I acquired The Blazing World thanks to Powell’s Indiespensible book club. It’s been sitting around for a while, over year, though I’ve been looking forward to reading it vaguely, with some concern for complicatedness and reading time. After my Orfeo experience a few months ago Indiespensible books have worried me a bit, and I was pleasantly surprised that The Blazing World (which was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2014) was of the same vein as Orfeo but held my attention better, and I actually found myself wanting to read it, rather than finding things to do rather than read it. It took me about three weeks to finish, but that was mostly because work has been busy and I wasn’t having as much time in the evenings to read. I ended up reading about half of this book while I was on my trip out to Boston for a conference last week, and it actually kept me awake on the plane for the most part, which is nice. I hate sleeping on planes because it is a waste of valuable reading time for me.
I’ve been wondering how I was going to introduce The Blazing World in my review for a few days now. I think I’ll keep in simple. The conceit is that it is a biography of sorts of an artist (fictional) named Harriet Burden, composed of excerpts from her many journals, as well as transcribed interviews of friends and family, as well as written statements by the same, and some magazine articles about her and her work. Harriet, or Harry, as her close friends call her, was a minor artist who married a very prominent art dealer named Felix Lord who was about twenty years her senior and gave up her career to be a wife and mother. Felix died suddenly and after a period of mourning that involved a lot of projectile vomiting on Harry’s part, she decided to leave her fancy Manhattan life behind and bought a warehouse in Brooklyn. The bulk of the story revolves around her work and life after the death of Felix. She begins to work again, and ultimately decides to test the modern art world, or totally fuck with the status quo, depending on how you look at it, by arranging to have three shows, all containing her work, with three different male artists as her “beards,” in order to see how differently her art is received when the public thinks that a male artist is responsible for it. The art in each show is completely different, except that it all sounds very interesting and also very strange, and received variably. The most controversy is generated in the third and final show, which has as Harry’s “mask,” an artist known only as Rune. He’s the most famous of the three artists Harry chooses, and also the most unstable one. When Harry reveals the truth of her Maskings project to the world, things don’t go over quite as she hoped. Rune insists that she is lying, that the work in “his” show was only his work, that Harry was a benefactor to him only. The truth is never truly known about Harry and Rune’s collaboration, though I sided with Harry, because, well, she is the heroine, and Rune turned out to be a compulsive liar in all aspects of his life, so why would he tell the truth about the art that Harry invested so many years into? Granted, I don’t know how stable Harry herself was and how reliable her words themselves are; artists are creative, dramatic souls who live a life apart from people like me, but I tend to believe her.
I had never heard of Siri Hustvedt prior to receiving this book from the lovely folks at Powell’s, but she is one of those genius types. She has a PhD in English from Columbia University. She writes fiction and non-fiction, and lectures on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology around the world. See what I mean about being a genius type? The major questions The Blazing World asks are those I would imagine students of those disciplines asking and debating and discussing. What makes art “belong” to one person or another? Why would gender matter when it comes to art? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and maybe there are none. I do know that this book made me think about them, and I’m glad I had the chance to. I think that this book would be enjoyed by many—it’s definitely a “thinking book,” and it has moments of being above my level, but it wasn’t an unreachable distance. There were lots of quotations from obscure philosophers in the sections that are excerpts from Harriet Burden’s journals, but the “author” of the “biography” puts in excellent footnotes to make sense of them all. I would have loved to have actually seen Harry’s work. Hustvedt describes everything in exquisite detail, but it just isn’t the same. This is modern art, sculptures and mazes and multimedia things, not just paint on canvas, mind you. And some of it sounds more than a little bit strange to me, but also extremely interesting to look at. I suppose one of the jobs of a good author is to expose the reader to ideas and lifestyles that he or she wouldn’t normally experience. Siri Hustvedt definitely did that for me with The Blazing World. I will definitely be tracking down her older novels in the used bookstores, though I’ll probably skip her nonfiction for the time being.