Hélène Cixous is best known in the United States as an intellectual, a leading thinker and writer on feminist theory. That’s just part of her story. The Algerian-born French writer has penned some 50 novels and plays. Cixous speaks at Brown University’s Metcalfe Auditorium this Thursday at 7 p.m. as part of a three-day celebration of her work.
BOOKS: Do you have a favorite book?
CIXOUS: Each of us has a secret, favorite book that is the kernel of all our reading. For Sigmund Freud it was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” . For me it’s “Peter Ibbetson” by George Du Maurier, the story of a little boy and little girl who are separated when they grow up into adults but continue to communicate through their dreams.
BOOKS: Are there any other pivotal books or authors for you?
CIXOUS: Freud was the most important. I started reading him at 18. I was divided totally. What he wrote about the unconscious and dreams sounded essential to me but I was awed by his texts on femininity. I thought he’s wrong or I am not a woman. I dropped him all together until I could read him critically. He’s a research scholar, who’s trying, erring, wondering. If you read him as a doctor of science then it’s not funny. If you read him like Proust then it’s interesting.
BOOKS: Did growing up in Algeria affect you as a reader?
CIXOUS: At its core, reading is an escape from prison. All of us are fated to being prisoners, prisoners of our own prejudices, of the prejudices inflicted on us. Reading is the first ladder, the first possibility to escape through the bars. I was within a prison within a prison within a prison when I was born in Algeria. That was during WWII. Around me was only violence and hatred, and I tried to look for a little air to breath. I reached to the few books around. They were a mixture of quite common books, all fiction and poetry, some classics, and some detective novels. I would climb up a tree in my father’s garden and read. That’s a good position for reading. You have to elevate yourself a little.
BOOKS: What inspired your degrees in English literature?
CIXOUS: At 19 I thought I would discover the English-speaking continent. I started with Beowulf and then went through the whole history of English and American literature. I adored everything, John Donne, William Shakespeare T.S. Eliot. I just reread everything by William Faulkner. “As I Lay Dying” is particularly beautiful because it’s thrifty. It’s so cruel and harsh, yet comical and full of love.
BOOKS: What else have you been reading?
CIXOUS: All around me there are shelves and shelves of books. I pick them up all the time. They are like a kind of fruit garden. In front of me there is Arthur Rimbaud, Michel de Montaigne, who is one of my favorites, Shakespeare, Marcel Proust, James Joyce , too, but Joyce I know by heart. I read them all every day.
BOOKS: Do you read contemporary fiction?
CIXOUS: There I have a limit. Since thousands of books are published every year I ask my friends to tell me of the treasures they have found. My Norwegian translator made me read an author who has died, Tarjei Vesaas. He’s a fantastic writer.
BOOKS: What are your other reading habits?
CIXOUS: I like to read original manuscripts. When you have them in your hands, you see something different. When I started working on my dissertation on Joyce I think I only reached the heart of his writing when I read his manuscripts.
BOOKS: How did that change your thoughts about him?
CIXOUS: Exactly as you get to know somebody differently when you touch his skin.You see what they erased, the different versions. Proust started with a page and then kept sticking more pages to it until he made a kind of scroll. With a manuscript, you discover the writer, the artist. It’s not the tidy, homogenous publication that you buy in the bookstore.
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