The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is a rich, complex novel disguised as an anthology about the work and life of Harriet Burden, a recently deceased artist. The conceit of the book is that it was edited by I.V. Hess from Burden's notebooks with additional sections from contemporaneous publications (reviews, articles, etc.) and testimony by people who knew Burden.
Burden was the widow of a successful contemporary art dealer, Felix Lord. While married to him, her own art career was at best moderately successful. After he died, that modest success dwindled. She came to believe that it was her status as a woman that held her back in the sexist art world. So she developed an elaborate plan to put on art exhibits of her work using three men as fronts or "masks." The first, Anton Tish, was a callow youth who gained a tiny measure of fame after "his" show. The second, Phineas Q. Eldridge, a black, gay performance artist, was highly sympathetic to her eccentric project. The third mask was Rune Larsen, who simply went by the name Rune, an already successful young artist. The book is primarily about these three shows and what happened after.
Obviously feminism is a major theme here. But the book is quite tricky--it leads you down one thematic path and sneakily changes course, several times. When I started reading it, I thought of Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under many pseudonyms (or masks) that were quite distinct personalities. (Pessoa is acknowledged early on, as if to get him out of the way.) Also I thought of The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, a novel where the protagonist writes in several differently themed notebooks, as Harriet Burden does in The Blazing World. And like Burden, The Golden Notebook's protagonist, Anna Wulf, suffers a mental breakdown.
As I read it, I was really taken with the voices Hustveldt created for the "contributors." So instead of writing an essay about the book, I thought I'd quote some of them and add my own annotations.
I don’t think anybody really knows when she first started thinking about pseudonyms. She published one dense art review under the name Roger Raison in a magazine in the eighties, dumping on the Baudrillard craze, demolishing his simulacra argument, but few people paid attention. I remember when I was fifteen, our family was in Lisbon, and she went over and kissed the statue of Pessoa. My mother told me to read him, and, of course, he was famous for what he called his heteronyms. (Maisie Lord)Maisie Lord is Burden's level-headed daughter. She is a documentary filmmaker who has spent considerable time documenting her mother's odd, chaotic life, including a full-length documentary about a schizophrenic denizen of Burden's Red Hook compound.
Over time, however, I learned that the boy [Anton Tish] had attended the School of Visual Arts, did not know who Giorgione was but considered Warhol the most important artist of all time, which must have explained his silk-screen obsession. Rather than celebrities, Tisch did silk screens of his friends, presumably because their proverbial fifteen minutes had or would come. He explained that his art referred directly to Warhol while also pointing to the phenomenon of reality TV, although it was difficult to glean this information from the banal images he showed me. He liked the term conceptual and used it a lot, not unlike the way Edgar used man. Anton was not a bad kid. He was just stupendously, heartbreakingly ignorant. (Harriet Burden, notebook C)This harsh portrait of Burden's first "mask," Anton Tisch (whose name she changes to "Tish" for the exhibit), is funny but rings true. We've met that guy before under different names. Burden is that she is better educated than everybody else in the book. She has read everything. Whatever else it is, The Blazing World is a novel about Burden's mind; her interpretations of history, philosophy and science. She has to teach Tish her own highly idiosyncratic history of art to get him up to speed to be a convincing front.
Mostly, the art business has been about men. And when it has been about women, it has often been about correcting past oversights. It is interesting that not all, but many women were celebrated only when their days as desirable sexual objects had passed. (Rosemary Lerner, art critic)The book's feminist themes will be pretty familiar to anyone who is familiar with Linda Nochlin, the Guerrilla Girls, and so forth. Lerner is an art writer working on a biography of Burden who has, since her death, risen in the estimation of the art world--correcting an old oversight, as it were.
After her parents and then Felix [her husband] died, this monolith of adversarial forces seemed to grow rather than diminish. An enemy with a masculine, not a feminine face, it swatted the likes of Harry away like a mosquito. She had fantasized about her revenge for years, and now it had come—sort of. (Rachel Briefman, childhood friend)But the abstract feminist motivations for the "mask" exhibits aren't the only motivations. They are wound together with a sense of resentment Burden feels over how her work has been ignored. Because by the time this anthology is being written her work has become highly esteemed, her resentment seems justified in retrospect. But for her friends and contemporaries, it must have seemed self-indulgent, if not a little crazy.
Yes, my husband and I have been collecting for years now,” a woman in a Chanel suit told me. “We just bought a Kara Walker.” (The idea here: Tell black artist about another black artist.) “Her work is soooo powerful, don’t you think?
[...]Phineas Q. Eldridge is one of the most likable characters in the book. He becomes a good friend of Burden's in the course of their project together, and by virtue of his own status as an outsider, he is sensitive to the small but significant racial/sexual distinctions between how people view "white boys" and how they view people like him or Burden. This makes him a good conspirator for Burden.
When The Suffocation Rooms were shown, they were read through me—P. Q. Eldridge was exploring his identity in his art. White boys, the Anton Tishes of the world, have no need to explore their identities, of course. What is there to explore? They are the neutral universal entity, the unhyphenated humans. I was pretty much all hyphen. (Phineas Q. Eldridge)
She had drunk too much, and I could feel the self-pity mounting as she rolled off the names of women artists suppressed, dismissed, or forgotten. She jumped up from the sofa and stomped back and forth across the room. 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 reputations. These are three I remember. Harry had an endless supply. “With women,” Harry said, “it’s always personal, love and muck, 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. (Phineas Q. Eldridge)This book is crammed with information. Because it's a novel about a particular person, you have to take some of the information with a grain of salt. Burden isn't a completely reliable narrator. But for me, there is a lot of "further reading" suggested by its contents. It's not enough that Burden feels that she (and women artists in general) have been shortchanged; names must be named.
I worry over Bruno’s refusal to come with us. Maybe it is Phinny’s hand that makes me think of Bruno, my mauling lover. I am back to life under his hands, his rumbling voice, his jokes, but he said, I hate that art world shit. It’s worse than the poetry world, and that’s pretty bad, but there’s no money in poems. Just egos. (Harriet Burden, notebook B)"Bruno" is Bruno Kleinfeld, Burden's boyfriend--a not very successful poet, but a hell of a nice guy. Both he and Burden are oldish--they have grown children. Kleinfeld loves her art but doesn't quite understand it. Burden doesn't like Kleinfeld's poetry so much, but loves his prose memoir and encourages him to continue it. Kleinfeld really doesn't get her need for revenge--to him, the whole game of the art world is a sick joke to be avoided if at all possible.
[T]he Goldberg study, 1968. Women students evaluated an identical essay more poorly when a female name was attached to it than when a male name was attached. The same results were found when they were presented with a work of visual art. Goldberg study revisited, 1983. Men and women students rated the essay with a female name attached more poorly than with a male name attached. And so it goes, but there is a twist as the research progresses in the 1990s. When expert credentials are attached to a woman’s name, the bias disappears. For artists, expertise is fame. Sex and color don’t disappear; they no longer matter. (Harriet Burden, notebook B)For all the academic references, this is a key passage. Burden is not just fighting sexism or getting revenge, she is conducting a personal version of the Goldberg studies. She believes that the reception of her art will be colored by the supposed identity of the artist--and furthermore, its meaning will change. By the way, these are real studies. Burden's theory that fame can replace expert credentials rings very true.
The subterfuge was right up Rune’s alley, a ploy that wowed him because, if it all went as planned, he could become the biggest art world kidder of them all. He would expose the critics (some of whom he hoped to draw and quarter) as clowns. This was the man’s vulnerability, Harry claimed. There were those who called him a con artist, a panderer. Plus the market scared him. Up one day, down the next. He didn’t want to go the way of Sandro Chia, dumped on the market by Saatchi, never to recover. Rune lived like a pasha, indulged himself; he needed upkeep. (Bruno Kleinfeld)Rune was the third "mask," but unlike Eldridge and Tish, Rune was already a successful artist--and within the context of the novel, a good artist. But unlike Tish, who was just a dope, and Eldridge, who went along because he liked Burden but otherwise had no particular stake in the world of art galleries, Rune was deeply involved in the art world and was a very clever, savvy player. Bruno is parroting Burden's assessment of Rune in the passage above, an assessment that turns out to be quite naive.
[...] she got that wrinkled, knowing look on her face, which always let me know a big explanation was coming, and she launched into a story about James Tiptree, the science fiction writer. According to Mother, for at least ten years no one actually saw Tiptree in the flesh, not even his editor. His secret identity caused a lot of speculation, and there were some people who thought that hiding behind the pseudonym there might be a woman, not a man. Robert Silverberg, another science fiction writer, wrote an introduction for a book of stories by Tiptree. He weighed in on the sex question and argued that just as no man could have written the novels of Jane Austen, no woman could have produced the stories of Ernest Hemingway or James Tiptree. Mother loved this part of the Tiptree drama because Silverberg’s faith in the writer’s unimpeachable masculinity turned out to be misplaced. When the actual person stepped out from behind the pen name, the macho Tiptree turned out to be Alice Bradley Sheldon.
But Mother stressed that nothing was simple. After she had invented Tiptree and before she unveiled herself as Alice Sheldon, the writer took on another persona, a female one she named Raccoona Sheldon, whose work was rejected by a number of publishers and deemed inferior to Tiptree’s. The writer, who had been praised as a man who could write feminist science fiction, now had a female mask, too. My mother said the bizarre name Raccoona had surely been inspired, at least on a subliminal level, by the masks raccoons don’t wear but simply have—the ones given them by nature. That’s the title of my third film, the one I’m working on now about my mother: The Natural Mask. The revelation that James Tiptree and Raccoona Sheldon were two sides of the same person didn’t make life simpler for Alice Sheldon. Although the women who had been friends with Tiptree by letter, including Ursula Le Guin, Mother said, had understood something deep. “When you take on a male persona, something happens.”
When I asked her what that was, she sat back in her chair, waved her arm, and smiled. “You get to be the father.”
As her daughter, I didn’t like hearing my mother talk about being the father. I felt a visceral jolt under my ribs, but I started giggling and said something like “Oh, Mother, come on, you don’t really mean that.” But Mother did mean it. She told me that in 1987 Tiptree shot her husband and then killed herself. Mother said Sheldon couldn’t live without her man—not her husband, obviously, but the man inside her—and she believed that’s why she exploded into violence.
What interested her was not simply substituting a man’s name for a woman’s. That was boring. No, she pointed out that Le Guin had suspected all along that Raccoona and Tiptree were two authors that came from the same source, but in a letter to Alice she wrote that she preferred Tiptree to Raccoona: “Raccoona, I think, has less control, thus less wit and power. [Maisie Lord]Even though this novel is set in the art world (and some if the best parts are the descriptions of Burden's artworks--they are good enough that they make you want to see the "real" art), the story of science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. seems like a possible source for the book. If so, it's pretty odd that Sheldon/Tiptree's true story would be recalled in the course of the novel.That a feminist science fiction novelist like Le Guin--a woman of incredible sensitivity--would nonetheless express a preference for Tiptree over Racoona Sheldon seems to confirm the Goldberg study and Burden's own contention that the meaning of the work is changed if we know it's by a woman or a man. But Sheldon's story also brings the theme of mental illness or breakdown back into the story. The violence committed by Burden in the story is far less serious than what happened with Sheldon, but it is still quite shocking when it happens. (There is an excellent biography of Sheldon: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.)
With your name on my work, I said, it will be different. Art lives in its perception only. You are the last of three, and you are the pinnacle. I could hear the cracking passion in my voice. I altered my tone to one of calm deliberation.
He liked the idea of pulling a fast one, but my ideas felt outdated, a little lame to him. We live in a postfeminist age of gender freedom, transsexuality. Who cares which is which? There are lots of women in art now. Where is the battle?
No, I said to him, it’s more than sex. It’s an experiment, a whole story I am making. Two down, one to go. After that, I retire from the game. We will find a project, I said. Hadn’t his work The Banality of Glamour focused mostly on women’s faces and bodies? Surely he knew that women face pressures men don’t. I had suffered from the cruelty of the beauty culture. I knew what I was talking about.
He smiled a gentle smile, and he said, Harry, you have your own style, your own elegance, your own femininity. He wanted to be kind, but I boiled—fists clenched, fury rising. He had offered me condescension, compensation. Don’t worry, Harry, you count, too, he was saying, even if you are funny-looking. I bristled at him and growled, But that’s not the point. The point is the trap, the suffocation. I turned away.
No pique from him: You want to wear me for one exhibition. It was a good phrase, “wear me.”
I told him yes, that was it exactly, except that by “wearing” him I might find something else in myself. This is what I was trying to explain. [Harriet Burden, Notebook O, the Fifth Circle]Here Burden specifically identifies the "mask" project as an "experiment"--she is replicating the Goldberg experiment in her own way. Rune seems to be eager enough to play along, but Rune has his own agenda.
To go much further would be to risk "spoilers." And there is a mystery threading through the work that readers will want unspooled gradually. Despite its odd form and intellectual subject matter, Hustvedt want you to feel the need to keep reading. There is a plot here that the reader wants to see through. (In this way, The Blazing World resembles the novels of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. Apparently they have even shared characters in their novels.)
I'm always interested in novels that are about artists or otherwise set in the art world. But The Blazing World transcends that interest. It is unusually fine.