In between some unplanned travel, adding an additional graduate school class to my workload, and books now taking me longer to read as a result, I realized I haven’t posted to my blog in a while. Luckily it’s freezing outside and I’m ok being holed up at class two nights a week and prepping for class the other two weeknights (and half of my weekends…aye). I finished (but didn’t write about) Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, which I think I picked off a New York Magazine list of books to read. It was a bestseller in Iceland recently published here, and for me, best described as a quirky, quick read about a woman who ends up on a road trip after her marriage and affair ends on the same day, and must bring her best friend’s 4 year old son while she is in the hospital. Pretty solid escapism, but it didn’t leave me doing much deeper thinking.
Last week, though, I finished The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, an author who has been on my to-read list for years and this book provided copious opportunities for depth. The novel is set up as multiple-perspective account of an artist name Harriet Burden (a fitting name), who was married to a wealthy art dealer, but whose own work was never fully understood or received well. In an effort to explore sexism and and sexist perspective in the art world, Burden decides to plan a final installation that will be shown in three parts, each under the name of a male artist.
Hustvedt sets up the novel with the voice of an editor as though it were a posthumous collection of texts intended to make sense out of her final work and the explosive reactions after the final part is revealed: Burden’s journals, interviews, memories from family, friends, and acquaintances. Harriet Burden was deeply theoretical and well read, so the book definitely takes on the feel of an “ideas book”–Hustvedt has the reader considering all kinds of art history, literature, feminist theory, and art theory, and asks us to consider how we see the world and what influences our interpretations of the life happening around us?
Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener, however learned and refined? (104).
She wanted everyone to understand how complicated perception is, that there is no objective way of seeing anything, (259).
I think it is more readable than one might assume, though, because of the creative structure of the multiple voices we hear as readers. It was fascinating to consider all of the different perspectives on who Harriet Burden was, and in turn to think about how we perceive ourselves and others–and to ask how possible it is to truly understand someone else. And that is the theme that stood out the most to me in the end: in her journals, the thread I kept coming back to was that Burden longed to be understood, and as she interpreted the events of her own life, this is what she had been thirsting for her entire life, and though we aren’t all artists with desires of fame, I think it may be true for us all. To be known. Understood. Wanted. Loved.
I want to blaze and rumble and roar. I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother. But so do we all, (209).
And something broke for an instant, as if he [her father] had seen me, his child, seen and loved, (143).
I felt giddy with hope, for the end of exile in my own head, for someone who will understand me, someone who will see what I know and talk back to me about it. Is this so ridiculous? Isn’t it possible? … I want you to see me. Nobody seems to know what I am talking about, (151).
Something Burden said early on in the novel stuck with me: They are all trying to make sense of their stories, (113). I try to teach my 8th graders that we are always interpreting (and therefore to make the jump to interpret literature or art isn’t actually much of a leap). Now, Burden (and Hustvedt) was interested in the mess of life and what happens between the binaries many people set up for themselves (good/bad, light/dark, etc.), so I don’t think it would serve her well to try to make a neat summation of what this means, but I think that to remember this quote as we walk around could perhaps make us rest a bit more easily in the way we see others and live a bit more interestingly as we pursue a bigger story.