“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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“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the time being

Walking along her local beach on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, American-Japanese author Ruth (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author of this novel) spots an enigmatic package which seems to have been washed ashore. Recent rumours claim that remnants of the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan are finding their way across the ocean to these shores, but not quite this early. Underneath the barnacles Ruth can only identify the package as plastic debris and opts to take it home to be properly disposed of.

Yet when her insatiably curious partner, Oliver, probes the package, he discerns a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a French edition of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Within, the book’s pages seem to have been replaced by blank sheets containing a Japanese script. A Tale for the Time Being sees Ruth unearth the narrative of Naoko Yasutani, a 16 year-old Japanese girl determined to the story of her putative 104 year-old radical feminist nun great-grandmother Jiko. However Nao instead becomes so absorbed in unfurling the circumstances of how she ended up in a French-themed café in Tokyo writing her great-grandma’s memoir that she instead ends up filling the book up recounting her own quite charming story of adolescence, the contents of this novel.

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Ruth Ozeki with her novel “A Tale for the Time Being”

            Its structure rocks back and forth from Nao’s diary to Ruth’s present day narrative as she reads the diary, recording her responses and its effect on her own lifestyle and outlook. Ruth details her growing empathy and affection for the diary’s narrator, but also her worry, knowing that the story must inevitably end with the diary being washed ashore on a distant island, presumably as a result of a tsunami. But Ruth is incredibly aware of her importance as a reader of this text, as is Nao who hopefully addresses her diary to an imaginative “you”, the presumed reader who will breathe new life into her story. The novel’s reflection on the writer-reader relationship resonates with us all as bibliophiles and one which fascinates Ozeki.

I adored the insight the novel gives into Japanese custom, culture and thought. This is only my second foray into Japanese literature (any other suggestions would be welcome?) after reading Murakami’s 1Q84 last summer, and I enjoyed the philosophical, meditative outlook that that seems to emanate from Japanese authors. One of the central themes pondered here is the proximity and the slight boundary between life and death. Ozeki’s exploration of this relationship reminded me of Shakespeare’s toying with comedy and tragedy in his plays, as despite the fact it seems that life and death, or comedy and tragedy are polar opposites, absolute extremes at opposite ends of the spectrum, both writers find that the difference between the two is instead a very fine line. But Ozeki furthers her exploration and asks (I think) the more profound question of what is means to exist or to not exist, and moreover her characters pose the possibility, based on theories in quantum mechanics, of multiple existences and multiple worlds. These ideas inevitably feed back into Nao’s narrative and the ominous question mark that lingers over the possible conclusions to he own story, but it also feeds into the meta-textual ideas about the multifarious narratives available to the author.

But probably the central theme of A Tale for the Time Being is that of the passage of time. Ozeki’s novel is one that zips through history, reflecting of ancient Zen masters before jolting to the present day as Ruth researches Nao and her family on Google and via e-mail before heading back to 1944/45 when Nao’s great-uncle Haruki struggles with the moral dilemmas of being obliged to fight as a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Then there is Nao writing her diary in Proust’s opus about lost time and then her later discovery of his sequel about Le Temps Retrouvé (time regained). What does it mean to exist within time? How is time separated? How do we relate to time at particular moments in our life? Such questions tie in with the novel’s wrangling with the problem of existence and life and death.

Yet despite the philosophic profundity of these ideas, Ozeki writes in relatively plain, accessible and lucid prose. She has a shining talent for storytelling and it was clear to me why this deeply pensive yet captivating and fervent novel, painted with all the colours of Japan, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize.