“The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt

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Harriet Burden, the protagonist of Hustvedt’s novel, is a woman with an insatiable thirst for life and knowledge. As the novel proceeds we are made aware of Harry’s erudite, abstruse and astonishing breadth of mind through journals left behind after her death, as well as interviews with people who knew her and worked with her in her art. Further to her shining intelligence, Harry is a woman with a blazing fire in her belly, a woman with a stern and uncompromising attitude to life. Yet it seems that the misogynistic and superficial world in which she finds herself is unable to harness the force that she is, and instead Harry is forced to live out a repressed and confined lifestyle, playing out the social role expected of a woman in the twentieth-century.

 

But deep down, Harriet Burden knows that she is an exceptional artist. She also knows that the sole reason she does not flourish in the contemporary art world is because, as she puts it, she is “old lady artist Harry Burden with two adult children and a grandchild and a bank account”. Yes, she has produced work that has appeared in galleries. Yes, she has even received positive reception of her art in minor art journals. But there are people who have the audacity to suppose that her artistic abilities stem from her husband, a big time art dealer well-known in the artistic spheres. The hideous patriarchs of her life and the chauvinism of her contemporary society stoke up the fire that sits in Harry’s stomach until it becomes a blazing fire that will only be relinquished by some act of revenge, some act of justice. The Blazing World, a title taken from a utopian work by Margaret Cavendish, one of Harry’s foremost heroes, centralises on her act of revenge, her chef d’oeuvre which will expose the misogyny and corruption of the contemporary art world. Harriet Burden creates three pieces of work which will be revealed to the world by three ‘masks’; generally young, attractive males who will claim these works to be their own before Harry reveals the truth. The third of these artists, the true coup of Harriet’s plan, will see an artist named Rune, already an established and recognised force on the art scene, become the mask of the pinnacle third piece of art that will send violent undulations throughout the art world. The revelation that Rune’s work was in fact created by Harriet Burden will place her name in the history books as the woman who exposed and implemented equality into a once superficial and heavily sexist art world.

 

The three works are referred to as a whole as “Maskings”, but this project is later defined as:

 

“a trio that together comprise a single work called Maskings, which has a strong theatrical and narrative component because she [Harriet Burden] insists that it includes the reviews, notices, ads, and commentary the shows have generated, which she refers to as “the proliferations””.

 

In short, then, “Maskings”, Harriet Burden’s masterpiece, is The Blazing World, the book you are reading. Built up of Harry’s personal journals, interviews with her children, reviews of the three different pieces in newspapers and journals, interviews with friends and artists, the various miscellanea of The Blazing World amount to “the proliferations” that Harry was so desperate to include in the work as a whole. The structure of Hustvedt’s novel is complex and is worth spending time with, but I thought it a stroke of genius by the author to have this supposedly fictitious artwork made by a fictitious character actually come to life in Hustvedt’s own art. It drives home the urgency of the novel’s themes and forces us to consider them in relation to our contemporary art world in the twenty-first century.

 

Now I like art as much as the next person and enjoy visiting different cities and seeing new exhibitions. How art gets into those exhibitions, how artists gain their reputations, and essentially how the art world spins is something I have never really contemplated. Hustvedt’s novel forces her readers to open our eyes to these issues and to the establishment that runs the art world. That Hustvedt implies that the art world is plagued by misogyny and superficial values such as a person’s image or reputation is at once disappointing but, I have to admit, not hugely surprising. It is the second novel I have read recently, alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which suggests that the fast-evolving, open-minded, multi-cultural image many of our contemporaries hold of our modern society is completely awry and delusional. Americanah demonstrates that racism is still rife in the Western world. The Blazing World dissects sexism with relation to the art world. A sad prospect when art should be the tool for broadening and expanding people’s imaginations, prospects, ideas and vision of the world.

 

Hustvedt’s writing is also excellent. Her creation of Harriet Burden is masterful and must have demanded a large amount of research and intelligent discussion with her peers. The result is a fascinating character who intrigues from start to end by engaging readers on more levels to a multi-storey car park. The most important level is probably the personal and emotional connection the reader develops with Harry, a strong empathy that reaps a deep sadness in the latter pages of the novel. Some of the passages in the last fifty pages I thought to be absolutely wonderful in tying up the true tragedy of Harriet’s story. But besides the melancholy that sits at the throat of the novel’s denouement, there is a shining light that bursts through the novel’s darkness, and that is the inextinguishable power of art. My absolute favourite passage of The Blazing World comes in the last pages of the novel when a mystical character named Sweet Autumn Pinkney visits Harry’s study for the last time to view her art:

 

“We walked around and looked at some of the other pieces of art, and then, when we were about to go through the door, I turned around to take one last look at Harry’s artworks, and then I saw their auras blazing out all around them. They were just things a person had made. For the first time, I really had the understanding of why the master taught that there were artists on the higher plane living on Sirius. It was because they had given their spirits and energies into what they made. They must have had a lot of extra energy to give away. Anyway, I swear the whole room was lit by those shivering rainbows.”

 

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 Siri Hustvedt

Like any other artistically-inclined human being, I admire this idea that what we create in our lifetime leaves behind a part of our energy, of our character, of our spirit after we die. Although art is a fragile thing which might be lost or destroyed or stolen or misrepresented, art is one of a small number of instruments in life that we have to leave behind a part of our energy, our spirit, of our character in the world. This is, of course, an ancient idea that is explored in works from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond. But it is an eternally important idea that is easily forgotten and is wholly relevant to Hustvedt’s discussion of art.

 

An intriguing protagonist, a complex structure, urgent themes and extremely well-written, The Blazing World is only the second book I have read from this year’s Man Booker Prize long-list. I would, however, be extremely surprised if this one missed out on the short-list and at this moment in time I would not be surprised if Hustvedt’s novel came up trumps and won the accolade. A fantastic book that I would heartily recommend.

 

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“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

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“Those who know me now will be surprised to hear that I was a great talker as a child…”

“My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”

 

Taking her father’s advice, Rosemary Cooke begins her story somewhere near the middle, as a 22 year-old student at the University of California, Davis, reflecting on her family upbringing. It is a subject, she tells us, that she normally avoids. In fact she has a designated story of digression which she can routinely fall into when the topic does occasionally crop up, which will allow her to divulge in a family story that actually reveals nothing about the supposed irregularity of her upbringing. What is she so keen to avoid? Well she soon explains that it has been ten years since she last saw her brother, Lowell, as he boarded a bus and absconded the family home. Why he left is shrouded in mystery, but it seems that since he went he has been getting himself into a spot of bother, especially when the FBI rock up at the family home. What is even more peculiar is that Rosemary has not seen her twin sister, Fern, for 17 years when she left the family home at the tender age of five. Rosemary spent the aftermath of that split in the company of her grandparents, a central narrative in this novel which sees Rosemary piece together her enigmatic childhood and the fragmentation of her family by piecing together the opaque fragments of her recollections alongside information she gleans as the novel proceeds.

 

You can only discuss We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to a certain point before revealing a crucial plot twist. Karen Joy Fowler goes a miraculous 77 pages before revealing this nuance but I don’t think I will be able to get past this sentence, and so if you are about to read the book and don’t want this information to be revealed then I advise you to bookmark the page and dive straight into the book. But when Fern is unveiled as a chimpanzee who was reared alongside our protagonist as an experiment understandably changes the dynamics of the work. However, by leaving this detail out for the best part of a quarter of the novel, it is fair to say that Fowler wants readers to consider this family as normally as possible before we jump to the conclusions and assumptions we typically would when faced with a family bringing up a chimpanzee as part of a social experiment. After the revelation, the narrative does shift to become more explicitly political and suggestive about animal rights, protection and essentially to the human perspective of creatures not considered to be human. It does so by including numerous anecdotes of similar scientific experiments, their outcomes, consideration of the cases of other creatures and so on. In the end it all focalises back to the empathy we feel towards Fern gained from the first-person perspective of her sister, Rosemary. However one of my reservations about WAACBO is that Rosemary’s digression to discuss other anecdotes and into the minutiae of different research could be difficult to follow at times and did draw attention away from the main strand of the narrative. BUT Rosemary does inform us in her prologue that she has always been a good talker, and so the digressing may also be a realistic part of her personality.

 

And the realism of her character was, for me, absolutely the best part of this book. The narrative voice is brilliantly engaging, entertaining, but also thought-provoking. Rosemary herself admits that her recollection of her memories is fallible and you soon find that you should take everything Rosemary says with a pinch of salt and try to consider the narrative as objectively as you possibly can. I also found Rosemary’s narration hilarious, a bit edgy and quirky, but always extremely funny. From describing how her didactically-inclined father, “a college professor and a pedant to the bone” ensured that “every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry” to the effervescent exchange that opens the novel when Harlow (I love this description) “threw a spoon that bounced audibly off [a young man’s] forehead”, Rosemary’s ability to polish her anecdotes with a colourful shining of wit makes this novel tireless and a pleasure to read.

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Despite its humour, WAACBO is a novel with a poignant purpose and serious themes. It is about animal rights, animal protection and the attitude that humans take towards animal experimentation. It is about discrimination, communication and the human rejection to include ourselves as part of the animal kingdom. But it is foremost a novel about family, about love and what makes us the species that we are. WAACBO is completely original in its blend of laugh-out-loud entertainment, engagement with contemporary world issues and I would thoroughly recommend this Booker Prize longlisted novel.

 

What did you think of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? I would love to hear your thoughts!