A dazzling display of bravura writing from Ms Hustvedt who puts gender bias under the microscope and examines it from the angle of the New York art establishment. Harriet Burden is nobody's idea of the feminine ideal. Certainly not her own. She is a tall woman, massively intelligent and passionately single-minded. Despite (or perhaps because of) being married to a renowned art dealer, her own work has been sidelined.
Harry, as she is known, believes that the art world's disdain is because she is a woman and the lack of recognition is tearing her apart. She sets about a long-game project to change the perception of her work. It will involve subterfuge on a grand scale and she will take immense pleasure in ripping off her carefully conjured masks and saying 'yah, sucks, boo' to this self-regarding little coterie of art snobs.
The introduction purports to be by art historian 'I.V. Hess' and sets up the story: Hess is writing a book about Burden and has collated interviews and recollections from those who knew her. This 'anthology of voices' is a veritable smorgasbord of rare treats. Each voice is utterly unique, instantly recognisable, totally convincing. Harriet Burden's own voice - one minute lamenting the art establishment's callous disregard for her work, the next elated as she imagines their long-awaited gasps of admiration - conveys a woman obsessed. Like those close to Burden, the reader cannot help but find her exasperating even as one empathises with her.
There are very many layers here and many things one would like to ask Siri Hustvedt: what does she make of the success of Tracey Emin? Is Harry's height an overwhelmingly significant factor? Is it fun or challenging to write in so many voices? Is the author being ingenious or disingenuous when at one point she drops her own name into the mix? And most importantly, is this book a reflection of the author's own personal experiences? Does Hustvedt herself harbour feelings of resentment towards the literary world?
on 24 April 2014
I looked forward to this book for a long time before I read it and it doesn't disappoint at all, but I wouldn't read it as a reader new to Husvedt as its hard going at times and it doesn't tell the story conventionally. At times I grew impatient with the switching and swapping of narrators and times as I just wanted to be immersed in a good story, which is what it is at heart. But it's a brilliant and thought provoking book, beautifully written and crafted by a writer at the top of her game. My favourite Husvedt novel is 'What I loved' as that similarly plays with ideas but makes you really care about the characters, which makes such a difference as the shocks of the novel are truly startling then and it has some heart-stopping moments. So, not five stars as it didn't live up to my expectations fully, but then that might have been impossible, I recognise that.
purporting to be a serious factual book about the life of reclusive and angry artist, Harriet Burden, this book draws together numerous sources that are supposed to try and figure out the truth behind this enigmatic figure. Burden is sick of her art being side lined, or worse, ignored, and decides that it is because of her sex. She experiments by showing her work through the guise of three different male artists, all of whom are supposedly in on her project with her. The experiment gives unexpected results for all, and further serves to muddy the waters, both in terms of how Harriet feels and how the art world, and the public see her.
I loved this book. It is clever and touching and complex and it made me cry my heart out at the end. Utterly satisfying.
Hustvedt brings the art world to vibratnt life. She has a great ear for different voices but the self-consciously literary nature of the book makes for a tough read at times. For all the wit of the piece and although she has much to say about interpretation, perception and prejudice, the welter of footnotes and references comes across as a little too clever clever and the book runs the risk of disappearing in a fog of the same pretentiousness it sets out to satirise.
The Blazing World is presented as a series of documents charting the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a lesser known New York artist. These documents, drawing heavily on a series of notebooks kept by Burden herself, have supposedly been collated by an art historian. The broad thrust of the piece is that Burden felt herself marginalised as a woman and therefore chose three men, each to present one of her installations as their own work. These three collections garnered favourable reviews.
As so often happens in these assorted document type novels (Michael Arditti’s Unity comes to mind), the initial pretext soon wears thin. The documents, interviews, letters and diaries all go into a level of personal detail and cod-philosophy when, in real life, they would focus far more on facts and public events. As also tends to happen in such works, the narrative voice is not sufficiently different from source to source. It all feels like it was drafted by a single pen, working towards a single goal. Harry’s notebooks, in particular, seem to be filled with a linear narrative, despite being dispersed over multiple volumes kept simultaneously, and offer verbiose personal justification for everything.
The writing is supposed to be over the top, pretentious. It’s a satire of modern art and one presumes the frequent digressions into philosophy (Kirkegaard seems to be a favourite) are presumably supposed to look hyperbolic when used to justify art installations that would otherwise not look out of place in a Blue Peter dollhouse.
The characters are similarly supposed to be grotesque: a stupid young boy called Anton Tish who seems to have escaped from Warhol’s Factory; a gay black dandy who had adopted the name of Phineas Q Eldridge; and a genuine artist called Rune who is busy trying to forget his austere Norwegian heritage. Then we have Bruno, Harry’s partner and wannabe poet; we have dippy hippy chicks; bisexual art dealers; art journos; wealthy collectors… Despite their tendency to speak with the same voice, this motley assortment of characters feels real and diverse enough to sustain the piece. This, harnessed with some tragi-comic storylines and some great set pieces, breathe life into what keeps threatening to be (but never becomes) a snore-a-thon.
This is not a life-changing novel and the plot is thin. The academic framing device comes to nothing – there are no conclusions and no thesis. But it is brimming with ideas and many of them are presented in a colourful, accessible fashion. Sometimes the ideas seem to trip over one another and the reader does have to wade through a lot of Tish to get to them, but overall it is worth it.
on 26 July 2015
This is a very clever book, but one that left me utterly cold., The basic premise was enticing: a widowed female artist, unable to secure any recognition for her work in a largely male-dominated market conceals her identity and passes her own work off as that of three male artists, thereby demonstrating the extreme sexism of the New York art world.
I found the approach attractive too. The story is made up of a series of separate narratives, some of them drawn from a series of journals compiled by the artist (Harriet Burden) herself, while others purport to be personal memoirs from her friends and associates. Sadly, however, I found that the novel never quite sparked to life for me. All very clever, but I felt that Hustvedt almost became a victim of his own ingenuity and the succession of different narratives simply became burdensome.
Rather too much emphasis on style at the expense of substance.
on 10 July 2014
This is an astonishing work. Inspired, inspiring, perceptive, maddening, ludic, knowing, funny and sexy, all wrapped up in a great narrative. Oh, Harry! I wept at your sorrows and was upstanding and cheering for your triumphs - of which there were many, many, many.
Although I've very much enjoyed Siri Hustvedt's other work, to me, this is the masterpiece. It's all just come together a lot better - which is strange in that the manuscript is made up of so many different kinds of texts. Anyone who has ever kept a notebook (or dozens at the same time) will love Harriet Burden's own notebooks, and the literary ventriloquism on display with the other voices in the novel is bravura stuff.
Elsewhere, people have mentioned that there are a lot of references (and there are) but for my money, they are delivered so expertly they never intruded (although I read a Kindle version, and had I realised there would be so many, I would have preferred the ease of an actual book to flick through). The references all contribute to the verisimilitude of the academic voices, and it never hurts to be gently reminded that it's never too late to take another look at Kierkegaard and Husserl.
The language is sublime. Sublime, I tell you. My Kindle highlighting feature just could not keep up. So rich, inventive, evocative, playful, and wise. I can't think of where I've ever seen lexicon as leitmotif, or the cumulative effect of synonyms used with such virtuosity. Oh, wait, it's just hit me. It was in Joyce's 'Portrait of an Artist'. But actually, Hustvedt's 'Portrait' is infinitely more readable. This is the 'Portrait' for the 21st Century, and without wishing to deploy spoilers, the less said about the young man, the better for now.
The art world is not new territory for Hustvedt, and although I would never have believed it before I read this, it turns out that in 'What I Loved' (which I also loved) she was just warming up. She excels at creating the art-works on the page, and I came away from each of Harry's gallery openings feeling I knew the shows inside and out. At one point the inimitable Louise Bourgeois is name checked, and it struck me that the pervading feelings I experienced while reading the novel were very much akin to those I'd felt the first time I heard about 'Precious Liquids' for Dokumente, or while seeing the Bourgeois retrospective a few years ago at Tate Modern. Or indeed, Judy Chicago's 'The Dinner Party' or Niki de St Phalle's 'Tirs' or 'Hon', or her exuberant Nana's, which Harry's works seemed to be inviting us to re-rejoice in.
In sum, I loved it, and I'll be looking out for a paper copy for my next read.
on 20 April 2014
Siri has surpassed herself with this. It reads like an interesting non fiction, but no, this is a novel. This work is best enjoyed if you let Hustvedt transport you.
This is a novel about masks, levels of perception and there were times when Harriet Burden was as real to me as any dead artist. The writer has pulled off a masterpiece in fiction - in letting the reader be transformed into a willing piece in their universe. The mechanics of the book is an assortment of voices that knew the dead artist - grown up children, friends, critics and lovers and is nothing like I've read recently. Like 'What I loved' a deeply intellectual book that doesn't shut out the very well read. It's a very easy book to read and in a celeb obsessed world of skin deep; important in these times.
I would say this is the most important book I've read in some time as it challenges what we consider a novel, while challenging the ideas of gender in the aloof New York art scene. Like The Flamethrowers, by Kushner, it raises important questions of the female in art - so much the object rather than the artist . It's interesting that Harriet's husband is an art dealer who 'picks her up' - yet whose voice is only found once her husband dies and she is no longer a 20 something woman with striking breasts, but middle aged and invisible.
on 29 May 2014
Blazing World is not an easy read, (not for me, at least) and begs the question as to whether approachability is a critical element of any book. Blazing World is multi-level: at the narrative level it is a commentary about the artistic world and the dimensions & hypocrisies by which art and artists are lauded or ignored. However the book concerns itself with much more than that: the role of women in art & society, perception and family dynamics to name but a few. There were times when I asked myself whether I really cared about Harriet Burden's tormented soul and about the characters that surround her life. In the end I found out that I did. This is a very good book. The one star I have docked it from the 'Perfect Five' is because I am unsure as to whether the myriad of academic cross-referencing gets in the way or enhances the experience. I feel sure that Hustvedt feels that they form an essential element of her book. I am not so sure. I am very glad that I persevered and very glad that Hustvedt ended the book the way that she does. In the end this is a book about the human condition - female and male. It is a brilliant book by an undoubtedly brilliant author and I'm very glad I persevered with it.
on 20 June 2016
This is the life and death of Harry, a struggling New York artist who never gains the recognition she craves. Married to a rich art dealer with two children Harry still yearns for more. She feels that it is her status as a woman that is holding her back and embarks on a hoax where she persuades young, good looking male artists to pass her work off as their own.
This is not a straightforward book. The plot unfolds through a jigsaw of different perceptions of different people: interviews, notebooks, letter, diary entries... It is very erudite with many references to philosophy with footnotes that may or may not be erroneous. I enjoyed it overall but sometimes it was hard going. It took me a long time to read. It was clever but perhaps too clever for its own good.
If you live heavy literary fiction which makes you think this is for you.