by Lawrence Jones
On the 23rd October 2015 a large audience of scholars, students and interested others squeezed into the Keynes Library at 43 Gordon Square for the first international academic conference on the writing of the American author, Siri Hustvedt. The author of five novels and several collections of essays and non-fiction writings, Hustvedt attended as a guest for the day, contributing to the discussion and closing the conference with a reading at Woburn House. The conference also featured papers by the editors of a forthcoming book of essays on Hustvedt’s work, Zones of Focused Ambiguity (De Gruyter, forthcoming 2016).
The opening keynote, by Professor Dr Hubert Zapf (University of Augsburg) positioned Hustvedt as an exemplary practitioner of what he termed the transdisciplinary knowledge of literature. His keynote followed Hustvedt’s lead in exploring the seemingly intractable dichotomy between science and literature. Through the centuries the relationship between literature and science, Zapf argues, is typified by subordination and ambivalence of the former to the latter. Contemporary literature, as evidenced by Hustvedt’s writings, is more than ever influenced by modern science, but it has become a source of complex thought in its own right. It is not simply a form of interdisciplinary knowledge but is a source of transdisciplinary knowledge; it transcends or moves beyond disciplines, and particularly the science-literature dichotomy, to create new models of knowledge and critical thought. This sense of between-ness, characterised by discursive transdisciplinary play, informs all Hustvedt’s works.
The second keynote by Dr James Peacock (University of Keele) focused on the site-specificity of Hustvedt’s writing, specifically her exploration of authenticity through the Brooklyn district of Red Hook. In Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014), artist Harriet (‘Harry’) Burden moves to an old warehouse in Red Hook, a district on the outer margins of the borough withan industrial, working class and gangster heritage: Elia Kazan’s 1954 film featuring Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront, is set in the area.
Peacock’s paper offered a commentary on Red Hook’s perceived gentrification, its fraying links with its industrial past, and the problematization of its authenticity: the neighborhood’s selfhood. In The Blazing World, Harry attempts to hold onto Red Hook’s industrial past as it slowly yields to the arguably surface flourishes of hipster bohemianism. Peacock commented that ‘Brooklyn Picturesque’ novels (such as My Old Man by Amy Sohn) examine hipster Red Hook, while ‘Brooklyn Motherhood’ novels discuss a post-hipster Brooklyn; a Brooklyn where the urban poor and artists cede territory to the American middle class. Peacock argued that Red Hook is at an intermediate stage of gentrification; it is in a state of transition but is holding onto its past with shop names that reflect Red Hook’s industrial history. But is Red Hook’s attempt at keeping hold of its industrial heritage (in an endeavour to remain authentic) actually inauthentic? Is it merely an empty nostalgia for the past? As Peacock pointed out, Hustvedt’s novel confounds the cult authenticity by arguing that originality is a construct.
The first panel discussion of the day examined attitudes towards subjectivity, perception, and objects in Hustvedt’s fiction, particularly The Blindfold (1992) and What I Loved (2002). Dr Alise Jameson’s analysis of the Iris/Klaus cross-dressing episode in The Blindfold deployed psychoanalytic theories of sado-masochism to reveal the shifting dynamics of desire and power at play in the novel. Dr Ruth Charnock (University of Lincoln) focused on the first part of The Blindfold, where the mysterious Mr Morning asks Iris to describe the possessions of a dead girl. Describing the difference between ‘objects’ and ‘things’ – objects have a meaning attached to them, but objects become things when they fail to signify or have a meaning – Dr Charnock contended that Mr Morning’s things contain meanings, and it is Iris’s task to reveal them so that they can become objects.
Charnock’s talk made me think about how things can become objects. The Hustvedt Conference was held in the Keynes Library at 43 Gordon Square, London. The balcony on the other side of window where the speakers were seated could be seen as a ‘thing’. That is, it has no inherent value or meaning. However, if I pull up a photograph of economist, Maynard Keynes, with his ballerina wife, Lydia Lopokova, which was shot in the 1940s on the same balcony it suddenly becomes an object filled with meaning.
The final panellist, Rob Lederer, looked at Hustvedt’s novel, What I Loved. His paper chimed with that of Dr Charnock, examining the collecting of personal objects that reflect the interiority of their owner. Lederer drew on Lacanian theory to highlight how Leo’s archive of objects function as a mirror with which he can interact with his occluded interior self. Hustvedt herself commented during discussion that the fictional event of opening a drawer of objects is a way to create new narratives of the self.
The final keynote of the day was delivered by Dr Christine Marks (LaGuardia Community College, NYC) who explored relationality and play in The Blazing World. Harry’s maskings project in the novel enacted a theoretical discourse driven by a preoccupation with gender. Harry enters the world wearing the face of the patriarchy. Interestingly, Marks’ paper reflected some of the themes covered in the earlier talk by Dr Alise Jameson, in that an integral sense of self comes under threat when women play with the masks of men. In the case of The Blazing World, the boundaries of Harry’s self blur into and are transgressed by the three male artists whose masks she wears. Play, Marks indicated, demands a loss of subjectivity.
The second panel discussion focused on trauma narratives framed by the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Dr Anna Thiemann (University of Munster) gave a paper that analysed psychoanalytic and neurocognitive theories of trauma. Thiemann proposed that in The Sorrows of an American (2005), Hustvedt examined the uncomfortable truths about America’s violent past which do not fit the dominant US narrative of ‘an innocent nation’. With Lars Davidsen, for example, Hustvedt unmasks the violent history of his past as a soldier in the Second World War. He is haunted by the murder of a Japanese soldier by Lars’s commanding officer, a killing which doesn’t fit the dominant narrative of ‘fair and just Americans’.
Dr Fraser Mann’s talk analysed how Hustvedt’s essay ‘9/11, or One Year Later’, writes back against the official response to the attacks. Hustvedt’s essay problematizes this official account by focusing on people’s subjective responses to 9/11 and expressing what people actually saw and felt. New York’s pluralism is central to Hustvedt: the plurality, ambiguity and uncertainty within the subjective narratives on 9/11 are a means of counteracting official responses that pose as authoritative accounts. Storytelling and subjective responses to traumatic events can provide agency.
The final paper on this panel was delivered by Dr Harriet Earle (Birkbeck, University of London) who examined whether or not 9/11 created an epistemic break in contemporary American fiction. The official narrative was a series of stories and myths of America's place in the world: America was an ‘innocent’ nation being attacked in its own home. This treatment of the terrorist attacks as a watershed became the dominant narrative for the War on Terror. Drawing upon Richard Slotkin’s text, Regeneration Through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973) revealed American history to actually be one of repeated ‘regeneration’ through violence. Earle exemplified the continuous and transgenerational aspects of trauma and violence by focusing on the character of Mr T (for ‘trauma’, or ‘thought’) in The Sorrows of an American.
The conference concluded with a panel examining art, authorship and gender in Hustvedt’s writings. Dr Johanna Hartmann (University of Augsburg) analysed how perception and the embodied response to a work of art are the principal themes of What I Loved. Hustvedt’s use of ekphrasis to render Bill Wechsler’s canvases show how subject and object are inverted in the novel: the subject (Violet) verbalises her longing for the artist (object) whilst the artist paints his ‘subject’. Further, writer and reader collaborate to give visual life to a painting rendered visible through language.
The final talk of the day came from Diana Wagner (University of Marburg) who used The Blazing World to show how gender and expectation play an important role in the perception of art. Perception is a creative and interpretive process that is influenced by a person’s cultural background. The white male artist is still the pervasive image of artists in our society and as a consequence women's art sells for less and continues to have less representation in museums.
Invited to close the conference, Hustvedt gave a short speech, quipping: 'every writer wants to be read. Then you get greedy, and you want to be understood'. With critical interest in Hustvedt’s writing clearly growing, this conference was a timely and illuminating addition to contemporary literary studies.