THE BLAZING WORLD by Siri Hustvedt

Book Quote:

“After she moved to Brooklyn, my mother collected strays — human strays, not animals. every time I went to visit her, there seemed to be another “assistant,” poet, drifter, or just plain charity case living in one of the rooms, and i worried they might take advantage of her, rob her, or even kill her in her sleep.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (MAR 30, 2014)

Harriet “Harry” Burden was an obscurely known artist for much of her life, and also a wife, mother, and scholar. She was criticized for her small architectural works that consisted of too much busyness–cluttered with figures and text that didn’t fit into any schema. Her husband, Felix Lord, was an influential, successful art collector, but who couldn’t help his wife for alleged fear of nepotism. After Felix died, Harriet came back with a vengeance, and under three male artist’s pseudonyms (artists that she sought out), she created a combination art (part performance, if you consider the pseudonyms as part of the process) a trilogy which was successful, and even more lauded posthumously. They were shown individually under the names of “The History of Western Art, ” “The Suffocation Rooms,” and “Beneath.” Later, when unmasked (so to speak), they were identified as Maskings. I am reluctant to reduce and categorize Harriet–although labels such as “feminist” may apply.

Harriet wanted to:

“…uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”

Moreover, it is about unmasking ourselves–which includes the hermaphroditic selves. We are all an amalgam of male and female, or male and female perceptions and the plurality — attributed behaviors. There’s seepage beyond the paradigm.

Again, that may be too reductionist for the complex workings of Harry’s art, and of her psychology and her life. This novel is like an exposé of Harriet’s life, as told via her friends, colleagues, children (including one passage by her son, who suffered from Asperger’s), lover (her significant other after Felix’s death), critics, roommates, and herself. The chapters by Harriet come from her private notebooks/diaries, labeled by letters of the alphabet, and found after her death.

One could call this a presentation novel — a novel that appears more as a collection of writings that make up her life, replete with footnotes. Included are esoteric and big ideas about art, art movements, and philosophy. However, Hustvedt is such a spectacular writer, that it feels very much like a biography, and often an autobiography (sometimes reliable, at other times unreliable — you as reader decide). Hustvedt combines big ideas with story. There are novels, such as written by David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and others, who are famous for this style. The novelist Nicholas Mosley writes his story and characters as subservient to the big ideas. This alienates some readers. It is purely subjective to taste, but, personally, I love a cleavage of ideas and story/character. In my opinion, Hustvedt did a superb job of integrating the two. The character of Harriet was pervasive, even in the chapters that didn’t belong to her, because of her inimitable voice that saturated all others who populated the story. Harriet habituated these big ideas, so that it was organically composed.

Harry’s emotional and psychological presence was forceful, formidable. We learn that she saw a psychiatrist twice a week for the last eight years of her life, and her best friend was a psychotherapist. She was a dedicated wife to her husband and children, fraught over the secret life of her husband, and protective over the fragility of her son, Ethan. All vectors pointed back to Harriet–the enigma of her, and the magnitude of her vitality. She was ubiquitous in every page of this book.

I was familiar with some of the scholars/academics/artists/philosophers that Harriet mentioned due to other novels and books I had read. Parisian Guy Debord, leader of the Situationist International movement, had a prominent place in Billy Moon. The Situationists advanced the notion of the spectacularized–a mass consumerism where every experience is packaged by the market to be seductive and glamorous, and sooner or later, we experience the copy as an original experience rather than the experience itself — all is commodified. Harriet assimilated this philosophy (and others to demonstrate the conundrum of perception). One of Harriet’s favorite philosophers was the German, Edmund Husserl, who expounded on phenomenology, the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. It all ties into the assemblage of Harriet — like her art, she is made of many miniature selves that together form a whole. Or, perhaps, a panoply of selves.

And, most dear to Harry’s heart — perhaps her heroine — was Margaret Cavendish, a duchess and groundbreaking, prolific writer of science, predated science fiction, and a utopian romance called “A Blazing World,” from which the eponymous title of this novel originates. Cavendish died in obscurity, having published a memoir in which she yearns to one day be recognized. Hundreds of years after her death, her desire is realized. Is this a key to Harriet’s psyche?

One doesn’t have to be a scholar or artist to relate to this book. In fact, it is written in a highly accessible style, with a smoldering, emotional, and psychological expressiveness. In my opinion, this is a subtle meta-fiction — one that draws attention to itself as a work of art, while keys to the truth of Harriet Burden are revealed. As individuals, we all have our perception of quality and merit; therefore, readers will come away with our respective portraits of Harriet, and the thrumming purpose of her story. For fans of Siri Hustvedt, this is highly recommended. It equals the power of What I Loved, while being different in approach. Hustvedt has a nimble way of disclosing the incongruous features of her characters that make them both distinctive and sympathetic. By the end of this book, I could imagine a three-dimensional Harriet Burden walking out of the pages.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster (March 11, 2014)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 30, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Literary

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