Harriet was convinced that her work was overlooked primarily because she was female and after Felix’s death embarked on a project titled Maskings: “…declaring that it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”
Maskings involved Harriet engaging three males to serve as “fronts” for exhibitions of her work (I’d describe them as installations which grow ever more complex): The History of Western Art (1998) by Anton Tish, The Suffocation Rooms (2002) by Phineas Q. Eldridge and Beneath (2003), by an artist known only as Rune. In one sense, she proved her point: all three exhibitions were well received. In another, she failed dramatically — Rune insists that he was the creative force for Beneath, acknowledged as the most complex of the three. While she is generally given full credit for the first two, critical debate continues around who really created Beneath.
The reader learns all this (and much more) in the opening pages of The Blazing World, which come in the form of an Editor’s Introduction from I.V. Hess, an academic who has pursued Harriet’s story and produced this book. Harriet is dead at this point, but she has left behind 24 journals devoted to subjects ranging from autobiographical items to notes on reading to “quantum theory and its possible use for a theoretical model of the brain” to thoughts on the study of monsters.
Perhaps the most relevant of the journals cited in the Introduction are the two devoted to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), who served as Harriet’s alterego (the novel’s title comes from one of Cavendish’s works) and who also felt “brutally constricted by her sex”:
Snubbed by many with whom she would have liked to engage in dialogue, Cavendish created a world of interlocutors in her writing. As with Cavendish, I [Hess] believe that Burton cannot be understood unless the dialogical quality of her thought and art is taken into consideration. All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue. She continually shifts from the first person into the second and then to the third. Some passages are written as arguments between two versions of herself. One voice makes a statement. Another disputes it. Her notebooks became the ground where her conflicted anger and divided intellect could do battle on the page.
Burden complains bitterly about sexism in the culture, the art world in particular, but she also laments her “intellectual loneliness”. She broods on her isolation and lashes out at her many perceived enemies. At the same time, her writing (like Cavendish’s) is colored by extravagance and grandiosity: “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace,” she writes in an entry that directly discusses her spiritual kinship to Cavendish. Like Cavendish, Burden’s desire for recognition in her lifetime was ultimately transmuted into a hope that her work would finally be noticed, if not while she was alive, then after her death.
Hess does not just discuss the notebooks in the Introduction, she (I’m assuming Hess is female — we aren’t told) outlines her own investigative process. She’s discovered that Harriet/Harry wrote some critical reviews of her own work under the pseudonym Richard Brickman (and perhaps some others). She has had full access to conversations and interviews with Harriet’s two children, Maisie and Ethan, and their work (both are involved in the art world as well). She has researched and interviewed the three frontmen/collaborators, Harriet’s childhood best friend, her post-Felix lover and a host of others.
The most dominating characteristic of The Blazing World is its structure, so let’s pause to outline that here. After that introduction, the novel proceeds in “chapters” that range from excerpts from the notebooks to interviews with those who knew Harriet to essays from Maisie and Ethan to relevant articles culled from academic journals. While the arrangement is roughly chronological, the voice, style and specific subject matter all change from chapter to chapter. My mental image while reading The Blazing World is that it is a literary version of doing a massive jigsaw puzzle: the Editor’s Introduction is the helpful full picture on the box but after that we are left to figure out where the detailed pieces themselves fit in that picture. And in this particular puzzle, the “pieces” come in a welter of different sizes, shapes and artistic styles which makes the “solving” even more difficult than usual.
There is another characteristic which for readers is every bit as important. As the author’s note at the end of the novel reveals (and fans of Hustvedt probably already know), the novelist herself is a multi-disciplinary creature. This is her fifth novel, but she also lectures on artists and theories of art. She has published a non-fiction work, The Shaking Woman or A History of Nerves, “an interdisciplinary investigation of the mind-body problem”. And she has lectured at international conferences “on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology”. All of those interests show up in The Blazing Woman — this is one of those novels that features some lengthy footnotes and numerous citations of other books ranging from poetry collections to philosophy.
Given that the shifts in voice, person, text and scholarly (or narrative) point of view occur every 15 pages or so, all this makes The Blazing World a very difficult book to read. By the halfway point, I found myself skimming almost as many sections as ones that I was reading closely — neuropsychoanalysis, obscure theories of art and digressions into centuries-old philosophical disputes are pretty much ventures into opacity for this reader. There were so many threads being presented and I was finding only a few of them worth the attention. Indeed, were it not for the novel’s presence on the Booker longlist (and it was my first read from that list), there was a powerful inclination to abandon the novel — an inclination that I suspect many readers will indulge.
I kept on, however, and in the final analysis I am glad that I did. At about the two-thirds point, I found that the threads that were important to me kept popping up more and more often. And, despite the odd structure of The Blazing World, I found it was developing an entirely worthwhile structure of its own.
Harriet (or Harry or Richard or whomever) — artist, journal-keeper, reader, polemicist, philanthropist, spouse and mother — is a creature involved in a lifelong struggle to find her identity. Only is this case, it is not a search for “An Identity” but rather how to meld together the numerous fully-formed identities that are part of her character (in that sense she is a reflection of Hustvedt) so that they form a single individual. As her death approaches, that struggle/challenge has not been answered and acquires an increasing urgency.
Given all the parts that I skimmed, that suggests that I would find much more if I went back and gave The Blazing World a second read — and I am sure that I would. Despite my overall positive assessment, I won’t be doing that: my own struggles and challenges on the first read were enough for me. I am sure that budding academics in the future will be spending many months, even years, paying attention to the many threads that are twined together in this novel and producing lengthy theses that purport to represent the whole cloth.
How did this novel come to the Booker longlist (one of four that represent the first American contingent under the new Prize rules)? I am guessing that that “academic” reference I just made might be the answer. This year’s jury features a number of academics whose life work consists of the kind of investigation that I.V. Hess has undertaken with Harriet Burden — and I suspect Hustvedt’s portrayal of that process made the novel a better read for them than it was for me. I won’t be pressing The Blazing World onto a lot of friends as a “must read” but if interdisciplinary academic searching is something that strikes your fancy, you might want to give it a try. And I will admit that the picture of Harriet “Harry” Burden that finally came together for me is one that will remain in memory.