I loved Siri Hustvedt’s latest work, The Blazing World, in so many ways. Perhaps when I first opened the boldly-covered book (I seem to remember that her last book had an equally poppy cover design) I was by default well-poised to love it, as I’ve read her before, fan I am.
There is without doubt something at once intimidating and fascinating about the complexity of Hustvedt’s writing, with its references (in this book, even footnoted, within the main character’s diary), with its language and scope; it requires a close read, concentration. The author is not only erudite but also wildly imaginative, is an incredible essayist with a PhD in English, who can describe the lilliputian hallucinations she’s had during a migraine (seriously!). The interstices and crisscrossing of character and plot are, at first at least, a bit challenging to keep in mind unless one dives in for large chunks at a time, which can be difficult in our choppy world. These heavier passages are broken up by Hustvedt via the remarkably different voices of the characters and the formats of their entries in the novel.
The Blazing World is, of course, about the art world, about gender bias and perception. It is of Harry, who follows Artemisia and Judith and Camille and Dora, about a women suffocated*, who, “to be really seen […] had to be invisible.” It is about the incongruity of love and fame, how creation and love, is either embraced or rejected, or both, about the very nature of one man (or, better said, woman) judging another, and why and how.
Why some artworks create such a fuss is a conundrum. First the idea spreads like a cold and then people spend money on it. Mine-is-bigger-than-yours goes a long way among collectors in that world, maybe in every world.
It is about men and women, and men and men, and women and women, mother and child, lover and loved, brother and sister, friend and enemy. In format and perspective the same is viewed from near, from afar, by one, by the other. As in life, the roles reverse and twist, and secrets hover, some relinquishing themselves to its complexity, others trying to conquer it, and others swimming about, trying to find purchase, or not.
We live inside our categories, Maisie, and we believe in them, but they often get scrambled. The scrambling is what interests me. The mess.
There are rooms which lead to others which have peepholes and grow sweaty and close. (The description of the suffocation room, the main character’s art installation, are vivid and visceral.) Creativity lives on, despite the criticism (or lack of it) which threatens to thwart it, and perception is, in the end, all that matters.
The writers must write and the critics critique and the reviewers review and the pissers piss, and they shall.
My time has come, and whatever they say—the most mediocrities—is not the point.
HOW THEY SEE is all that matters, and they will not see me.
Until I step forward.
It’s not a happy book (a friend recently looked through some books I’d offered her, and said “They’re too sad.”), but there is a small universe between its covers that draws you in, and you become like one of the teeny-tiny figures, their auras aglow, within the sculpture whose name titles the book. You hide there, or sit at a table, or write on the wall. You are sad for so many of the characters, some of whom find their end, others who wander off to continue their lives in that hazy ether where fictional characters live once we reach the last word. But during the time when we lived in their pages they were alive, so very alive, and real.
*Yes, the first-name only in the title is indubitably intentional, inspired by this passage, from Siri Hustvedt‘s book…
Artemisia Gentileschi, treated with contempt by posterity, her best work attributed to her father. Judith Leyster, admired in her day, then erased. Her work handed over to Frans Hals. Camille Claudel’s reputation swallowed whole by Rodin’s. Dora Maar’s big mistake: She screwed Picasso, a fact that had obliterated her brilliant Surrealist photographs. Fathers, teachers and lovers suffocate women’s repultations. These are three I remember. Harry had an endless supply. “With women,” Harry said, “it’s always personal, love and much, whom they fuck.” And a favorite theme of Harry’s, women treated like children by paternal critics, who refer to them by their first names: Artemisia, Judith, Camille, Dora.