I remember when The Blazing World was longlisted for the MAN Booker Prize and I wanted to read it then, I think I even borrowed it from the library and then didn’t read it which, in my endless questing for the next book next book, is not that unusual an occurrence. Then I almost read this a few weeks ago, but being struck down with fuzzy-headedness during a bout of shingles, I knew I didn’t have the mental capacity to read it. Because if Hustvedt’s writing is anything it is intense and intelligent, subtle and detailed, and I knew it would take some concentration. The Blazing World, as it turned out, is the first book I decided to read post my decision to slow down and it is certainly a book which benefits from a measured reading. It’s also extremely pleasurable, which is another feature of Hustvedt’s writing worth remembering.
The Blazing World is the story of Harriet “Harry” Burden, a recently deceased woman who was the wife of an art collector as well as being an artist in her own right, though remembered purely for the former. But in fact Harry is a frustrated artist, a frustrated woman. The book opens cleverly with a letter from the ‘editor’, an opening which could easily be mistaken for an ancillary introduction, something to be skipped. In this way, and perhaps the parallel is not accidental, it reminded me of the opening to Steppenwolf – another book featuring a ‘Harry’ – which has an introduction which is actually an essential part of the book…
(interlude: I recall having a very heated argument with an online friend who had skipped the ‘introduction’ of Steppenwolf because she ‘never reads introductions’ and who insisted that she had missed nothing despite not having read it and its framing being, when you do read it, integral to the structure of the book. Neither would she go back and read it. It was one of those pointless internet arguments which could not possibly end well, my argument that she must read it being as fruitless as her belief that she had not missed a critical part of the story. In other words, we were as bad as each other.)
…Anyway, Harriet has recently passed, and our erstwhile editor has compiled a book from various source materials – Harriet’s diaries, newspaper articles, interviews – which constructs the story of Harry’s grand ‘one in the eye’ to the art world, the revelation that three art installations presented by men were actually her work. By ‘masking’ her identity behind a male persona, Harry accessed the art world in a way she never could have done as a woman. As Harry describes, via the mechanism of another mask, a fictionalised professor by the name of Richard Brickman who is also Harriet Burden:
“The crowd is not divided by sex. The crowd is of one mind, and that mind is swayed and seduced by ideas. Here is a thing made by a woman. It stinks of sex. I smell it. All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls (odourless, of course). The pecker and beanbags need not be real. Oh no, the mere idea that they exist will suffice to goad the crowd into greater appreciation. Hence, I resort to the mental codpiece. Hail Aristophanes! Hail the fictional rod, the magic wand that opens eyes onto unseen worlds.”
Ha! I like Harry’s style. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be a crude and simplistic story about unconscious bias, but Hustvedt is not a lesser writer. Instead she weaves a complex and intricate story, a mask behind a mask behind a mask. As the story emerges, questions arise about whether all the claimed works are in fact Harry’s work. In particular the final work, an installation called ‘Beneath’ which was fronted by an enigmatic artist called Rune, is broadly believed to be Rune’s work. Harry’s motives prove more complex than mere rejection by the art world, there is her secretly philandering (dead) husband Felix and her disinterested father. There is her physical size and her womanliness and unwomanliness – her large breasts and height creating a admixture of stereotypically male/female characteristics. There is her silence, her acquiescence to her husband’s desires which echo her mother’s acquiescence, followed by her excessive talking. She is boundlessly intelligent, yet willing to set her intelligence aside to function as a mother, as a carer for others. Harriet is a complex character, one we see modelled from the outside and presented from the inside. The use, here, of interviews creates a powerful mechanism for character creation. We see Harriet in all her forms. Harriet as artist, Harriet as mother, Harriet as friend, Harriet as a lost, vulnerable woman. Harriet blazing and scheming. It’s a powerful combination.
There’s so much to The Blazing World that it would be impossible to cover it all here. The depths of Hustvedt’s intelligence and her ability to weave her considerable knowledge of psychology, psychoanalysis, neurology, art and philosophy into a compelling and, frankly, highly enjoyable story is astonishing. I can only conclude that The Narrow Road to the Deep North must have been something spectacular because I can’t otherwise imagine why this book didn’t win the Booker that year (though it was up against Ali Smith’s How to be Both, and I’d be hard-pressed to choose between these two). I have a great respect for Hustvedt, she is a writer who questions and seeks, who explores and digs and discovers but rarely concludes. The Blazing World is a huge open question about gender and perception, about the value and meaning of art, it is a kaleidoscopic blend of differing characters, different points of views and perspectives. In one section she presents an interview with a man who is a condescending misogynist and the tone is pitch perfect; in another she presents a young woman, heavily into new age therapies who offers the dying Harriet crystal healing and she captures the person so beautifully that I found myself questioning why this kind of perception – aura perception – is considered kooky and unreliable when we cannot even know how another person sees, how we know that the mind can be tricked and the ‘eyes’ see only what the mind accepts. Her presentation of Ethan Lorde, Harriet’s autistic son, is so alien to the other characters he seems otherworldly.
I could go on and on. The Blazing World is a complex, intelligent book that challenges our perceptions, our biases, our expectations, our intelligence and our sympathies. In the end I wasn’t sure if Harriet had pulled off the coup she intended, and in her lifetime I don’t think she pulled it off either. But victories are never as clean cut as we’re led to believe, and the idea of ‘truth’ is a complexity beyond most of our simplistic imaginings. There’s nothing simplistic here. What there is is a highly entertaining, insightful and absorbing story that is richly rewarding to read. A nourishing meal after all.
The Blazing World is published by Sceptre Books