Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

The Blazing World is the first novel I’ve read by the American writer Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt was born February 19, 1955 in Northfield, a small town in southern Minnesota, to a Norwegian mother, Ester Vegan Hustvedt, and an American father, Lloyd  Hustvedt.

She married Paul Auster on Bloom’s Day, June 16, 1982.

In 1986, Hustvedt received her PhD from Columbia University. She wrote her dissertation on Dickens: “Figures of Dust: Language and Identity in Charles Dickens.” After finishing her doctorate, she turned to fiction and began work on her first novel, The Blindfold, two sections of which were published in literary magazines as stories and later reprinted in Best American ShortStories 1991 and 1992. The novel was published in the United States by the now defunct Poseidon Press in 1992 and was translated into seventeen languages.

 

Hustvedt has also authored a book of poetry, five other novels, two books of essays, and several works of non-fiction. Her novels include The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), for which she is best known, A Plea for Eros (2006), The Sorrows of an American (2008), The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010), The Summer Without Men (2011), Living, Thinking, Looking (2012), and The Blazing World (2014). What I Loved and The Summer Without Men were international bestsellers. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages.

She has also written extensively on art.

In 1995 Karen Wright, then the publisher of Modern Painters, asked her to choose a single painting in the exhibition Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery in Washington and to write on it. That essay “Vermeer’s Annunciation” argued for a reading of Woman with a Pearl Necklace as an Annunciation rather than a Eucharistic image and permanently altered scholarly perceptions of the image. She has continued to write about art and, in 2006, published a collection of her writing on art with Princeton Architectural Press, Mysteries of the Rectangle.

Besides the pieces in that volume, she has written catalogue essays for Richard Allen Morris, Kiki Smith, and Gerhard Richter, published essays on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager for The Guardian newspaper in London, and lectured at the Prado and Metropolitan Museums.

The Blazing World is about a woman artist by the name of Harriet Burden whose burden is being a woman. As a young woman she lives in New York City and manages to have a showing that is mildly successful, but she is soon forgotten and sinks firmly into the background when she marries Felix Lord, a prominent art dealer. Harriet, or Harry as she prefers to call herself, is perceived as his wife and a more or less failed artist, but really this side of her is not taken seriously. The couple have three children and when Felix dies, dear Harry is left with quite a bit of money. Still aspiring to become a recognized artist, she decides to initiate an experiment in which she gives three consecutive shows with a different male posing as the artist for each. These shows creates more of a buzz in the art world than Harry was able to achieve. Of course, this is what she expected and why she decided on the experiment in the first place. However, the third show is a huge success, so big that her proxy refuses to expose the truth, which is what Harriet had wanted from the start — to expose just how gender biased the art world is.

The novel is written from multiple points-of-view, including Harry’s.

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.

For me, Harry’s comments on perception and gender were the most interesting; I just wish she had said more although her art work draws on this reality. Harry creates dolls of various sizes that are usually positioned in rooms with a variety of interiors and windows. Harry also writes about her rage and by the end of the novel, dies of cancer, surrounded by those she loves. A new age healer is also present to clean Harry’s chakras, something else that interests me. Unfortunately, the sections on the healer seem to be written with tongue in cheek. While the novel is a very smart and witty read, readers — including myself — complain about the novel lacking heart. Because of the shifting perspectives, one is not not really able to get into Harry’s skin in a way that is allows a real connection.

The title of the novel is taken from a work entitled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World [1666] by the gifted Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an English 17th century woman of letters and a scientist.

As described on wikipedia,

Cavendish was a poet, philosopher, writer of prose romances, essayist, and playwright who published under her own name at a time when most women writers published anonymously. Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her utopian romance, The Blazing World, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. She is singular in having published extensively in natural philosophy and early modern science. She published over a dozen original works; inclusion of her revised works brings her total number of publications to twenty one. Cavendish has been championed and criticised as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer.

Cavendish also wrote her own memoir and expected to be criticised for doing so. She wanted later generations to have a true account of her life and hoped to achieve everlasting fame.

Whatever else one may say, Hurvedt’s The Blazing World is worth reading. I will be reading more of her.

 

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2 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

  1. Not exactly. Harriet’s life is quite different from Cavendish’s. The latter managed to preserve her work for posterity whereas some of Harriet’s has been appropriated by a male. But in the end, the work Harriet has left in her studio blazes with life, as the new ager attests, so her blazing world of art lives on.

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