The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

>> Sunday, August 17, 2014

TITLE: The Blazing World
AUTHOR: Siri Hustvedt

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden's death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden's involvement with the last of her 'masks' turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man's bizarre death.

For the third year, I'm planning to read all the books on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Why do that, you ask? I guess I see it as trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone, and I have found some truly fantastic books that way, books I never would have thought of reading (for instance, the wonderful A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, from last year, or Skios, by Michael Frayn the year before). Also, there is quite a lot of discussion about this particular prize (at least here in the UK), and I like being able to have a proper opinion about who should win!

Anyway, getting to all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced means starting to read as soon as the longlist is announced and hoping I'm choosing the right ones. Last year I tried to be calculating and guess what was going to be on the shortlist, but I didn't do very well. This year I decided to just start with whatever sounded most interesting. And several of the books did. The longlist has been criticised for being very male, white and middle-class, and I suppose that's true, but I thought "I want to read that!" when I read the descriptions of several of them. In fact, I already owned two (the Karen Joy Fowler and the Joshua Ferris, both purchased after hearing discussions about them in my bookish podcasts).

The book I decided to start with, however, was one I'd never heard about. The Blazing World tells the story of Harriet Burden, an artist whose work has been dismissed and derided by the art world. She's seen merely as her art dealer husband's awkward wife, and it's assumed any small attention her work gets is a product of that.

Convinced that this lack of recognition is just because of who the artist is (i.e. a woman and not even a particularly attractive one), rather than a product of what the art itself is like, Harriet decides to experiment. She will get three male artists to exhibit her work under their own names. She is sure the reception will be completely different, and when she reveals the truth, those bastards in the art establishment will have to eat their words.

The story is told after Harriet's Death, through a collection of papers curated by someone (an editor? an academic?) trying to put together a definitive version of the events. Harriet was an inveterate diarist and kept several journals simultaneously, covering different areas she was interested in exploring, and these form the backbone of the collection. But there are also statements from people both intimately and more peripherally involved in the story, magazine articles, reviews, all sorts of things.

Right at the beginning, the editor tells us the bare bones of the story, about Harriet having used the three male artists as masks and even about the lack of success of the experiment. I was surprised Hustvedt would just jettison such a potentially good source of tension and suspense. What would push me to keep reading? Well, it's one thing to read the bare bones, quite another to feel the hope, the triumph, the frustration and the rage. And feel them I did.

Because what this book is, really, is an exploration of the obstinacy and maddening pig-headedness of sexism. It's a powerful illustration of the way so many people go into denial and engage in mind-boggling mental acrobatics rather than admit there might just be such a thing as sexism and (even worse!) that anyone with even a shred of decency should be doing something about it. This is not a surprise to anyone who is foolish enough to read the comments after online articles on so-called "women's issues", but that's even more reason why books like this are needed.

The Blazing World was, at times, a challenging book to read. Some of the passages, mainly some of the excerpts from Harriet's journals, are pages and pages of almost impenetrable rambling, paragraph after paragraph peppered with references to this philosopher or this art theorist, and I wasn't even sure if all of those were real or just created by Hustvedt, just as she'd created all the rest. I started out trying to make sense of it and getting a bit annoyed, but then I decided to take these passages as character development. See, Harriet is a wide-ranging and voracious reader and thinker. Her diaries are where she thinks out loud, not having to worry about making sense to other people. Taken as evidence of how this is someone who's not only heard of these people but who understood their thinking well enough to casually drop references into a private journal, someone completely different to how the art establishment sees her, these passages are a lot more meaningful and worked much better, I thought.

But it's not all about the intellectual. The final sections caught me by surprise. I'd best not say too much about why, but I'll say they were heartwrenching and made me tear up a bit. So yes, I cared about the characters. They felt like real people, and that's something I sometimes have issues with in literary fiction, so I particularly appreciated that element.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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