Emma Gleeson: Behind the Great Work

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt’s sixth novel, goes for the jugular from its opening paragraph.

A fictional editor’s note reads:

All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and pair of balls.

What follows is the story of a female artist trying to find a place for herself in the biased art world interwoven with academic studies of gender discrimination, multiple stories of forgotten female artists and scientific theories of perception. The novel is a dense and dazzling call to arms against the persistent barriers which are placed on female artists and intellectuals. To paraphrase Hustvedt, it truly blazes.

The novel chronicles a project undertaken by middle-aged artist Harriet “Harry” Burden to seek revenge on the prejudiced New York art scenesters who have ignored her work. She enlists three fully compliant male artists under whose names she plans to exhibit three different pieces of work, only to reveal her identity after the final show and laugh in the face of the establishment.

Burden records her lifelong struggle with her gender in detailed personal notebooks, excerpts from which make up large portions of the novel. The story of a woman disguising herself as a man is a tale as old as time but Hustvedt has concocted a chorus of voices to give alternative perspectives on Burden’s story, the result of which is a thrilling confusion of opinion. We hear personal testimony from the artists’s children, lover, childhood friend, male foils and several loosely parodied high-brow art publications. Each of Hustvedt’s flawed and complex voices highlights one of the author’s favourite themes, that human perception is deeply subjective and that we can never fully understand each other.

To quote another misunderstood woman, Marilyn Monroe, “only parts of us will ever touch only parts of others.”

Hustvedt’s obsession with theories of perception forms the bedrock of all her novels. Each book is a kaleidoscopic journey through her vast range of references, from obscure French cinema to abstruse German philosophers that even the most pretentious undergraduate would not pretend to have read. Hustvedt is a true intellectual polymath. When asked in a recent interview how she researched The Blazing World, she cooly answers, “It was just what was in my mind at the time.” She believes it is still more difficult for a woman than a man to be an artist and an intellectual, admitting that she feels much more acceptable now that she is in her sixties and that “there remains a profound cultural bias about young and to be honest fertile women. The idea of the body is still so deeply associated with women and the intellect remains associated with masculinity.”

Hustvedt is acutely aware of the injustice of this deep association. The cruelty of beauty culture causes persistent suffering for Harry. She is very tall and large, with huge breasts and wild fuzzy hair. One particularly cruel art critic describes her as “an unhappy  combination of Mae West and Lennie in Of Mice and Men.” She is painfully aware of how her looks affect her life, lamenting to her daughter  “Maisie, you’re lucky you didn’t get my breasts. Big breasts on a little woman are fetching; big breasts on a big woman are scary – to men that is.” Harry, like Hustvedt, is voraciously intellectual, devouring countless scientific and artistic journals as well as novels, philosophy and art theory. She believes that the combination of her appearance and her opinions make her a pariah of the patriarchal art world. There is one particularly horrible passage where the slimy and misogynistic art critic Oswald Case describes Harry entering the apartment of one of her male masks and meeting his young, beautiful assistant. Case scoffs that “there, in harsh contrast to the lithe and lovely Fanny, stood the enormous Harriet, a shrill presence even before she had opened her mouth.”

Harry’s life-long friend Rachel Briefman admits “Harry sometimes wished she was a boy, and I can say that had she been one, her route would have been easier.” She elaborates that  “awkward brilliance in a boy is more easily categorised, and it conveys no sexual threat.” Sex and women, it seems, are inextricable. Hustvedt’s use of the word “fertile” in her admonishment of the current youthful bias can be supported with contemporary examples. In recent years we have seen the bizarre case of JT LeRoy, the literary persona created by American writer Laura Albert. One journalist commented that “channelling JT’s persona made Albert a better writer…it also made her a hotter literary property than a 30-year old mother, as she then was, would have made.” Women, it seems, can never escape their bodies.

Apart from Harry’s fictional struggles, Hustvedt uses her novel to highlight the real struggles women face in trying to get their voices heard. One character paints a grim but accurate picture of the contemporary art scene: 

Although the number of female artists has exploded, it is no secret that New York galleries show women far less often than they show men. The figures hover around twenty percent of all one-person shows in the city, despite the fact that almost half of those same galleries are run by women…..with almost no exceptions, art by men is far more expensive than art by women. Dollars tell the story.

Hustvedt later cites the Goldberg Study from 1968, revisited in 1983 and the late 1990s with similar results; 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 result was found when they were presented with visual art. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this prejudice myself. I have admired Hustvedt for years but have been fascinated and frustrated by the fact that although perception is central to her work she has allowed her earlier books to be adorned with extremely gendered cover images and titles. I was given her third novel, The Summer Without Men, as a gift some years ago and dismissed it immediately as chick-lit, only picking it up when I wanted to read something very light. The cover shows a beautiful young woman reading a book in a leafy forest. Nothing about this image would indicate the complex account of female experience which this novel offers. Hustvedt’s other books have been similarly pigeonholed by feminine covers and titles. The cover for The Blazing World is relievingly neutral. Hustvedt has joked that female intellectuals might gain acceptance by the time they reach middle age because “as women get older, I dunno, maybe we start to look more like men.” The same could be said of her books.

What I find most consoling about reading Hustvedt is her acknowledgement of the chaos of human interaction and the machinations of the mind without being morose or nihilistic. She weaves complex theories and ideas into her prose without alienating her readers – a rare gift – and employs unexpected black humour to great effect. The Blazing World should be avoided by readers who are put off by references they do not understand but it is a novel full of life, chaos and questions and should be required reading for anyone with an enquiring mind and a frustration about gender bias.

Emma Gleeson works in theatre in Dublin. She has an MA in The History and Culture of Fashion from the London College of Fashion, where her research focus was sustainability.

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One thought on “Emma Gleeson: Behind the Great Work

  1. I read Hustvedt’s ‘The Sorrows of an American’ and got a lot from it but I hesitated over reading both ‘The Summer without Men’ and ‘The Blazing World’ because they looked like light hearted chick-lit!! Totally judging books by their covers – but ‘The Summer without Men’ just comes off as being so shallow!! like the humorous capers of a divorcee!! Thanks for this review as its made me think again and I now look forward to digging into these books. Em

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