Imagine Your Memory — Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster at The Strand

1. I love a good sign, okay?

Last night at The Strand, New York City readers were privy to an especially awesome event — a Siri Hustvedt reading, Q&A, and the cherry on top: a discussion with this dude named Paul Auster. He wrote some books, like The New York Trilogy and Sunset Park, and is also married to the author. Hustvedt’s got five novels under her belt, three books of essays, and tons of poems and essays that cover everything from psychoanalysis to the absence of women in mens’ lives. The literary heavyweight treated the audience in the store’s Rare Book Room with a reading from her new book of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking, and a discussion that covered dead cats, perception, Goya, neuroscience, and one of my favorite people in the whole world: Sigmund Freud.

This was my first time covering an event at The Strand, and I don’t have to say I was excited for it. During her introduction, Events Manager Julia Strand (no relation) said, “We’re 85 years old, and still independent.” Senior citizen jokes aside, being around that long and avoiding corporate takeover is incredible. The giant book store is an institution in not only the national literary scene, but the international as well. It’s the kind of place where one can buy a used copy of Lydia Davis’ Break It Down for under $10 then pop up to the Rare Book Room, gaze at a signed script of one of Arthur Miller’s plays, and run a hand along 200 year old books. Score.

1. Handsome looking crowd in the Rare Book Room. 2. Siri Hustvedt, on seeing a dead cat: “It became an inert thing. An it.”

I’d not heard or read anything by Hustvedt, and I was looking forward to being introduced to her work totally blind. It adds an extra glaze of excitement to a reading. By the time I got there the seats were full, and I found a nice corner spot in the back. Her new book of essays is divided into three sections, respective to the title. Hustvedt read a fragmented piece from the section “Seeing,” titled “Notes on Seeing.” “To look and not see an old problem,” Hustvedt began, “is usually a lack of understanding.” Hustvedt’s observations harmonized on three registers. From the base of human experience, the literary and intellectual worlds coalesced into a concise and true confession of the self. “Notes” seemed to center around the difference between looking and seeing, neatly summed up in this line, regarding those with cortical blindness: “They lose visual consciousness, but not visual unconsciousness … They see, but they don’t know they are seeing.”

1. Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, having a nice chat in front of some really old books. No bigs. 2. Lindsay Neff, a Marketing Assistant at Macmillan, with Katie Hartman, who’s a Sales Assistant at Macmillan.

Paul Auster followed Hustvedt to two large, brown leather chairs that looked comfortable and distinguished. Auster had jotted down questions just that afternoon, and Hustvedt had no idea what he was going to ask. First, Auster wanted to know if any subject took precedence in Hustvedt’s work. She described her work as “greedy reading,” often sneaking books into brown paper bags, to make it seem like she’s bringing lunch. There wasn’t ever a time she wasn’t writing a novel, Auster noted, though when Hustvedt is asked to write a catalog essay for the Prado, or give a lecture in Berlin on psychoanalysis, she usually pauses fiction writing for intellectual exegesis. Overall, Hustvedt’s superhero power to perceive through either literary or critical glasses was most astounding. Not only is her fiction critically acclaimed, but she’s also the second non-doctor ever to give the annual Sigmund Freud lecture in Vienna, delivered on the analyst’s birthday. “I had tears in my eyes,” Auster said, “500 shrinks applauding for you.” Oh, and this little thing happened while she was at the Prado: whilst staring at Goya’s “El Tres de Mayo,” Hustvedt spotted a figure that art historians hadn’t seen: an image of Goya himself (read about it here).

The Q&A was short, but the final question tied up the evening perfectly. A young psychoanalyst asked Hustvedt if she had considered analysis. “I’m in it. I went to an analyst and stayed … The great myth about artists having their creativity crushed by psychoanalysis is false. It’s liberating.” The intersection of the critical and creative is a “non-place” that is rarely mapped well, but after seeing Hustvedt, she’s one of the better current writers to take cues from. If you missed out last night, she’s reading at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore on 6/21, and it’s free. You should definitely go.


— Ryan Chang is Events Editor at The Outlet. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Art Faccia, and elsewhere. He is in the internet here and here.

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