Two superb reviews that detailed the plot, characters, and concerns of The Blazing World prompted me to read Siri Hustvedt for the first time. The NY Times Sunday Book Review cover story, (1) and The Rumpus (2)]. After I read the book I needed to vent. But I could hear Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody" loud and clear:


I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!


No one wants to be the bog. While we all have our warts, few want to be the frog, either, except for Harriet Burden and her author.

After I'd read the novel, I emailed a close friend about its internal conflicts: It was certainly provocative and page-turning ...but ultimately raised uneasy questions about motives, the characters' and the author's. I'm not convinced that what the main character was doing was Art…though that was at least half the paramount story concern... equal to the drumbeating about inequality of women artists versus men. It was set in the commodity-mad world of big $ galleries in NYC... as much about fame/celebrity as erudite theories of art and psychology and bit of cyber-science. Seemed to me the author was very concerned about being intellectually hip and impressive... about projecting the complex[iti]es of her own persona through Harriet Burden's personae… which neither compelled nor suspended my disbelief. I felt like I was watching the fast hands of a three card monte dealer or a magician pulling too many rabbits out of her inverted top hat. Let loose too many hares at once and who knows where to look? So many diversions make them the point: the medium is the message. Deceit, rather than beauty or truth, is all we get to know.

Some additional context: in the early spring at the same time that I was reading The Blazing World, I was also reading Cynthia Griffin Wolff's 1977 biography of Edith Wharton, A Feast of Words. This happy accident created an ongoing dialog for me between the real life artist, Wharton, and Siri Hustvedt's imagined one. Their similarities and differences were vivid: Wharton, like Burden, suffered from the artistic establishment's misogynism, and they both had early entrée into its privileged aeyries. Recognized, Wharton made a good living from her books; ignored, Harriet Burden lives as a widow off the fortune of her art dealer husband.

When I compared Hustvedt with Wharton, the troubling contrast of their process/purpose had little to do with the distance of a century. Certainly, Wharton was concerned with sales, but they were at least secondary to her artistic motives and methods. The masks she created were her characters and plots. More certainly, my unease re The Blazing World was not about Hustvedt vs.Wharton. I identified it as twofold: First, scattered POV and second, the author's own conflict about art vs. money. Re the first: Like her character Harriet Burden, as the Times review said, Hustvedt created a "claustrophobic labyrinth." Harriet Burden's irascibility attracted rather than repelled me, but she strained credulity from the start; she was 6'2", a "big, ungainly frizz-head," who was her parents' "cause célèbre, their oversized hairy burden." That's just one of the many views of the incensed main character who moves through the novel as if it were a byzantine cathedral clouded with incense.

Re the second: By the time of her sexagenarian rebellion against the sexist art establishment of pricey galleries and museum exhibits, Harriet's rages and ruses rang hollow because she was biting the hand (and her own tail in the bendy process) that she desperately wanted to pet her. The characters who surrounded and mirrored Harriet Burden were Vanity Fair satires of a big money art world. But Burden wanted recognition from the very establishment she despised.

True of the novel's author as well? Hustvedt's legerdemain - which is impressive - looks like come-and-get-me nose-thumbing at the world of publishing where formulas and fury not only work but also conjure prizes and bigger money. Imagine the pitch-logline for The Blazing World: 'The woman in New York's art world attic has every reason to be mad!'

Hear how the zeitgeist echoes the gender imbalance that galvanized Harriet Burden in The Blazing World: May 9th's Slate online punned that it happens as much in the underworld: The New York Times Obituary Page Has a Grave Gender Imbalance. (3) Possibly in reaction, dated the same day, the Times (two days before Mother's Day) posted a full color obit for artist Maria Lassnig, headlining "Devoted to Self-Portraiture," as god knows, Harriet Burden was. (4)

More to the point of my unease with Hustvedt's novel was A.O. Scott's Cross Cuts essay that appeared in hard copy on Mother's Day Sunday in the same time frame: "There are few modern relationships as fraught as the one between art and money. Are they mortal enemies, secret lovers or perfect soul mates? Is the bond between them a source of pride or shame, a marriage of convenience or something tawdrier? If money is not the ultimate measure of creative labors, then it's tough to imagine what else is." (5)

Hustvedt's Harriet Burden echoed the dubious maxim. Imagine Emily Dickinson agreeing with it? Scott undercut himself when he quoted Elizabeth Hardwick writing "more than 50 years ago. 'The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference - with words.' …And her words in this case still stand as a concise, slightly scolding credo for the creative class. Nobody cares how you pay your rent. Your job is to show us something we didn't know we needed to see."

Regarding Siri Hustvedt's convoluted irony of art world sexism, how apt to give Gertrude the last word, admonishing Polonius: "More matter with less art."

Footnotes

(1) Berstadt, Fernanda. Outsider Art 'The Blazing World' by Siri Hustvedt. The New York Times, 28 March 2014. Web. 9 May 2014.

(2) Pfeiffer, Ben. 'The Blazing World' by Siri Hustvedt. The Rumpus. 28 April 2014. Web. 9 May 2014.

(3) Hess, Amanda. The New York Times Obituary Page Has a Grave Gender Imbalance. Slate. 9 May 2014. Web. 10 May 2014.

(4) Kennedy, Randy. Maria Lassnig, Painter of Self From the Inside Out, Dies at 94 The New York Times 9 MAY 2014. Web. 10 May 2014.

(5) Scott, A. O. The Paradox of Art as Work. The New York Times. 9 May 2014. Web. 10 May 2014.