Big Think Interview With Siri Hustvedt

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Question: What is your memory of the seizure that you\r\ndescribe in “The Shaking Woman”?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, I can't, you know, you can't tell a\r\nstory forward, only backward.  So,\r\nthe event that is central to the book that I've written is a seizure episode\r\nthat happened very abruptly and suddenly. \r\nI was giving a little speech at a memorial occasion for my father; they\r\nwere planting a tree in his honor. \r\nHe was a Professor at St. Olaf College and he had died two years before\r\nthen.  I stood up, felt no anxiety,\r\nvery calm.  I had my index cards in\r\nfront of me for the speech.  I\r\nopened my mouth, began to speak and from the neck down, my limbs, my torso,\r\neverything, I started to shudder, but not a small tremor; really huge\r\nconvulsive motions in my arms and legs. \r\nAnd I was so shocked.  It\r\nwas an amazing thing to have happened. \r\nI continued giving the speech. \r\nI really didn't know what else to do.  I didn't fall over. \r\nI thought I might. 

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And when I finished the speech, the shuddering left me.  I had—my legs had turned very red,\r\nalmost blue, and I wondered what had happened.  It was extraordinary.

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Question: How did you explain this attack at the time, and\r\nhow do you explain it now?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well you know, long before I had this\r\nseizure, I had been immersed in material about the brain and the mind,\r\nneuroscience, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and so I decided to—first of all, I\r\nasked quite a few friends of mine who were doctors and neuroscientists, what\r\nthis could be?  And nobody had a\r\nready answer.  I did then diagnose\r\nmyself with conversion disorder, or hysteria.  I thought, well maybe because I was talking about my dead\r\nfather, someone who I was very close to, there was an emotional trigger and it\r\nwas acted out in this way. 

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And the inspiration was, I was at a neuroscience lecture and\r\nbehind me was a woman and we started talking after the lecture was over and I\r\nasked her what she did, and she said, I treat mostly conversion patients.  Those patients usually start with\r\nneurologists, and then the neurologists send them to me. 

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So, actually one day, I was back at a lecture that I go to\r\nevery month and I always sit in the same place, and this was after I had the\r\nshaking episode and it came like an illumination.  I thought maybe I have had a hysterical seizure.  No doctor, neurologist, psychiatrist\r\nwent along with me on that one. \r\nBut in the book, I do talk about hysteria, both in the 19th century and\r\nas it's evolved since.  The\r\nsymptoms are the same, they probably have been around forever and that is\r\nsimply that a person has, for example, paralysis or a seizure, or blindness,\r\ndumbness, and it cannot be explained through say a brain tumor or a brain\r\nlesion.  Something clearly\r\nneurological and then, let's give the name hysteria. 

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So hysteria is something that I've been interested for a\r\nvery long time.  I thought I might\r\nhave it, but it seems that it's unlikely.

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Question: Do you believe you suffer, or suffered, from a\r\nform of epilepsy?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, you know, epilepsy is a big thing.  I mean, I have not been diagnosed with\r\nepilepsy, I did have an MRI of the brain, and they found no abnormalities in my\r\nbrain.  Now, there are people with\r\nepilepsy who have completely normal MRI's too.  I just think also, you know, epileptic seizures can be\r\ntriggered by emotional stress, by all kinds of things, lights.  I do have migraine, that's for\r\nsure.  And people who have migraine\r\nare more likely to also have epilepsy than people who don't have migraine.  It's not clear.  I may eventually find out exactly\r\nwhat's going on here, and I may not.

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Question: Do you believe memory played a role in triggering\r\nthe seizure?

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Siri Hustvedt: This is a really very good question.  If memory played a role, it would have\r\nhad to have been implicit memory. \r\nNow the fascinating thing about this is all of us, certainly have lost\r\nthe first three years of our lives, we do not have explicit memories from that\r\ntime.  There are all kinds of\r\nreasons for that. One is that the hippocampus, which is crucial for laying down\r\nwhat scientists call episodic memories, is not developed.  So infantile amnesia, at least in part,\r\nhas to do with that.  I think that\r\nthere's also a connection to language, that with language the possibility of\r\nself-reflective consciousness and keeping memories through language becomes a\r\npossible form of storytelling.  I\r\nthink there are probably scientists probably interested in that.  But that's really coming from other\r\nfields. 

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Now, the infantile—the possibility of—so there is,\r\nbecause what you can have without having any explicit memory, or memory that is\r\nleft that you could put into words, is that people can store emotional memories\r\nfrom early in their life that can be triggered.  So, a simple example would be, if a child is bitten by a\r\ndog, there's a bad bite when you’re one and a half years old.  That child could, as he grows up,\r\ncontinue to have a terrible fear of dogs. \r\nThey do know that early traumas in infants have a lot to do with how the\r\nwhole emotional system in the brain develops.  So that temperament, that person can be much more what we\r\ncall highly strung than other people. 

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It is possible in my case that something was triggered by\r\nthat speech, or you know, I'm not sure. \r\nSome fear.  I just—because I\r\ncan't get a hold of it, I can't find it. \r\nBut I would not rule that out.

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Question: Is the “explicit vs. implicit” memory distinction\r\nthe same as Freud’s “conscious vs. unconscious”?

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Siri Hustvedt: \r\nOh, absolutely.  You know,\r\nit's very fascinating what's happened to—what's happened in sort of the\r\nintellectual history of these ideas. \r\nFreud, it's very important to say, did not invent the idea of the\r\nunconscious.  This goes way\r\nback.  There's some people who say\r\nthat in Leibniz you can find a version of this.  When Leibniz was answering Descartes and Hume, especially about\r\nthe nature of consciousness, and he says, "Well, there are things that\r\njust are outside of our consciousness."  And so Leibniz might be certainly interesting. 

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But in the 19th century when Freud was a student and then\r\nlater became a physician, the unconscious was something that was\r\nacknowledged.  Something like\r\nWilhelm Vunt, who was a researcher and is credited with having the first\r\npsychology lab in Germany, was convinced that many things took place that were\r\noutside of human awareness, and he was not thinking only of our hearts are\r\npumping.  He meant memories, even\r\nthoughts that simply aren't—we don't have them available to us.  And there was also an English\r\nnaturalist, Carpenter, in the 19th century, in the 1870’s; he had an idea\r\ncalled the "adaptive unconscious."  So, this all predates Freud. 

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In the early 20th century with the rise of behaviorism in\r\nthe United States.  Now\r\npsychoanalysis was going its merry way alone and developing and thinking its\r\nthoughts, but nevertheless, in the scientific community, behaviorism really got\r\na kind of stranglehold on cognitive science and behaviorism maintained that\r\nthey did not want to talk about consciousness or unconsciousness.  All that mattered was a third-person\r\npoint of view, looking at human behavior and we would get all the answers.  In fact, as I point out in the book,\r\nthere was a man, a big guy in behaviorism, rather controversial, Watson, who\r\nmaintained that human beings have no visual imagery in their minds.  This seems insane to me. 

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Now it's thought that about 96% of us have visual imagery\r\nand there's a very tiny minority in the population, some of whom are normal,\r\nsome of whom have brain lesions who cannot produce visual imagery. 

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But this internal reality of the human being was so threatening\r\nto behaviorism that they really went very far to squash it.  Even a hint of something called\r\nintrospection.  You know, looking\r\nin at what's going on inside us, was anathema.  So, that had a long stranglehold, I think, on a lot of\r\nscientific research that's beginning to open up now.  They didn't like to talk about emotions either.  But now in neuroscience and in\r\ncognitive science, there's a lot of research being done on emotion. 

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Question: What is neuropsychoanalysis?

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Siri Hustvedt: \r\nI became interested in neuropsychoanalysis through the person who is\r\nreally responsible, I think, for beginning this movement or organization.  His name is Mark Solms.  And he's a brain researcher and a\r\npsychoanalyst.  He's worked\r\nparticularly doing dream research, but he's done other explorations as\r\nwell.  And it really is an\r\norganization that is trying to fulfill an old dream of Freud's.  In 1895, Freud, who was then a\r\nneurologist and he had spent a long time working on nerve cells, as a\r\nscientist.  So, he sat down and\r\nwrote something that is now called "The Project."  It's a project for a scientific psychology.  And his hope was that, what he knew\r\nabout the brain and the nervous system would provide him with a map or a model\r\nof how the mind works. 

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He worked on this in a great fury and then he realized that\r\nscience simply was not able to answer the questions that he had, he put\r\n"The Project" aside and the fate of psychoanalysis went from\r\nthere.  In other words, Freud\r\nalways knew that the underpinnings of what he thought of as the psyche and his\r\npsychic model were in the brain, in these neuronal networks that are coursing\r\nthrough us all the time.  But he\r\ncouldn't fit them together. 

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So, neuropsychoanalysis is really trying to join two\r\nlanguages; the language of the psyche and Freudian psychoanalysis—which of\r\ncourse has gone in many different directions, it’s not just Freud—and\r\nneurobiology, and see how these two can be fit together because there is a\r\nfit.  It's not easy, but there is a\r\nfit.

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Question: Does the field further\r\nFreud’s project of analyzing the individual mind?

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Siri Hustvedt: I think that's the hope.  I think that's exactly the hope.  Now, neuropsychoanalysis does not want\r\nto leave out subjectivity.  In\r\nother words, we all have a subjective reality.  And talk therapy, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic\r\npsychotherapy, is all about constructing some kind of narrative for the patient\r\nout of subjective experience.  But\r\neven that... I mean subjectivity itself is now a huge subject in brain research.  Where does subjectivity come from?  How does it work on the level of\r\nneurons and synapses in the brain? \r\nAnd people are studying this very carefully. 

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I don't think—there's no solution, but there are overlaps.  I mean, very recently I read a paper by five Italian\r\nneuroscientists who were talking about something called long-term potentiation\r\nin neural networks in the brain that are connected to learning and memory.  And they had been looking at Freud's\r\nproject, the project I just talked about that he put aside, and they're\r\nconclusion was that the project actually anticipates contemporary neuroscience\r\nresearch into LTP's.  Pretty\r\nfascinating.

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Question: What was the visual hallucination you once\r\nexperienced?

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Siri Hustvedt: You know, this is a story I love and there\r\nare moments that I'm sorry it never happened again.  It only happened to me once.  I was in my 30's, I remember I was reading Svevo, it was "The\r\nConfessions of Zeno," there’s actually a new translation, but I was reading the\r\nold one.  And I looked—I was\r\nlying in bed and I looked down at the floor and there was a little pink man and\r\na pink ox, and they were about this tall, moving and beautifully articulated.  So, lovely.  And they gave me a very good feeling.  I had no fear, no distress, just a\r\nfeeling of fascination, friendliness, and pleasure.  And I watched them for a while without saying to myself—I\r\ndid not say "You're having a hallucination.I didn't say it. \r\nI just looked at them and then they disappeared.  This hallucination was followed by a\r\nmigraine.  And I didn't know at the\r\ntime, I had no idea, they too have a name, it's called Lilliputian\r\nhallucination.  It is associated\r\nwith migraine.  But other people—sometimes people who have had stroke can also have these visual hallucinations.

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Question: Do you think many “visionary”\r\nprophets were in fact epileptics?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, they may have been epileptics, but I\r\nthink again, it's always so complicated in medicine to draw a line between\r\nnormal experience and what's pathological.  I mean, this is not so easy to do.

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So, for example, it does seem that something like auditory\r\nhallucinations, I've had it a number of times.  The only time I have it now is when I'm dropping off to\r\nsleep, I will often hear voices. \r\nMen's voices, women's voices, usually short sentences, very hard for me\r\nto remember what they said in the morning. 

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In Nabokov's "Speak, Memory," he has a wonderful little passage\r\nabout exactly that, both his hypnogogic hallucinations of a visual kind before\r\nhe's going to sleep, and hearing voices.  It's a beautifully written little passage in "Speak, Memory."  You know, Nabokov was clearly not mad.  I don't feel mad.  And many people, and there have been\r\ncertain studies that have been done that many, many people at one time or\r\nanother have experienced auditory hallucinations.  It becomes part of a pathology, I think, when, for example,\r\nin schizophrenia... people who have schizophrenia are often tormented by voices\r\ntalking all the time and jabbering away, telling them to do terrible\r\nthings.  That becomes a curse.  And also in schizophrenia, usually the\r\npresence of the voices is explained in a delusional way.  You know, like the famous CIA has\r\nplanted things in your brain, or whatever.  This is very common. \r\nWhereas, when I've had auditory hallucinations, I have always thought I\r\nwas having auditory hallucinations. \r\nI mean, once I mistook the voice of a friend for a real experience, that\r\nhe was actually calling me.  But\r\notherwise, I haven't.  So, there\r\nare normal variances of many experiences that are often regarded as\r\npathological, such as hearing voices, or hallucination.

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Question: Does your claim that “explicit memories thrive on\r\nplace” mean that non-location-based memories tend to fade?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very interesting thing and\r\nthis is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about the\r\ncharacter of my own memories.  But\r\nthis idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly Cicero\r\nhad this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be placed, and\r\nmemory systems would often use a house. \r\nSay you need to memorize a speech. \r\nAnd what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a spatial\r\nlocation and usually a house.  You\r\nwould walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign various parts\r\nof the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words inside\r\nyou. 

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I have found that all of my memories seem to need a place\r\nand that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do with\r\nlocation. So for example, it is not that when you started going to grade\r\nschool, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of your\r\ngrade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of those\r\nexperiences.  Some of them explicit\r\nand many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

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I find that I need to locate my memories.  There was one illustration that I gave\r\nin the book that interested me.  It\r\nwas a failure of my own memory, an error. \r\nAnd this is what it was. \r\nWhen I was four years old, I was in Norway with my mother and\r\nsister.  We were at my aunt's house\r\nsitting around the table, having a meal. \r\nI remember—I can see the living room perfectly in my mind.  My cousin, my older cousin, Vivica,\r\nbegins to cry.  I love this because—she is older than she is still older than I am—and so I felt bad, I didn't know why she was crying.  I pushed myself off the chair, and I\r\nremember my feet were dangling, so I had to drop.  Went around and patted my cousin on her arm to comfort\r\nher.  And all the grown ups burst\r\ninto laughter and I was so angry and humiliated by that laughter.  Of course no one meant any harm, but I\r\nwas four. 

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Only a few years ago, I've carried this memory of\r\nhumiliation around with me my whole life. \r\nOnly a couple of years ago I recognized that it couldn't have taken\r\nplace in that living room because that house had not been built.  What had happened was that in order to\r\npreserve the memory, I replaced one house with another.  My aunt's second house, the one built\r\nafter that I do remember vividly. 

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I think this tells us something about the nature of\r\nmemory.  First of all, that it's\r\nshifting.  There are no fixed\r\noriginal memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is somehow\r\nvital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial house\r\nto put it in.

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Question: What is the nature of synesthetic memory?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well there's speculation, and it may be a\r\nlittle more than speculation now, that infants are synesthetes, and synesthesia\r\nis simply a crossing of two senses. \r\nIt's almost like a translation of one sense into another.  Famous examples are people who see\r\nnumbers as colors.  Every number\r\nhas a distinct color.  Synesthetes\r\ndon't agree on which color.  But\r\nwhen a "7," for example, for some people is always green.  I do not have that kind of synesthesia,\r\nbut in a way I think many of us have that when we read.  You know, when I read a book, I'm\r\nalways seeing the people.  I'm\r\nmaking mental images to accompany it. \r\nSo that I'm translating the sight of those little characters on the page\r\ninto visual images that I can take with me and keep. 

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I was rather amused to read, during my research for this\r\nbook, about something called "Mirror Touch Synesthesia" and saying to\r\nmyself, "Well, I have that."  And so\r\nthat is when people look at someone. \r\nSomething is happening to another person.  Say you look at someone being slapped on the arm.  And then the mirror touch synesthete\r\nhas a sensation in the arm.  Not\r\nthe same as being slapped, at least not in my case at all.  But there is a kind of mirroring\r\nexperience so that the visual looking becomes the tactile impression in the\r\nbody.  And I think you see it again\r\ngoing back to behaviorism and talk of it. \r\nBefore brain scans and before recent research into the brain, people\r\nwere very reluctant to do any studies about synesthesia because it just seemed\r\nso wacky.  And so that's what\r\nhappens.  Once researchers have\r\nsome kind of hypothesis about neural networks in the brain and maybe that\r\ninfants are all synesthetes and that as the brain develops and as its\r\nplasticity continues, most people lose that crossing over of one sense to the\r\nother, and some people don't.  They\r\nretain it. 

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Question: Do you and your husband ever critique each other’s\r\nworks in progress?

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Siri Hustvedt: Always, actually.  We both read to each other during the\r\ncourse of the book.  When Paul's\r\nwriting a novel, he reads to me at intervals of about a month, month and a\r\nhalf, two months, something like that. \r\nAnd he will take a batch of the story, read it to me aloud, and listen\r\nto what I have to say. 

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Earlier in my life as a writer, I had a tendency to hoard my\r\nmanuscripts from Paul and not show him anything until  I had a complete draft.  And then he would usually read it\r\nsilently and talk to me afterwards. \r\nIn the last few years, the last three books, I've read to him as I'm\r\ngoing along, chunks of 50 to 70 pages, and get his feedback.  So,\r\nthis is very important to us. \r\nEveryone needs a reader. \r\nAnd I just happen to be married to mine and he happens to be married to\r\nhis. 

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The good thing about the two of us is that I and he are very\r\nfree to be brutal if we feel it's necessary.  And I think that all works because there's an essential\r\nrespect always of the project of the other person, so what you're really\r\ntalking about is, "Does this help the overall project, or is there a weakness\r\nhere.And I don't think that in\r\neither case we've ever rejected the other person's suggestions.  I have resisted a couple of times, but\r\nin the end I think he's always been right.  And I had—with one novel he read me three endings before\r\nI thought he hit on the one that really worked.

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Question: How do you discipline yourself to overcome the challenges of writing?

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Siri Hustvedt: I'm better at this now.  I've always been extremely disciplined\r\nin the sense that I can wake up early, sit at my desk and work for hours and\r\nhours every day.  This is never\r\nbeen a problem.  What I've\r\nunderstood as the years have gone on is that the best place for me anyway for\r\nme to be when I'm writing, is in a state of great relaxation and openness.  And I think when you're in that state\r\nall kinds of unconscious material can become available.  For me, the danger is being tight,\r\nbeing constipated, in a sense.  And\r\nthat will create constipation. \r\nThat will create a day of looking at a paragraph, erasing it, writing\r\nanother one and getting rid of that.

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And I think of this as a state of play, that you really are\r\nopen to the creative possibilities of what will happen, what can happen.  And both, I think, both playing in\r\nchildren and fantasizing in teenagers. \r\nI don't know—you're much closer to your teenage years then I am, but\r\nthose years are particularly prone to all kinds of fantasies, especially about\r\nthe future, you know, what am I going to do.  Oh, the beloved. \r\nAll kinds of fantasies.  And\r\nI think that writing novels comes straight out of those two... first the\r\nchildhood play and then the adolescent fantasy to making art.  But that the process is very similar.  And you need to be open, loose and let\r\nyourself play in order for the work to happen.

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Question: What’s your favorite “forgotten” novel?

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Siri Hustvedt: Oh yeah.  Well, it's not entirely forgotten and for some people, you\r\nknow, it's a very important book. \r\nBut it is a book that seems to sort of go underwater to come up a\r\nlittle and then fall again.  And it\r\nis Djuna Barnes’s "Nightwood."  This\r\nis a book that was published in the '30s.  It's a tiny little book; a dense, poetic little novel.  I think the current edition still has\r\nT.S. Eliot's introduction to it; a very enthusiastic one.  I have read this book now three\r\ntimes.  It is a remarkable little\r\nbook about passion; sexual passion, also that is sort of living on the margins\r\nof a culture.  It takes place in\r\nParis and it's a love story between two women.  And there is a character, a character that I love, whose\r\nname is Dr. Matthew O'Connor.  He's\r\na transvestite kind of pseudo-doctor who gives some of the most wonderful\r\nspeeches in literature.  And I, so\r\nwhen I have a chance, I do come out and say, if you haven't read Djuna Barnes’ "Nightwood"—I think it's the only book, by the way to recommend, by her.  I'm not so crazy about the rest of her\r\nwork.  But this is a really\r\nextraordinary, unusual little book. \r\nAnd it's not my absolutely favorite work of literature, but it's one\r\nthat I think people should look at and read more.

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A conversation with the novelist and author of "The Shaking Woman."

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