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Book Review / Essays

Wandering Here, There, Everywhere

YONDER, Essays by Siri Hustvedt, Henry Holt $20, 146 pages

June 01, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yonder is neither here nor there. As soon as we reach "that tree yonder," Siri Hustvedt's father once told her, we're there, or here, but certainly not yonder. Like Alice's looking-glass "tomorrow" where there's always "jam tomorrow, but never "jam today," so is "yonder" a little bit of "linguistic magic."

Hustvedt was raised out yonder, in a part of Minnesota that still has one boot planted on the distant shores of Norway. She matriculated at placid Lutheran St. Olaf's College before traveling to New York for graduate work at Columbia University. The journey left her in an ambiguous yonder--a God-fearing young woman studying Genesis with a seminar full of aesthetes who were reading the Bible for the first time. She was too awed by the big city to affect ennui, yet too excited to go home. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that her first novel, "The Blindfold," features a young woman "here" in New York, and her second, "The Enchantment of Lily Dahl," another one "back there" in Minnesota.

Part of the pleasure of reading "Yonder" is walking with Hustvedt as she brings these bits of her own life into her essays. Not completely academic exercises, not completely personal histories, the commentaries in "Yonder"--on Vermeer, Dickens, "The Great Gatsby," nature mort and amour naturel inhabit this middle distance, this geographical ambiguity, this yonder.

The reader wanders with Hustvedt as she inspects the famous Vermeer show at the National Gallery, searching the walls for a single painting on which to hang a magazine assignment. She finally settles on "Woman With a Pearl Necklace." One turns to the painting and sees a simple portrait of a girl holding up a pearl necklace, presumably admiring herself and her treasure in a small mirror in a golden light that shines through a latticed window.

"While 'Woman With a Pearl Necklace' uses the Vanitas theme as a point of departure," Hustvedt writes, "linking it to other paintings of the period showing women at their toilet, Vermeer subverts the theme." So does Hustvedt. While he was sitting, staring at the painting, "a word popped into my head . . . Annunciation." In a moment of inspiration, Hustvedt equates the young Flemish girl with the Virgin Mary and the light of Vermeer with the light of God.

One of the show's curators happens to be standing nearby, and Hustvedt asks him whether this association ever occurred to anyone before. Shaking his head, he ponders the thought. "And then, at the same time, we both lifted our hands as if to imitate the gesture of the woman with the pearls." It's a wonderful piece of vanitas, Hustvedt becoming, for a moment, both a curator and the woman with the pearl necklace, an ecstatic Virgin Mary, holding up her discovery in that yonder between childhood belief and aesthetic wonder. She sees herself in her subjects, or rather, sees these subjects in herself. And in doing so, she captures the magnetic tranquillity we feel when a work of art grabs us.

But Hustvedt also goes beyond the personal. Her "A Plea for Eros" is not so much an attack on political correctness as a defense of language. Toward the end of his ode to language, "Seven Types of Ambiguity," William Empson quotes the 1927 "Oxford Poetry" edition on the conflict readers encounter when they enter the battlefield of language. The combatants are "an asceticism tending to kill language by stripping words of all association and a hedonism tending to kill language by dissipating their sense under a multiplicity of associations." Hustvedt confirms how ambiguity--yonderness--is still proof against the bullets of the literal.

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