#LiteraryWives: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

This book is fiercely intelligent. The philosophical ideas, and footnotes further explaining them to the reader, were almost too much for me to completely enjoy the book. Luckily, it had other things going for it. Although, in the end, I think I found it more thought-provoking than enjoyable.

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But it is not what is said that makes us who we are. More often it is what remains unspoken.

The Blazing World is a book of a book about Harriet Burden’s life. It’s made up of excerpts of her journals and contributions by people who knew her; her children, her friend, her new partner, and others in the art world. Although she has always been an artist, it wasn’t until after the death of her husband that she made a name for herself by way of her experimental project, which she called Maskings.

She solicited three different men to show her work as though it were their own in an effort to prove that her art is more likely to be “seen” if it is believed to have been created by a man.

Although I have no doubt that female artists aren’t as valued as male artists, I believe Harriet’s experiment is flawed, which bothered me the whole time I was reading the book. As well as putting her art out into the world with three different men, I think she could have gotten more accurate information if she had put her art out there with a variety of men and women, as well as with herself. In reality, of course, this would have been a lot more work. But I don’t think she has really “proven” anything with her Maskings project.

What I found more interesting was the idea of perception.

Had 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?

She said that her idea was not just to expose those who fell into her trap but to investigate the complex dynamics of perception itself, how we all create what we see, in order to force people to examine their own modes of looking, and to dismantle their smug assumptions.

Much of her art explores the idea of perception, but I don’t feel at all qualified to get into that. However, by examining Harriet’s life through the eyes of others, as well as through her own eyes by way of her journals, we can see Harry’s many selves and how perception played a big part in how she lived her life.

Felix, her dead husband, perceived her as less powerful than himself, so he treated her that way (and she took it). After Felix’s death, Harry comes out of her shell and realizes she’s angry – has been angry most of her life – realizes the oppression she has felt most of her life under the thumb of both her father and her husband. So she directs her anger toward men (“No more pandering to a Husband or any Man.”) and uses her art to make a statement.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Harriet’s personal experience of being a wife was of oppression, even though I don’t think she always realized it. She seems to have loved Felix. When she found out he was carrying on affairs while traveling, she was hurt, but tried to wave it off as something that had nothing to do with her and their life together. He was kind to her and the children, and provided well for them. I don’t think it was until after Felix’s death that she realized how little he supported her work, and how hurt she was by his affairs.

… it was her mad love for Felix that made it so hard for her to oppose him. He had made her feel interesting and beautiful, and she had tried hard to be what she thought he had wanted her to be.

I knew my mother was an artist who made intricate houses filled with dolls and ghosts and animals she sometimes let me touch, but I never thought of her work as a job. She was my mother. My father called her his Madonna of the Mind. It’s awful when I think about it, but it never occurred to me that my mother was frustrated or unhappy. The endless rejection must have hurt her, the injustice of it, but I can’t say I felt it when I was a child.

A passage on motherhood that I particularly like…

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.

Before Felix’s death, I think she perceives herself as a good wife and mother (as do others), and after his death she perceives herself as a victim of oppression and becomes angry and sometimes volatile.

Although she does succeed in creating a name for herself through her Maskings project, it’s hard to say how successful she really is compared to how she might have been had she perceived herself as a talented and valuable artist. As well as a valuable and vital half of a married couple.

The man who has written the review in ‘The Gothamite’, Alexander Pine, does not know he has written about me, not Rune. He doesn’t know that the adjectives ‘muscular’, ‘rigorous’, ‘cerebral’ can be claimed by me, not Rune. He doesn’t know he is a tool of my vengeance. No one rejoices more in revenge than women, wrote Juvenal. Women do most delight in revenge, wrote Sir Thomas Browne. Sweet is revenge, especially to women, wrote Lord Byron. And I say, I wonder why, boys. I wonder why.

 

Next: April 2, 2018 – The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Green – Join us! 

 

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32 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

  1. buriedinprint says:

    This sounds like a really rewarding read. I like what you’ve said about the work she did on perception in art offering readers a window into how they view her as a character through the lens of the other narratives/perspectives in the work. That seems delightfully layered and,as you say, thought-provoking, if not enjoyable. This one has been on my TBR for awhile, and I had forgotten it was to be discussed for this group. Do you think you would read another of her books?

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! I have been wanting to read What I Loved for a while now, and even had it out from the library once. It’s just a matter of time…
      I’d love to hear what you have to say about all the layers in this book – it’s so stuffed full of things to think about. I’m sure some of it went right over my head!

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    I like what you said about the book being more thought-provoking than enjoyable! I agree. I had a hard time seeing how she felt about being a wife – I felt like she was more angry at the perception that she was being discounted because of her sex. I’m seeing things from a different angle after reading your review!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s almost like the death of her husband broke a spell that had been cast over her, and all the anger, that she didn’t even know she had, came out. And I feel like it clouded her vision. She seemed to act out as a victim, rather than the strong woman she was.

      It’s fun getting the different perspectives, isn’t it? That’s one of things I love about this group!

    • Grab the Lapels says:

      Naomi’s review also suggests this book is less about being a wife than gender equality. What made the group choose this book? I don’t know what your selection process is like.

      • Naomi says:

        We all suggest books, then choose ones that overlap and vote on the rest. We used to only choose books with “wife” in the title, but found it too limiting.

  3. Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

    This sounds really interesting. I think I would have a hard time with her experiment – I would keep thinking of author, in writing/creating an outcome, couldn’t be objective – she’d have an agenda even if she didn’t want to (I would) and so as the reader I might take the critics’ reaction to her work with a grain of salt – because we don’t really know how a critic might react – although maybe the author based this on something real. I get what you mean about her using more people, both sexes, and I agree. Great review.

    • Naomi says:

      I kept thinking that if she was experimenting with perception, she should at least do it thoroughly! I also couldn’t help but feel like she was acting on anger and that she wasn’t really thinking things through clearly. She just wanted so badly to prove her point.
      Thanks for reading. 🙂

  4. whatmeread says:

    I loved this book, so I’m sorry you didn’t feel as comfortable with it. When it got above me in ideas, I just sort of rolled with it. I think she did prove her point with Maskings, though. In fact, she got more than she bargained for in proving it, as the critics wouldn’t believe it was her art after she unmasked herself. The very fact that she produced it, an older woman, seemed to preclude it being great, which they had all said it was, so it had to be done by a man.

    And don’t forget that her husband could have helped her with her career, and didn’t.

    I think she did perceive herself as a talented artist. But her husband didn’t treat her as if she had value.

    • Naomi says:

      I liked it well enough, and am still very glad to have read it. I’ve been wanting to read one of her books for a while now. 🙂
      Yes, I see what you mean about proving her point too well. I think I got a little hung up on her experiment not feeling like it was complete. I still can’t help but think that she needed a control, and more variables. Ha!

      It’s still not completely clear to me the real reason why they couldn’t believe the art came from her. I had the feeling that the art world had never taken her seriously, even at a younger age. That they didn’t seem to like her much when she went places with Felix. I don’t know why I think this – it’s been too long now since I read it to give any examples. I could very possibly be imagining things!

      I’d like to think that if she had had more time she would have made a name for herself on her own. 🙂

      • whatmeread says:

        Well, she wasn’t a scientist. I think to her the lack of attention to her work was the control.

        I think the real reason why they didn’t believe the art came from her was exactly what she thought–sexism and ageism.

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Great review, Naomi. I am not sure that I’ll read this book, but if I do, it will be because of your review! Maybe the right (angry?) mood will strike, or perhaps I’ll offer it as a book club pick when it’s my turn to offer suggestions. Sounds like it would be a good book club choice.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, it would! Lots to discuss! It’s definitely one of those books that I wish the Literary Wives were all sitting around someone’s living room rather than having to comment on the internet. I imagine the ideas and opinions would be flying!

  6. annelogan17 says:

    Hmm this woman sounds like she’s experiencing an ‘oppression’ that perhaps other people can see, but she is blind to herself, which is actually something I observe (in smaller doses) in couples that I’m friends with. It’s debatable whether or not there is really something wrong with this dynamic though, unless it’s abusive in some way. Within a couple, there is always a more dominant personality…

  7. A Life in Books says:

    I agree with your ‘fiercely intelligent’ description, Naomi. I’m an ardent Hustvedt fan but found this book quite a challenge. It’s bursting with erudition and ideas, refusing to give its readers and easy ride. I noticed that you heve What I Loved on Your List, one of my favourite novels and much more accessinble than The Burning Book.

  8. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I like the point you are making about all the different perceptions of Harriet we get by hearing from all different people. I especially felt the contrast between Bruno and the reporter who wrote the book about Rune. Bruno seemed to really love her height and loudness and weird, wonderful mind. The reporter instantly formed an opinion of her based on her looks and completely dismissed her. Sadly, for someone who is so exceptionally smart, I wonder why she didn’t see the possible flaws in her revenge. (And I agree, this would be a great book to discuss in person!)

    • Naomi says:

      I was very thankful for Bruno. He seemed right for her. He liked and admired everything about her. I worried she wasn’t able to fully appreciate the people in her life who fully appreciated her, because she was so caught up in her “revenge”.

  9. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I’ve not read this but enjoyed your review and I have What I Loved on the shelf because I’ve heard such good things about it.

    Thought provoking indeed, your review has elicited a very interesting discussion, which always adds to the reading experience.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so much fun hearing different perspectives. Some of us pick up some details while others pick up others. And the nuances of the story are often interpreted slightly differently by everyone, helping me to see things in a new way!

  10. The Cue Card says:

    I never got to the Blazing World novel but I meant to. But my, it sounds quite complex. I can see where it would bother you — her decision to have 3 different men put out her art instead of herself. I agree it sounds more thought-provoking than enjoyable. Hmm.

  11. madamebibilophile says:

    This does sound interesting Naomi, but maybe not entirely successful exploring its ideas. Or is it the character who doesn’t fully explore her ideas? I have What I Loved in the TBR, I hope to get to it soon!

    • Naomi says:

      I honestly don’t know the answer to your question. I *think* it’s the character, not the book. And I *think* how you react to it is entirely personal. Which is part of what makes it so interesting!

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