„Medea mad with vengeance.“
“The truth is, Harriet was striking. She had a beautiful, strong, voluptuous body. Men stared at her on the street, but she wasn’t a flirt, and she wasn’t socially graceful or prone to small talk. Harriet was shy and solitary. In company, she was usually quiet, but when she spoke, she was so forceful and intelligent, she frightened people, especially boys her own age. They simply didn’t know what to make of her. Harry sometimes wished she were a boy, and I can say that had she been one, her route would have been easier. Awkward brilliance in a boy is more easily categorized, and it conveys no sexual threat.”
I am still awestruck, because I finished "The Blazing World" by Siri Hustvedt this morning. It is afternoon now, late afternoon, but I am still walking around and the only thing, I can truly think about, is Harriet Burden, the heroine, the artist, the crazy woman, the strong woman, the courageous woman at the center of this truly marvellous novel.
I have to write it down, though I know, it sounds cheesy, but: this is from now on one of my four absolute favourite novels in the whole wide world! (The others are the german novel Das Ungeheuer by Terézia Mora, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Das achte Leben by Nino Haratischwili! Possibly I have to add Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to that group of already breathtakingly good female writers, because her Americanah and also Half of a Yellow Sun are also favourites of mine)
Siri Hustvedts newest novel presents its story in the form of an journalistic documentary about the artist Harriet Burden, with footnotes and all. It is (supposedly) written by the journalist and art historian L.V. Hess. So Hustvedt was really consequent in writing a novel, that looked like a work of scientific journalism, which is only consequent for her, because she is a scientist, a philosopher and an art historian, a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist. A novel constructed like this is a perfect way to display her knowledge as well as her gifts as a novelist. She has been studying in all these fields for years, and when one is familiar with her writing, one knows some of what is been so brilliantly presented in this masterpiece of a novel, in its raw beginnings. This book also made me think of What I loved again - they are somehow clearly related and by the same author.
The story: Harriet Burden is an artist, a mother, and wife to the famous New York art dealer Felix Lord, who rarely is emotionally available for her or the two kids Maisy and Ethan. He is busy with his work and affairs, both with men and women. Harriet tries to be the perfect wife for him. And one wonders right away, why a strong and intelligent woman like her does not fight with him, but rather lets him dictate the rules of the relationship.
Harriet has never been successful in the artworld, her husband never helped her, and one wonders, why? I mean, he was one oft he biggest art dealers in New York and he did not support his wife. Why?
Harriet suffers from not being as successful as she wanted to be and as she could have been with her talent. Her work has never been acknowledged by critics, who mostly saw her as Felix Lord's wife, who also created some art on the side.
She attributes this missing success to the fact, that she is a woman, and that women in the art world, as in any other field, are still totally underrepresented.
"All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls."
So, after her husbands death, which leaves her totally devastated at first, she starts to think up a scheme, with which she can take revenge. She wants to make the stupidity of the art world, of society really, obvious. She wants to show, that the reception of art (of everything really, not just art) has much to do with what one expects and that those expectations are shaped by society. So people expect by reflex and habit more from a piece of art or a show, they know has been created by a male artist than by one created from a woman. (See this discussion with Siri Hustvedt and the German artist Katharina Grosse).
She decides therefore to test her theory and hide herself and her works of art behind male masks. To use them. For this, she looks out three very different male artists and calls the entire construction of these three shows Maskings, supposed to be another, maybe the major piece of art created by her, only to be recognized after the whole masks have been lifted and everybody gets to see, who the true artist behind all this is!
The three masks are: 1. Anton Tish, an unknown and not overly talented young artist, who through this masquerade and the accompanied succes looses his balance and breaks competely with her, because he can not accept, that the success happened because of the quality of Harriets work. He insists, and he is probably not entirely wrong, that it is him, who created the success. That nobody ever would have liked that work so much, had they known from the start, that it was created by a fat woman, over 50 years old.
"Has there ever been a work of art that wasn't laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined?"
2. Phineas Q. Eldridge, a black gay performance artist, who becomes a life long friend of her and who never tried to take Harriets success away from her. As he said "In the gay world, disguise has a long history, which has never been simple, so when Harry asked me to beard for her, it felt, as if I were merely trying an extra knot in a very long rope. I am a performer..." He liked to be her partner in crime and he totally acknowledged her genius and enjoyed her friendship.
3. Rune, who had been famous before, had enjoyed successes without her, was very intelligent, slightly crazy and agreed to be her third mask for various reasons, which are not all clear to Harriet. He very much loved to play manipulative games, and in the end, it turns out, he played them with her as well.
Her plan was, to unmask after the third show and tell the world, that all the works created by Anton, Phineas and Rune had in truth been created by her. This would be, in her imagination, the ultimate exposure for the art world and its stupid clinging to outward standards. But Rune refused to cooperate. He let her down completely and did not keep his promise, but rather presented her as a crazy, depressed, middle aged woman, his muse for a while, his adviser maybe, but not the creator. The creator would have been him. Only him. He even might have sneaked into her studio and stole some of her work to present it as his.
The whole story is told, as mentioned above, in the form of a book about the artist and the coup, after her death, written by a journalist with the purspose to find the truth. Who created the art? What was Harriets plan? Did Rune actually steal some of her work? Who was Harriet Burden?
So this "journalist" collected all the original material and sources he could gather, among others Harriet Burdens journals, which she labeled with the letters of the alphabet and in which she tells the whole story from her perspective, but also talks a lot about art, philosophy and everything, she knows, which gives an enormous background to her ideas.
Each journal has different themes and show, how smart and well read she was. Possibly a genius, but never acknowledged as such.
Then there are interviews with people from her life, like her daughter Maisie or Runes sister Kirsten. There are also statements written by others, like her boyfriend Bruno Kleinfeld, or Sweet Autumn Pinkney, who was a friend of Antons, or Harriets best friend Rachel Briefman. So the whole novel is written in many different voices and puts together a picture of Harriet and her plan like a very clever 3D-Puzzle or like a quilt.
I went to see Siri Hustvedts reading of The Blazing World here in Berlin. One thing I remember clearly is her enthusiasm, when she talked about how much fun it was to write in those different voices, to get to know all those different characters and slip into their personalities. With glowing eyes, she talked about, how much fun it was to be Bruno Kleinfeld, a poet, who never was successful and is therefore like a counterpart to Harry. The male macho, who even though, owner of the right sex, is still not allowed into the club of the successful. Siri Hustvedt mentioned on several occasions, that he made her understand, how much harder it is for men to not be successful in this male dominated world, so totally devoted to success as the only thing, that matters.
It is amazing, how Siri Hustvedt captures the different emotional layers of being a highly intelligent, probably really good artist (many of the art works are described within the book, which reminded me of What I loved, and made me want to see those pieces in reality, I think I would love them), possibly almost a genius, but society very narrowly defined the limits, in which an interesting life for her was possible. Felix Lord's wife. Mother. Artist on the side. And this is not set 100 years ago, but in New Yorks' today. She is a dissatisfied, unrecognized victim of the circumstances in a male dominated world. I found especially touching a scene, in which her friend Rachel Briefman described, how it was of course she, who took care of the children, not her husband, whose work was much too important, and how Harriet naturally had always bend to his wishes.
"Harry said she had found herself tiptoeing past Felix’s study so as not to disturb him on the days when he had worked at home, …., but he would march into her studio without knocking to ask her some trivial question. … Felix had always said that he admired and supported her work, but he had flown here and there for his own work, and he had called to say, he’d be late or had changed his flight, and Harry had stayed home with Maisie and Ethan. Yes, yes, yes, she said, she had had help, all she wanted, but you can’t farm out your children’s souls to others. And also Maisie had been a relatively easy child, Ethan had been difficult, hypersensitive and prone to explosions. His voracious needs had sometimes swallowed her whole.“
Still, Harriet Burden tried with every fiber not to be a victim, but she could not escape the role, and yet, in a way, the entire book is a testimony of how she transcended this role.
The Blazing World is Harriets revenge, and the book is a lot about revenge. But her world is in most parts not highly developed enough to actually get it, to actually get, how smart this woman really is. What a joke, that of all people, Sweet Autumn, whom most would see as stupid, gets it.
If we all perceive the world through a sort of curtain build from our expectations, maybe Harriet Burden did that too? Maybe she never expected to be seen, because her father never saw her, and from the beginning, learning, that he had wanted a boy, she had expected the world, the male world, to not want her, to betray her, because she was a woman? Maybe she even needed Rune to be her ultimate betrayer?
"I have asked myself what mother wanted, what she hoped for. It is so tiring, so crazy, so humiliating, this world of winning and losing and playing the game, but she wanted to be a part of it somehow, and Rune knew how to get to her, where to aim the knife." (says Maisie, Harriets daughter)
I must say, that I cried through the last about 40 pages of the book, when Harriets dying of cancer is told, partly by her man Bruno Kleinfeld (whose voice is one of the most lovable ones throughout the book and I am not saying, that not all voices are wonderful, his is just especially wonderful!), partly by Harriet herself in her journals and by Sweet Autumn, who is not only Antons ex girlfriend but also a psychic healer and so, when she gets the calling out of the blue, she rushes to Harriets side to clean her chakras during the dying process, although Harriets family is not all so convinced, that is a good thing. But Harriet wants her there and so, the last part is told by Sweet Autumn, and her voice is maybe even more lovable than Brunos.
Siri Hustvedt writes about the beauty, the scariness, the otherworldliness, the pain, the agony of dying so true and authentic, that it made me remember the entire dying process of my mom, and that was really touching. The end of the book is beautiful and somehow perfect. It brings death and love together. Reading the last page, everything in the novel made sense and Harriet, this larger than life woman, was brought home on a wave of love and light. Really great ending!
So, yeah, I want you to read this book! It is not always easy, especially if you hate footnotes or philosophy or science or Kierkegaard, it would also be good, if you could be open for art and feminism in order to enjoy it. You should not fear intelligent women either.
What I loved about the book? I am just so into complicated constructions, many voices, a book like a quilt, many parts sewn together to create in the end a whole, that perfectly fits together, and communicates an intelligent and beautiful message.
Harriet Burden was a genius, she was probably smarter, than the reader thinks, but it also does not matter in the end. In the end, we are all, what we love. Harriet Burden loved her work and no matter, if anybody recognizes it, this work will blaze on forever.
© Susanne Becker