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The Blazing World (2014)

by Siri Hustvedt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7423321,958 (3.68)1 / 127
"When Professor Hess stumbles across an unusual letter to the editor in an art journal, he is surprised to have known so little about the brilliant and mysterious artist it describes, the late Harriet Burden. Intrigued by her story, and by the explosive scandal surrounding her legacy, he begins to interview those who knew her, hoping to separate fact from fiction, only to find himself tumbling down a rabbit's hole of personal and psychological intrigue. Before she died, Harriet had claimed credit for three shows of contemporary art that had been the biggest sensations of the previous decade, sending the critics into a tailspin, since no one had even thought to connect the three shows before. The sculptures and paintings, while all of unquestionable quality, would seem to have nothing in common, and of the three young male artists who presented the work, one has fled the country, another isn't talking to anyone, and the third appears to have committed suicide--though not before denouncing Harriet to the world. So was Harriet Burden one of the greatest artists--male or female--in recent memory, having masterminded a puppet show of grand proportions, or was she a washed-up has-been looking for glory on others' coattails? As Hess seeks to solve the puzzle, he soon finds everyone has a different story to tell, and that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With a playfully intricate narrative structure, flawless prose, and fierce emotional insight, award-winning novelist Siri Hustvedt takes us into the heart of human nature, exposing our prejudices and preconceptions about ambition, feminism, and the complex psychology of love"--… (more)
Recently added byDrFuriosa, private library, nospmisannah, MARizzo72, brkwrn, mellemel99
  1. 30
    The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (shaunie)
    shaunie: Messud's book reminded me very much of Hustvedt when I read it last year, and in turn The Blazing World reminds me of The Woman Upstairs - both about women being betrayed and both have detailed descriptions of their artwork.
  2. 00
    The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (JuliaMaria)
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» See also 127 mentions

English (25)  German (2)  Norwegian (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (29)
Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
41. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
reader: Patricia Rodríguez, Eric Meyers
published: 2014
format: 14:46 audible audiobook (368 pages in hardcover)
acquired: July 16
listened: Jul 16 – Aug 13
rating: 4
locations: New York City
about the author: born 1955 in Northfield, MN

This was terrific. The only problem is how much of all the distinctive things it had me thinking about I can still recall 2 1/2 weeks later. The story is about fictional artist Harriet Burden, a kind of feminist. Her frustration with the lack of interest in her work from the critical art world first leads her to stop showing her art, and then to have men given a major show of her work, but present it as their own. She would stay anonymous until she was ready to reveal what had done. Her purpose was to embarrass the sexist art critics, but also more nuanced. She wanted to look into the nature of perception and how context affects it.

Hustvedt approaches this through an art critic who began a posthumous look into Burden and her career. Burden left behind many works that were never shown, and set of 25 notebooks about her work, each identified by a letter in the alphabet, the only letter missing being, appropriately, "I". The book is a series of interviews, quotations from the notebooks and from other sources - a kind of variation of the epistolary theme. What comes across is a bitter story that did not work out at all as Burden intended. She had three major shows, her combined work calls "masks". They were critical successes, but she found her work becoming influenced by the male presenter and that the work had unintended impacts on these men. The last presenter refuses to acknowledge her work at all, but claim sole responsibility and received credit for it from the art world. So, what happened? What went wrong? What was Burden trying to do, and how did these human elements interfere and change things? Why does this end up being so full of disappointment. As I put it, compressed, on Litsy, "Burden‘s sort of feminist crusade is also part brilliant, part ego, part need for revenge, part psychological complexity and part bitter disappointment, making for a complicated text."

My second book by Hustvedt and second one I really enjoyed. They are both heavily philosophical in approachable ways, and very playful. I like what's she's exploring, and the nuanced way she goes about expressing what I imagine is her own frustration.

2020
https://www.librarything.com/topic/322920#7251560 ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Aug 30, 2020 |
I just can't give this book a rating. It's unlike anything I've ever read, and I have very mixed feelings about it. Parts of it drove me crazy - they appeared pretentious, and the author seemed to expect that I was familiar with all kinds of philosophers, psychologists, etc. that I knew only by name or had never even heard of. (Maybe that was the point?) On the other hand, it's altogether a fascinating portrait of a woman, painted by many voices, including her own. It's certainly a creative endeavor, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to others, unless they're very adventurous in their reading tastes.
  meredk | May 8, 2020 |
This is a beautiful, tangled book that's outside my normal spec-fic, but I absolutely loved it. It's heavy on the references, so there's always this sense of being two steps behind the brilliant protagonist, Harriet Burden... but that's how she's written, her mind blazing furiously, boorishly ahead.

She struggles with Big Issues like feminism and fame, identity and art, but also the deeply personal topics of infidelity, loss, the grasping need for a parent's love, the unhappy, messy endings of stories. That and there's some absolutely stunning writing here--Husvedt pulls off the myriad voices that tell the story of Harry's great heteronymous experiment seamlessly (but not without conflict).

Absolutely a book worth reading, albeit with at least a dictionary and preferably your encyclopedia of choice handy. ( )
  prufrockcoat | Dec 3, 2019 |
“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.â€ù

I read [b:What I Loved|125502|What I Loved|Siri Hustvedt|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347721158s/125502.jpg|1309881] last year and absolutely loved it. I thought I had found a new girl-crush in Siri Hustvedt, who is clearly a super-smart lady. But what should I read next? Well, The Blazing World was longlisted for the Booker Prize, was mentioned on numerous "Best of 2014" lists, and centers on that dreaded f-word: feminism. I was sold.

Harriet Burden left the New York art scene years ago, partly because she was being ignored, and partly because she became a wife and mother. After her husband's death, she decides to come back, but with a twist. Convinced that critics would be less dismissive if she were a man, Harriet enlists three male artists willing to exhibit her work as their own. After the success of the three shows, she reveals herself as the creator only to be met with disbelief. Only one of the men confirms his role; the first has disappeared and the third denies her involvement. Harriet does gain a reputation, but unfortunately not for her work.

Feminism has been getting so much flak lately, it was just nice to read a book that validated my experience as a woman. (In this case, it's a pretty privileged experience, but I can care about the underrepresentation of female artists and other women's issues. Screw y'all.) I found myself nodding my head at several points: A dinner guest disagrees with something Harriet says, but agrees with her husband when he says the same thing. A snippy critic mocks Harriet's appearance, like that has anything to do with her ability to create art. Rune, the artist who claims Harriet's work as his own, suggests she is mentally imbalanced. But The Blazing World reads like a slightly fleshed out thought experiment. I feel like plot and characters were passed over in favor of intellectual density.

Right from the "Editor's Introduction," The Blazing World is presented as an academic study on the life and times of Harriet Burden. It collects Harriet's journal entries, articles from art mags, and interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances from the art world. Even if you aren't familiar with academic reviews, this shouldn't be a real deterrent. What got to me was the namedropping of writers, philosophers, and artists on pretty much every page. Around the fifth time Søren Kierkegaard was mentioned, I went, "Uh oh." I am not versed in philosophy at all, and the footnotes just seemed to demonstrate how encyclopedic Harriet's - and by extension Hustvedt's - knowledge is. Some references I knew, some I did not, and some were definitely made up. Yeah, I suppose I could have googled all those names, but ain't nobody got time for that! What I Loved was smart without being overly cerebral.

Now I am going to stop writing this review and just start handing out copies of What I Loved. I can't say enough nice things about that book. Read that one instead. ( )
1 vote doryfish | Jul 31, 2019 |
I mostly enjoyed the sardonic central character railing against the sexism of the New York art world with humour and inventiveness, but I feel it would have worked better 100 pages shorter. There was a lot of repetition in the later sections, and what felt like extraneous commentaries popping in. All in all a solid 3/5. ( )
  SChant | Dec 26, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 25 (next | show all)
[This snippet is actually from the letter exchange, Terry Castle responds to a reader, condensing the viewpoint to a nutshell]:

[. . .] I would not describe The Blazing World as a first-rate novel. But I have to say I concur with the rest of his opening salvo: I did find myself hankering for things the novel failed to provide. Among them: true wit and intellectual depth (as opposed to the author’s relentless grad school preening), a minimally plausible story line and believable characters, some appreciable emotional resonance, and—how exactly to put it?—whatever
it is that makes a good novel all of a piece: delightful and risky and alive and worth caring about.

It’s no defense of Hustvedt to say that the problems I mention arise because I’m
too rigid to see that she is “ambivalent” about her tedious heroine and “knows better than to invest uncritically” in Harriet/Harry’s cartoonish anti-male views. Authorial ambivalence—about anything—has nothing to do with a book’s readability. And unlike Nabokov or Woolf, two of the great masters of literary multivocality, Hustvedt often just seems confused—unable (technically or emotionally) to manage all The Blazing World’s moving parts. By the end the whole lumbering, lurching juggernaut goes quite spectacularly off the rails.

Faced with what I suspect is a basic weakness in the conception of the work,
the novelist’s recourse is to confound matters further by heaping on gratuitous literary and philosophical references—the more recherché the better. Margaret Cavendish, Harriet’s revered “Blazing World Mother,” is one of a cast of thousands. Witness this passage in which Harriet’s daughter describes her peculiar parent:

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 his heteronyms. She was also deeply influenced by Kierkegaard.

It’s not because I don’t “get” the references ostentatiously piling up here—Baudrillard on Disneyland, Kierkegaard’s aliases, Pessoa and his heteronyms, or, indeed, the whole Mommy’s-kissing-a-statue saudade of it all—that I find Hustvedt’s name-dropping way of characterizing her heroine coy and insufferable. A Little Wikipedia Is a Dangerous Thing. The fact is, the book is pretentious and contrived to the point of readerly burnout. It is also (dare one say) often dead-in-the-water boring.
added by aileverte | editNew York Review of Books, Terry Castle (pay site) (Aug 14, 2014)
 
Siri Hustvedt is far too subtle and multifaceted a raconteur to present us with a simple tale of institutional misogyny. “The path to the truth,” in her heroine’s words, “is doubled, masked, ironic.” Harry Burden, as revealed through both her own testimony and that of others, is a self-sabotaging bundle of confusion. “Loud, lecturing, unpleasant,” prone to haranguing or snapping at people who might be useful to her, alternating between gawky silence and explosive rage, the 6-foot-2-inch-tall Harry looks “like a cartoon character, big bust and hips, . . . a galumphing jump-shot-sized broad with long, muscular arms and giant hands, an unhappy combination of Mae West and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men.’ ” In one of the novel’s most heartbreaking passages, Burden’s childhood friend, now a psychoanalyst, tells us that the literary character with whom the teenage Harry most identified was Frankenstein’s monster. “The terrible being Frankenstein makes is so lonely and misunderstood that his very existence is cursed. . . . His awful isolation is transformed into vengeance.”
 
Hustvedt has constructed the novel as a kind of artefact, out of numerous kinds of testimony: it purports to be the work of an academic researching Harriet Burden's claims of authorship years after her death, and is a collection of interviews, essays, articles and letters demonstrating the spectrum of responses to the would-be scandal. . . .
. . .
Hustvedt has a lot of very entertaining satirical fun in The Blazing World, but that particular note of tragedy, though she tries to sound it, remains lost.
added by aileverte | editThe Guardian, Rachel Cusk (Mar 14, 2014)
 

» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Siri Hustvedtprimary authorall editionscalculated
Meyers, EricNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodríguez, PatriciaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodriguez, PatriciaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"When Professor Hess stumbles across an unusual letter to the editor in an art journal, he is surprised to have known so little about the brilliant and mysterious artist it describes, the late Harriet Burden. Intrigued by her story, and by the explosive scandal surrounding her legacy, he begins to interview those who knew her, hoping to separate fact from fiction, only to find himself tumbling down a rabbit's hole of personal and psychological intrigue. Before she died, Harriet had claimed credit for three shows of contemporary art that had been the biggest sensations of the previous decade, sending the critics into a tailspin, since no one had even thought to connect the three shows before. The sculptures and paintings, while all of unquestionable quality, would seem to have nothing in common, and of the three young male artists who presented the work, one has fled the country, another isn't talking to anyone, and the third appears to have committed suicide--though not before denouncing Harriet to the world. So was Harriet Burden one of the greatest artists--male or female--in recent memory, having masterminded a puppet show of grand proportions, or was she a washed-up has-been looking for glory on others' coattails? As Hess seeks to solve the puzzle, he soon finds everyone has a different story to tell, and that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With a playfully intricate narrative structure, flawless prose, and fierce emotional insight, award-winning novelist Siri Hustvedt takes us into the heart of human nature, exposing our prejudices and preconceptions about ambition, feminism, and the complex psychology of love"--

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