ADVERTISEMENT

Living, Thinking, Looking,essays by Siri Hustvedt, Picador, 400 pages, ($18 paperback original).

The essays of novelist Siri Hustvedt seem poised on a narrow and tricky ledge which can, on frequent occasion, drop even the most generous reader into a valley of impatience, even disgust. You half expect here, in these 31 essays written between 2006 and 2011, to encounter one called "Narcissism and How it Taught Me Everything I Know." There's almost, then, some accidental comedy when one essay "Excursion to the Island of the Happy Few" begins with a quote from a 1966 paper on narcissism by Hans Krohul but only because it's one of the rarified texts that rely on words "known to the 'happy few' who are reading them. They require a reader who is steeped in the subjects at hand."

Too much impatience with Hustvedt's essays would be a grave mistake because what the novelist (and wife of novelist Paul Auster) is doing is using the self and ideas of self to launch brilliantly into recondite areas of cognition and psychiatric theory. It's entirely understandable when you understand that she's a self-described migraneur , a sufferer from migraine headaches who doesn't simply shake off her pain, nausea and aura in a matter of hours or even days but has suffered from them for weeks on end resulting in long, unsuccessfully medicated stints in hospitals without improvement. At that point, matters of neurology and the strange organ responsible for conveying the self to the self might take on an extreme fascination for any writer.

There is, then, immense erudition, both scientific and literary here, all of which makes the book vastly more fascinating than enervating. Even so, there is enormous relief when, in the final section devoted to her art criticism, one is confronted with an exceptional, almost classical essay on Goya and his affect on writers as the artist whose images "will outlive the modern and the postmodern and whatever comes after it."

Jeff Simon