the late 70s, she found that every other student was a bearded white man smoking a pipe. “This can’t have literally been true,” she tells me now. What is true, however, is that no one in the seminar acknowledged her or responded when she spoke.
She was shocked to have been reduced to her sex. “It’s a problem when you have suspect genitalia, you know? You have to be seen to be hurt if they feel like, ‘Hang on, there’s a vagina here!’ And if you are not seen to be hurt, the power gets flipped and men behave in a traditionally feminine way.”
They become hysterical, I say? “Yes, look at Brett Kavanaugh, who is now on the Supreme Court… angrily screaming… but that’s OK because he’s a white male. If you’re a woman or a black man, it’s a problem.”
At 66, Hustvedt remains as prolific as ever, and is now writing a new novel. “I’m having a lot of fun with it. I haven’t worked out if it’s going to be one narrator or three narrators, but it’s a man’s voice,” she smiles. “It’s a real pleasure to get back to fiction.” Getting older appears to suit her beautifully. “Age,” she says, “has given me a sense of deep irony.”
What I’m reading now
IN DEFENSE OF THE HUMAN BEING By Thomas Fuchs
“He is the Karl Jaspers professor of philosophy and psychiatry at Heidelberg University in Germany.”
What I’m reading next
HOOKED: ART AND ATTACHMENT By Rita Felski
“I have actually started this already and find it deeply engaging.”