It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt.
Artist Harriet Burden has long suspected that her work has been discounted as serious because of her gender. So she decides to test out her theory by having three different men act as her work’s proxies. She chooses the men at different stages of their careers and has them pass off her work as their own, to great critical acclaim. But her last cover, Rune, a successful artist in his own right turns on her, refusing to allow her to claim back her work. Their intense struggle ends only when Rune dies under mysterious circumstances.
I was so ready to like this book. An angry women intent on proving that her industry doesn’t take her seriously because of her gender, a struggle that ends in the bizarre death of her male foil? Sign me up!
Unfortunately, for me, the execution of it left something to be desired. I’m not ever really a huge fan of diary style books. I don’t like the disjointed feeling of articles and research and journal entries making up the narrative of a book and that was no different in the case of The Blazing World. I also found it odd that a book about a woman asserting her place in her creative world was told by other people – maybe that was the point and my dense ass missed it. But it annoyed me. Especially when I was reading articles or interviews by men who were critical of Harriet and her work, calling her a liar and a hanger on and only known because she was the wife of her late husband, the critic Felix Lord (great name). Again, maybe that was the point but it grated on me.
Even when there were sections of the book that I was enjoying, they were always short lived. I never felt like I got a good sense of Harriet, that the chaos of her inner life made it impossible to get to know her. I’m not sure that anyone in her life ever actually got to know her; Phineas Q.Eldridge, her second cover, probably got the closest of anyone.
I was also promised a bizarre death, one that was aswirl with rumour and intrigue and in the end, it was a pretty run of the mill suicide?
I think I got so caught up in the style of the book that I wasn’t able to appreciate the content. Which is a shame because there might have been something to it. For me though, The Blazing World didn’t spark any great feeling in this reader, except relief when I finished it.
What does the book say about being a wife?
It’s taken me a while to get buy head wrapped around the question of being a wife within the scope of The Blazing World. There is the obvious parts that have to do with Harriet married to Felix and how her career took a backseat to his. That while he was a successful art dealer, responsible for kickstarting numerous art careers, she was a wife and mother, known only as “Felix’s wife.”
Most of the time I was struck by Harriet’s anger, not at being a wife, but at being dismissed because of her gender. Right after Felix’s death, she is annoyed at being known just as her husband’s wife, which is what starts her thinking about her new project. But that project becomes less about having been a wife and more about the disappointments of her work not being critically recognized because they were just the dabblings of a woman. She rages at the men in her life not because she felt trapped in her marriage but because she’s been discounted her entire life, starting with a father who wished she was a boy. She spends her entire life consumed by anger and in the end, it felt like all that rage killed her. It was her reproductive organs, the ones that defined her sex, that turned deadly.
But each of Harriet’s ‘collaborations’ with the male artists she picks for her project can be seen as a kind of creative marriage. Within each relationship Harriet must assert her role, must fight to find the light working in the shadows of her ‘husband.’ Ultimately, with her final ‘husband’, Harriet fails and she withers in the darkness of this failure.
The Blazing World seems to say that if women want success in their careers, they can’t be trapped in marriage, that the demands of a husband, the destructive forces of the needs of children, will destroy any plans for career success. In order for a woman to fulfill her career ambitions, she needs to stand on her own, not weighed down by others. In attempting to show the world that her work hasn’t been seen because she’s been the wrong sex, Harriet discovers that she’s entered into another kind of marriage that has snuffed out the glowing embers of what could have been a great career on her own terms.