Claudia Putnam's Reviews > The Blazing World

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
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it was amazing
bookshelves: literary-fiction

I've long considered Siri Hutsvedt one of the most important writers in America today. What I Loved , for instance, is a hell of a book. When The Guardian listed a bunch of (male) authors as possible contenders for Franzen-level status (after arguing that Franzen was THE contemporary American author), I was shocked that writers like Hutsvedt and Nunez were not on the list.

Which is pretty much Hutsvedt's point in this book. Much has been written about selection bias regarding gender--how, across multiple generations, people given articles or other materials perceived to be written by men rate them more highly than when a comparable group is given the same materials with female bylines. This book dramatizes (though it's not a very dramatic book) this situation, looking not only the impact on the art world of drastic discrimination in favor of men, but on the emotional impact and personality warping of this discrimination on a very talented and brilliant woman artist (and philosopher). In addition to being female, Harriet Burden is burdened with being a "difficult woman." She's large, has a homely face and weird hair, but worse, she's LOUD. Passionate. So often not listened to and not seen, when she does get a chance to express her views, she gets carried away and becomes unpleasant for conventional women or for men to listen to.

Except for the people who get her. Male or female, they love her, and are fiercely loved by this generous and insightful woman in return. That includes her children, her first husband (to an extent), her post-widowhood lover, an old friend, and the many artistic and creative people to whom she gives shelter in her rambling Brooklyn loft, creating a defacto artists' colony for impoverished and sometimes homeless writers, painters, and sculptors.

The conceit of the book is that Harry Burden, frustrated by how little seriousness with which her work has been taken in the past, and convinced that as a woman and as the widow of a prominent art dealer, her work will never be regarded in its own right, gives three exhibitions in which three different men pose as the creators of her art. They are all critically successful, though one is shadowed by 9/11 and doesn't quite get the full attention of the art world. Unfortunately, the third artist, a sociopath, renegs on the deal and won't admit she was the creative force behind his exhibition, preventing her planned full emergence and gotcha to the arts community. Henceforward, her claims will live under a pall of doubt.

Her lover and I think at least one other character keep insisting that she should present her work under her own name, and it's possible that the tragedy of this book is that she fears to do so--certainly most of the pain Harry feels comes from her continued subsumation under the names of the men who agree to collaborate with her. But her decision is a kind of service, a martyrdom, I suppose.

This book might be considered a collection of fictional essays by the various characters in the book, each with his or her own take on Harry. Theoretically someone is assembling these materials for a definitive post-mortem book on the controversy surrounding Harry. Some of the sections are interviews. Some are journal entries by Harry herself. Often these are the most interesting, though I also loved the selections from a new age healer who once lived in Harry's loft. It's particularly refreshing that although it would be easy to be snarky about this character, and although many of the other players in this novel laugh up their sleeves at her, she's grounded in her worldview and comes across as extremely dignified, and perhaps also genuinely helpful to Harry at the end of her life (though this may be another example of Harry's generosity, her welcoming this character into her intimate space at the end and allowing her to feel as though she's made a difference). At any rate, during the sections devoted to this person, I had no problem believing that everything she said was plausible.

Because this book is about how we are seen, the kaleidoscope of viewpoints surrounding Harry was wonderfully appropriate. And the disjunct between how Harry perceives herself and how others do, and also the disjuncts among the others, was poignant and disturbing. Isn't that what any sensitive person constantly does? Mediate conflicting inputs about oneself and one's work in the work, trying to hold on to some sense of self that's independent of their views. If that's possible. It's interesting that Harry internalizes many of the most negative views others hold of her--mainly that she's physically repellant and too loud. However, there are others who find her beautiful, even stunning, including several males. The role society and her upbringing have played in her tendency to censor herself and deny her own needs, is deeply explored.

I had two objections. One was that the book was, indeed, slightly heavy-handed. It could have been shorter--I think we got the point fully about halfway through. But OTOH, I didn't mind reading beyond that, especially Harry's journal excerpts. She is one of those people who thinks about so many things, who can't be contained in any world, really. I loved being in her head. Which is where we all are, per her final work of art, The Blazing World.

The other objection, even more minor, was Hutsvedt's insertion of herself into the book. I went back and forth on this. It seemed like such a hip and mostly male writer thing to do. I'm kind of tired of that device--when authors are characters in their books. In this case, though, Hutsvedt is a reference, and really that's valid. Hutsvedt herself is a philosopher and has published several nonfiction works and lectured on philosophical topics. So it's reasonable that Harry might have run across her and cited her work. It also reinforces Hutsvedt's point that so often women's work go unrecognized. Hutsvedt is certainly a well respected writer, but not, IMO, at the level she deserves.

We're left not knowing the fate of The Blazing World, a giant figure Harry creates. A woman with a vivid and surprising tableau in her brain, who is spewing creatures from her vagina. Regardless of whether the the controversy regarding her responsibility for the sociopath's exhibition is ever resolved, I hope this self-portrait is a hit.

Here we have a novel of ideas, in the best tradition.

I had planned to quote several beautifully written or just provocative passages, but it appears this book has returned itself to the library, so I've lost all the highlights on my ereader. I hate it when that happens.


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Reading Progress

July 24, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
July 24, 2014 – Shelved
November 19, 2014 – Started Reading
November 19, 2014 –
0.0% "books I've read this year in which Alice Neel was mentioned: 2. Books in which artists are working with scenes in little boxes: at least three. Messud, Josipovici, and this. So, have we moved on from orphans as the trend of the minute?"
November 26, 2014 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
November 26, 2014 – Finished Reading

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