This was one of the novels on the Booker Prize longlist, and when I saw it on display in my local library, I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve never read any Siri Hustvedt before, but I’m aware of her reputation and I was a little worried that she’d end up being a little too cerebral for me. The premise of this novel certainly sounds rather highbrow; Harriet Burden, a widowed artist, has spent her life seeing her work and intellect overlooked and unappreciated by the male dominated cultural elite. Married to New York’s premier art dealer, Felix Lord, Harriet was always Felix’s ‘eccentric’ wife, and found herself unable to create an identity and a reputation in her own right. As such, after his death, she convinces three very different male artists to put on one-man shows in which they present her work as their own. Harriet plans to conduct a social experiment to see whether the culturati really do view art through a gendered lens, and will finally give her the accolades she feels she deserves when her work is assumed to have been made by a man.
The story is told through the construct of being a report by an academic researching Harriet Burden and the truth of her claim that she was the artist behind the three New York shows in question. The academic presents her findings through providing transcripts of interviews with a range of Harriet’s friends and family members, as well as the male artists, their representatives and other acquaintances of interest, plus Harriet’s private notebooks. Harriet published a confession in an obscure academic journal before her premature death, but this confession was disputed by one of the artists, also now dead, who claimed that Harriet had been delusional, and that he had not been a front for her work: everything produced was his own. The academic claims to have no definitive answer to the truth of the whole affair, but instead presents all of the information she has gathered to enable readers to come to their own conclusions. This is quite a daring approach, and provides a thought provoking and highly interactive reading experience which enables readers to consider their own deeply ingrained and often unconscious prejudices and assumptions.
What I found most interesting about the book was that Hustvedt chooses to make Harriet’s male-masked exhibitions not particularly successful or widely noted anyway. This raises the question of whether Harriet’s obsessional desire to make the point that she has been ignored because she is female is indeed delusional, and a way for her to avoid accepting that her work is just not that worthy of praise. Harriet is an incredibly intelligent, well read woman with a range of fascinating ideas about psychology and philosophy, with a particular interest in gender and how women have been silenced by patriarchy throughout history. As she reaches middle age and finds herself becoming increasingly marginalised in a society that only really values women for their beauty, her anger becomes more and more visceral towards the men who seek to ignore her. After considering what everyone had to say in the matter, I had begun to think by the end that Harriet had been driven beyond the realms of sanity by her anger and frustration, and I was also rather frustrated by her inability to accept personal responsibility for her problems. After all, it is easy to say ‘I was prevented from being successful’ rather than admitting ‘I just wasn’t good enough.’ Though, at the same time, the ease in which I came to that conclusion and was willing to dismiss Burden’s claims of gender discrimination probably says something in itself, and I felt rather conflicted by the time I finished the book.
Hustvedt uses The Blazing World to raise many pertinent questions about gender and perception, and gender and power. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to become engaged in a text that was so challenging and provocative, and I loved learning about Harriet’s favourite female writer, the 17th century aristocrat Margaret Cavendish (there is a lovely analysis of one of her poems here), whose experimental science fiction novel gives the book its title. Hustvedt is a clever writer who pays close attention to detail; I thought it was very witty to have Harriet’s surname be ‘Burden’ and her husband’s ‘Lord’, playing wonderfully on traditional gender roles, and her ability to create a number of voices for a hugely diverse range of individuals was astounding. This is definitely not a light read, but it is an immensely rewarding one. I’m so pleased that I gave it a try, and I think it’s a shame it didn’t make the Booker Longlist, as it was certainly the best out of the three I’ve read that made it through.