Book Club: Bookseller review of The Blazing World
Pete Renton writes some of our favourite bookseller reviews on our website. Here he looks at Siri Hustvedt's new novel, The Blazing World.
The late Harriet Burden had been creating unusual and visceral installations for thirty years, but had largely gone unnoticed by art critics and the general public. Recognised more for being the widow of renowned art dealer Felix Lord, she was constantly ignored or passed over as (in her eyes) talentless young men ascended the dizzying heights of the art community. Fed up, angry and craving attention, she devised a brilliant ruse – to use three male artists as puppets with which to reveal and shame the misogynistic side of the fine art scene. But this grand experiment did not go the way she planned, and she was faced with ruining the life of one of her subjects, losing the friendship of another and has art stolen by a third.
The novel is presented as a loose collection of manuscripts formed from Harriet’s own diaries, critical studies of her work, interviews and commentary from people that knew her. In a particularly meta fashion, Hustvedt adds annotations and references to real and imaginary artists and texts, blending the line between novel and art lesson. There is an awful lot to take in, with Harriet/Hustvedt dropping references to obscure tracts, interesting asides about artists and the looming presence of Søren Kierkegaard. She even references herself within the text, drolly referring to herself as the “obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt.” In some ways it is necessary to define a brand new genre for this novel – a genre I shall coin as ‘Speculative Non-Fiction.’ Loaded with a Wikipedia-esque labyrinth of footnotes, it can be a little heavy going, particularly in the middle sections as the constant meta-textual analysis begins to wear one down and the pace slows.
On the fiction side of things, we meet her colleagues and loved ones, and see the various ways they see her; be it the snide and cruel remarks made by a prominent critic, the vivid memories from her daughter or the muddled but sweet new-age description provided by an old assistant. We get fantastic and detailed walkthroughs of her impressive and dramatic sculptures and installations, while also seeing how they tie into her husband’s death and the memory of her father. Some of the facts are left ambiguous, such as the truth behind co-worker and possible nemesis Rune’s involvement in her own work and what exactly happened with his last art piece.
Harriet is a grating personality – her diary extracts are overwrought and pretentious, and she is quick to anger and retribution - but she still manages to come across as a sympathetic character as she battles to be believed and taken seriously as the great artist she is. It is the other characters talking about Harriet that draw the most interest, whether it’s the poignant sections dealing with her death from the perspective of her lover and daughter, or even the in-progress notes from her friend and collaborator as he looks back wistfully at the work they did together.
This is an impressive piece of work, meticulously sewn together and incredibly brave in the way it tackles inherent problems in the art world, but also in the form that it takes. A dense and uncompromising novel.
And an extract, the first chapter of The Blazing World, can be found below.
Notebook C (memoir fragment)
I started making them about a year after Felix died—totems, fetishes, signs, creatures like him and not so like him, odd bodies of all kinds that frightened the children, even though they were grown up and didn’t live with me anymore. They suspected a version of grief-gone-off-the-rails, especially after I decided that some of my carcasses had to be warm, so that when you put your arms around them you could feel the heat. Maisie told me to take it easy: Mom, it’s too much. You have to stop, Mom. You’re not young, you know. And Ethan, true to his Ethan self, expressed his disapproval by naming them “the maternal monsters,” “the Dad things,” and “pater horribilan.” Only Aven, wondrous grandbabe, approved of my beloved beasties. She was not yet two at the time and approached them soberly and with great delicacy. She loved to lay her cheek against a radiant belly and coo.
But I must back up and circle around. I am writing this because I don’t trust time. I, Harriet Burden, also known as Harry to my old friends and select new friends, am sixty-two, not ancient, but well on my way to THE END, and I have too much left to do before one of my aches turns out to be a tumor or loss-of-a-name dementia or the errant truck leaps onto the sidewalk and flattens me against the wall, never to breathe again. Life is walking tiptoe over land mines. We never know what’s coming and, if you want my opinion, we don’t have a good grip on what’s behind us either. But we sure as hell can spin a story about it and break our brains trying to get it right.
Beginnings are riddles. Ma and Da. The floating fetus. Ab ovo. There are multiple moments in life, however, that might be called originating; we just have to recognize them for what they are. Felix and I were eating breakfast, back in the old apartment at 1185 Park Avenue. He had cracked his soft-boiled egg, as he did every morning with a smart smack of his knife to the shell, and he had brought the spoon with its white and running yellow contents to his mouth. I was looking at him because he appeared to be on the brink of speaking to me. He looked surprised for just an instant, the spoon fell to the table, then to the floor, and he slumped over, his forehead landing on a piece of buttered toast. The light from the window shone weakly on the table with its blue-and-white cloth, the discarded knife lay at an angle on the saucer of the coffee cup; the green salt and pepper shakers stood inches from his left ear. I couldn’t have registered that image of my husband collapsed over his plate for more than a fraction of a second, but the picture was scored into my mind, and I still see it. I see it even though I leapt up and lifted his head, felt for his pulse, called for help, breathed into his mouth, prayed my muddled, secular prayers, sat in the back of the ambulance with the paramedics and listened to the siren scream. By then I had become a stone woman, an observer who was also an actor in the scene. I remember it all vividly, and yet a part of me is still sitting there at the small table in the long, narrow kitchen near the window, looking at Felix. It is the fragment of Harriet Burden that never stood up and went on.
I crossed the bridge and bought a building in Brooklyn, a scruffier borough in those days than it is now. I wanted to flee the Manhattan art world, that incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets. In that effete microcosm, it is fair to say Felix had been a giant, dealer to the stars, and I, Gargantua’s artist wife. Wife outweighed artist, however, and with Felix gone the inhabitants of that beau monde cared little whether I stayed or left them for the remote region known as Red Hook. I had had two dealers; both had dropped me, one after the other. My work had never sold much and was little discussed, but for thirty years I served as hostess to the lot of them—the collectors, the artists, and the art writers— a mutually dependent club so ingrown and overgrown that their identities seemed to merge. By the time I bid goodbye to it all, the “hot” new properties, fresh from art school, had begun to look alike to me, with their film or performance art and their pretentious patter and garbled theoretical references. At least the kids were hopeful. They took their cues from the hopeless—those morons who wrote for Art Assembly, the hermetic rag that regu- larly served up the cold leftovers of French literary theory to its eager, equally ignorant readers. For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.
Felix Lord discovered me standing in his gallery late one Saturday afternoon in SoHo, contemplating an artist who has long since vanished but had a moment of glory in the sixties: Hieronymous Hirsch.* I was twenty-six. He was forty-eight. I was six-two. He was five-ten. He was rich. I was poor. He told me my hair made me look like a person who had survived an electrocution and that I should do something about it.
It was love.
And orgasms, many of them, in soft damp sheets.
It was a haircut, very short.
It was marriage. My first. His second.
It was talk—paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations. And colors, a lot about colors. They stained us both, filled our insides. It was reading books aloud to each other and talking about them. He had a beautiful voice with a rasp in it from the cigarettes he could never quit smoking.
It was babies I loved looking at, the little Lords, sensuous delights of pudgy flesh and fluids. For at least three years I was awash in milk and poop and piss and spit-up and sweat and tears. It was paradise. It was exhausting. It was boring. It was sweet, exciting, and sometimes, curiously, very lonely.
Maisie, maniacal narrator of life’s stream, the piping voice of boomin’, buzzin’ confusion. She still talks a lot, a lot, a lot.
Ethan, child of method, first one foot, then the other, in a parquet square, the rhythmic ambulatory contemplation of the hallway.
It was talks about the children late into the night and the smell of Felix, his faint cologne and herbal shampoo, his thin fingers on my back. “My Modigliani.” He turned my long, homely face into an artifact. Jolie laide.
Nannies so I could work and read: fat Lucy and muscular Theresa.
In the room I called my microstudio, I built tiny crooked houses with lots of writing on the walls. Cerebral, said Arthur Piggis, who once bothered to look.* Gelatinous figures hovered near the ceiling, held up by nearly invisible wires. One gripped a sign that said: What are these strangers doing here? I did my writing there—the exclamations nobody read, the wildnesses even Felix didn’t understand.
Felix to the airport. His rows of suits in the closet. His ties and his deals. His collection.
Felix the Cat. We await you in Berlin next week, madly, hotly. Love, Alex and Sigrid. Inside pocket of the suit jacket on its way to the cleaners. His negligence, Rachel said, was a way to tell me about them without telling me. The Secret Life of Felix Lord. It could be a book or a play. Ethan, my author boy, could write it if he knew that his father had been in love with a couple for three years. Felix with the distant eyes. And hadn’t I also loved his illegibility? Hadn’t it drawn me in and seduced me the way he seduced the others, not with what was there but with what was missing?
First my father’s death, then my mother’s death, within a year of each other, and all the sick dreams, floods of them, all night, every night—the flashes of teeth and bone and blood that leaked from under countless doors that took me down hallways into rooms I should have recognized but didn’t.
Time. How can I be so old? Where’s little Harriet? What happened to the big, ungainly frizz-head who studied so hard? Only child of professor and wife—philosopher and helpmeet, WASP and Jew—wedded not always so blissfully on the Upper West Side, my left-leaning, frugal parents, whose only luxury was doting on me, their cause célèbre, their oversized hairy burden who disappointed them in some ways and not in others. Like Felix, my father dropped dead before noon. One morning in his study after he had retrieved Monadology from its home on the shelf across from his desk, his heart stopped beating. After that, my once noisy, bustling mother became quieter and slower. I watched her dwindle. She seemed to shrink daily until I could hardly recognize the tiny figure in the hospital bed who in the end called out, not for her husband or for me, but for her mama— over and over again.
I was an agitated mourner for all three of them, a big, restless, pacing animal. Rachel says that no grief is simple, and I’ve discovered that my old friend, Dr. Rachel Briefman, is mostly right about the strange doings of the psyche—psychoanalysis is her calling—and it’s true that my first year of living without Felix was furious, vengeful, an implosion of misery about all I had done wrong and all I had wasted, a conundrum of hatred and love for us both. One afternoon I threw away heaps of expensive clothes he had bought for me from Barneys and Bergdorf’s, and poor Maisie with her bulging belly looked into the closet and blubbered about saving Father’s presents and how could I be so cruel, and I regretted the stupid act. I hid as much as I could from the children: the vodka that put me to sleep, the sense of unreality as I wandered among the rooms I knew so well, and a terrible hunger for something I couldn’t name. I couldn’t hide the vomiting. I ate, and the food came blasting up and out of me, splattering the toilet and walls. I couldn’t stop it. When I think of it now, I can feel the smooth, cool surface of the toilet seat as I grip it, the gagging, wrenching paroxysms of throat and gut. I’m dying, too, I thought, disappearing. Tests and more tests. Doctors and more doctors. Nothing to be found. Then the very last stop for the so-called functional ailment, for a possible conver- sion reaction, for a body that usurps speech: Rachel referred me to a psychiatrist-psychoanalyst. I wept and talked and wept some more. Mother and Father, the apartment on Riverside Drive, Cooper Union. My old and flattened ambitions. Felix and the children. What have I done?
And then, one afternoon, at three ten, just before the session ended, Dr. Fertig looked at me with his sad eyes, which must have seen so much sadness other than mine, no doubt so much sadness worse than mine, and said in a low but emphatic voice: There’s still time to change things, Harriet.
There’s still time to change things.
The vomiting disappeared. Don’t let anyone say there aren’t magic words.
*There is no documentary evidence of an artist by that name. Why Burden twists the name of the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1450–1516), thereby fictionalizing an autobiographical story, is unknown. In Notebook G, writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights, Burden comments: “perhaps the greatest artist of corporeal borders and their dreamlike meanings. He and Goya."