Tag Archives: Art

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

“For years, I worked so hard to hold my tongue, I nearly swallowed it. For years, I had slid around the dining room table in various costumes of the bright, eccentric variety, opposite the Klee, directing traffic with deft signals and smiling, always smiling.”

The Blazing World, and it’s no coincidence that the title is the same as a largely forgotten work from 17 th century female author Margaret Cavendish, is a complex look at Perception, Identity, and Gender politics in the art world. In this challenging intelligent novel, author Siri Hustvedt presents a fragmented, troubled portrait of a now deceased woman, artist Harriet Burden. Harriet, or Harry, as she was known, was at one time a young artist in New York with a few shows to her credit in the 70s and 80s. Then she met and married the phenomenally wealthy art dealer, Felix Lord, and for years lived in the background as his wife, a mother to two children and as a “chic” hostess to various, critics, dealers, and artists involved in the art scene. In her fifties and widowed Harriet is a deeply unhappy woman, a rejected daughter, a forgotten artist and once the wife of a prominent wealthy man. But these were all unsatisfactory roles for Harriet who is left, after the death of Felix, with a lingering feeling that life has passed her by and that the overwhelming bias of the art world ignored her talents.

The blazing worldHarriet devises a master plan, Maskings–an “experiment that took her five years to complete,” that was “meant to not only expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover complex workings of human perception.” Maskings was a series of three arts shows, The History of Western Art, The Suffocation Rooms and Beneath in which she masked her female identity by exhibiting her art under the names of male artists who colluded with her ‘experiment.’ According to Harriet, this project Maskings, would not only reveal the bias and hypocrisy of the art world but also yield a sort of gender and personal triumph.

The Blazing World appears to be a non-fiction book in which Harriet’s story unfolds through multiple narratives pieced together through Harriet’s labyrinth layers of deceit by an editor, a professor, who takes extracts from Harriet’s many cryptic journals as well as interviews with various people including her two children, filmmaker Maisie and writer Ethan, the artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, a friend, art critics, one of those “New Age fruitcakes,” and a final lover. A complex fragmented portrait of Harriet emerges, and as we see though her journals, she’s an angry woman intent on revenge. But revenge against whom? Against what?

After a meltdown, Harriet sought therapy which according to her daughter “unleashed a Harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. … protean artist selves that needed bodies.” Seeking to renter the art world using a succession of male names, Harriet selected three male artists as three successive beards or “masks,” who “acted as fronts for her own creative work.” While Harriet created the art for display and sale under the names of the three male artists, Harriet argued that an intriguing transaction occurred in each masking. She “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.”

The three male artists Harriet chooses are all very different types; the first man, young, naïve Anton Tish, is a blank slate whose interactions with Harriet destroy his already fragile persona. The second artist (and one of my favorite voices) whose professional name is Phineas Q Eldridge, a black gay man who defends Harriet’s arguments of sex bias and who has already struggled with identity, is perhaps the most savvy and understanding of the voices when it comes to his relationship with Harriet. The third artist is Rune, a cultural icon, a virile blond, blue-eyed hunk of an artist who knew what it meant to be a celebrity. Rune’s show The Banality of Glamour which ensured his place as a rockstar in the art world included film footage of “facial morphing technology,” and “plastic surgery patients under the knife.” Rune offers various versions of his own elusive life, constructing fable upon fable, but according to one source, that’s just Rune:

Those stories he told to journalists were part of his shtick, a kind of tongue-in-cheek self-promotion, making a mystery of himself.

It’s with Rune that things really begin to go wrong. Rune’s dealer cannot answer whether Rune’s show Beneath was out of context for Rune and he admits that he “could tell you what was in or out of character for Rune,” a man who continually re-invented himself, using “maskings” of his own and whose previous great triumph of Art was vinyl crosses–a yellow cross, sold for 3 million dollars because “he had only made one.”

Of course, there’s a paradox to Harriet’s theory. If the art world is indeed hypocritical and disinterested in the work of an overweight, unattractive middle-aged woman, yet ready to worship the work of three male artists–no matter how moronic (Tish) or slick (Rune) they are, why would those who hold the reins of power–the critics and the dealers–care or even believe her when she reveals how she duped them all? Will they believe she was the “virago mastermind” behind the three art shows or will they see her as just another bitter, deranged, disappointed and talentless woman? Through the voices of the critics, in which fame and perception are locked together, we see absolute, blind adulation directed to the famous artists whose work fetches millions. According to one critic, Harriet’s early work was not ignored when she first appeared on the art scene; she simply opted out to be a wife and mother, yet another critic who profoundly disliked Harriet, insists that she  was “so obscure she wasn’t even a has-been.”

One of the interesting aspects of the book is its structure. It’s written as though ‘edited’ by a professor of aesthetics who is trying to reach the ‘true’ story about Harriet Burden, now dead, so we get multiple perspectives about Harriet and her actions. I was intrigued by the author’s approach. How much easier to have written a straight fiction book–let’s say, for example, a book that was written chronologically starting with Harriet married to wealthy art dealer Felix Lord and watching any hopes of her career crumble away as she recedes into the roles of betrayed wife and ignored hostess to various luminaries in the art world.  Instead this fictional work is presented as a faux non-fiction book. This construct is more complex and also takes a much more scholarly tone with many footnotes referencing the very real people mentioned throughout. While this approach doesn’t make an easier read (the footnotes can be distracting at times–I launched off on a whole tangent concerning James Tiptree Jr. at one point), Siri Hustvedt certainly creates a much more intriguing, in-depth and complex read by her bold approach to the topic. While this is the story of Harriet, her rage at a “phallocentric world,” and her attempt to unmask the hypocrisy of the art scene, this story is just one layer on the deeper questions: who decides what is great Art? Why is something Art while something else is trash? How much are critics and then by the trickle-down effect the audience swayed by image and celebrity? These questions are addressed in the multiple narratives within the novel–in particular through the voice of Case, an acidic art critic, one of the influential gatekeepers of the art scene, a man who decides what is great art and what is tired and boring. Throughout the book, the image of Harriet remains with some disturbing questions–how greatly was she tainted and damaged by her early perceptions of herself? How much was self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or simple life choices?

Thanks to both Caroline and Emma for pointing me to this author.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hustvedt Siri

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

The rapid descent to alpha male dominance was complete.”

The Vices by American author Lawrence Douglas is both an intense character study and an exploration of the nature of identity and authenticity. The novel begins with the knowledge that the main character, 41-year-old philosophy professor, Oliver Vice, has disappeared while a passenger in a Cunard ship sailing from London to New York. Evidence strongly suggests that Oliver threw himself overboard, but with no suicide note left by a man who was an eternal thinker and chronicler, the story’s unnamed narrator is left with the puzzling question: why did Oliver commit suicide? 

And this is how the book begins:

On July 18, 200-, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24, with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.

This seemingly simple passage establishes several things: Oliver’s disappearance, the strange nature of the relationship between Oliver and the unnamed narrator, and the idea that while facts and figures may exist around the perimeters of life, numbers and facts don’t offer explanations.

With the knowledge of Oliver’s disappearance, the unnamed narrator begins to introduce shades of Oliver’s complex personality. A symbolic funeral is held for Oliver (the body was never found) which is attended by Oliver’s five “widows” who are “drawn from various spots on the globe” to mourn for the man they all loved:

The ‘widows’ cried openly, but not in competition. I doubt they knew fully of each other. Like members of a terrorist cell, each lover had knowledge limited to one degree of separation, a blinkered picture of Oliver’s romantic entanglements.

From that point, the narrator goes back to his first meeting with Oliver which took place about 12 years earlier when they met in a book shop. Oliver, an independently wealthy philosophy professor considered “aloof” and “arrogant” by colleagues, was a “hot commodity” in the academic world. He was extensively published and was hired with immediate tenure at Harkness College where he enjoyed celebrity status. The narrator, with just one novel under his belt, is also at Harkness on a temporary position as the writer-in-residence . While the two men are about the same age, they are a study in contrasts. Oliver comes from old money;  he’s suave, popular and polished, and while we don’t know much about the narrator’s background, he’s under considerable financial constraints (enough to worry about book purchases). As the two men become unlikely friends, the narrator is introduced to Oliver’s glamorous and eccentric family. Gradually the narrator begins to resemble Oliver. This is due in part to the fact that the narrator copies Oliver’s style of dress and even wears his cologne. But curiously, the narrator is mistaken for Oliver–it’s never the other way round. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. We have a central character who’s no longer there, and then there’s the ghost of a narrator, a hollow cipher who attaches himself as an identity parasite rather like Nick in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

The narrator charts his relationship with Oliver Vice, and although the narrator marries, has a career and children, his focus is squarely and obsessively on Oliver, so while there’s a top-layer story here–Oliver’s many love affairs, his bizarre extra-curricular activities, his strained relationships with his overbearing Hungarian mother, Francizka Nagy and his “gargantuan fraternal twin” brother Bartholomew, and the over-growing mystery concerning Oliver Vice’s background, there’s also an unexplored undercurrent. Why is the narrator so fascinated by Oliver? Why does the interest in Oliver swamps every other aspect of the narrator’s life?

Identity is a major theme in the novel, and the narrator seems to be a fairly colourless, nebulous personality  in contrast to the larger-than-life Vice family. The narrator is exposed to Oliver’s insane home life in which the past is rolled out at every opportunity by Oliver’s mother–a woman whose terrible stories about suffering and betrayal don’t add up. Oliver appears to be a well-defined person, a vegetarian and avid art collector with definite political opinions that he is willing to risk his career for, but in reality Oliver is a morass of contrasts and contradictions who devotes a lot of energy to projecting the image that he’s created for himself. On one hand, in his professional life he is “a creature of Kantian firmness, intolerant of excuses or embellishments or missed deadlines,” and yet in his private life, he’s incapable of making the simplest decision. This dichotomy of personality is held together by a very fine and fragile web of projected persona which is eventually challenged by the events that take place. Oliver’s major book, Paradoxes of Self, is the physical detritus of his secret struggle with self-identity. At the time of his death, Oliver, plagued by writer’s block was working on another book, The Fakea book that promised to wed his philosophical and art historical interests.” His colleagues at Harkness considered Oliver a “wunderkind who, after an early splash, had drifted into premature irrelevance.”

If Oliver has a hero, then that person is Wittgenstein (a telling selection). Oliver’s book  Paradoxes of Self  is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and what’s more Oliver quotes Wittgenstein frequently. But the Oliver Vice-Wittgenstein connection goes beyond philosophy. According to Oliver’s troubled lover, Sophia, Oliver is “like his hero, Wittgenstein. Brilliant but incapable of some pretty basic stuff.”  Here’s Oliver explaining why he’s been fired by his therapist:

He became so fed up with my endless frantic rehashing of the same problems, so dis spirited by my compulsive tendency to seek advice which I then ignore or declare myself incapable of implementing, so perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end, and so alarmed by my inability or refusal to restrain my thoughts, which overheat and go nowhere, like bats flapping around a closed attic, that he began last week’s session with the simple declaration, ‘I don’t think I’m helping you. I don’t think I’m capable of helping you.’ He apologized and we shook hands; I even tried to cheer him up–he did as good a job as anybody could have…

My only complaint about the novel is that I guessed one key element, but then again, perhaps I was supposed to. This put me in the position of being one step ahead of the narrator who’s blinded, after all, by his proximity to the Vice family.

The Vices is not a novel of action or dialogue. Instead this is an intriguing and complex study of one troubled man by another. This multi-layered novel comes highly recommended for fans of Michael Frayn.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.

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Filed under Douglas Lawrence, Fiction