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Fierce Women: Siri Hustvedt’s ‘The Blazing World’ and Rose Tremain’s ‘The Cupboard’

Blazing-World       books

As I was reading The Blazing World I started to think about The Cupboard. Weird how this reading malarkey works. So here I am again, trying to work out the mysteries of eyeing words on paper. And it’s not as if The Blazing World hasn’t given me enough to think about .

 

Siri Hustvedt is a new discovery for me. I loved The Summer Without Men and immediately I’d finished, bought The Blazing World. I almost whooped with pleasure when I opened the fly leaf. It’s exactly the sort of novel I love. Firstly, it’s about an artist, Harry (Harriet Burden). Secondly, it’s about an ageing female artist – even better. Thirdly, it has an interesting, almost bizarre, structure. Yes! Yes! Yes!

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Hustvedt describes the structure as ‘polyphonic’ – a musical analogy which I love. Many voices are heard. We hear Harry’s voice through her notebooks. I happen to adore artists’ notebooks. They are wonderful, intimate objects. Our loft has dozens, and I could spend hours browsing through them. Anyway, Harry is an extraordinary woman – fierce and fragile, intelligent and frighteningly well-read. Too frightening perhaps. She is 6’ 2”, an angry, undiplomatic, gawky 60-year-old. We’re told that as a teenager she identified with Frankenstein’s monster and that she has spent her life trying to get the approval of men.

Harry believes that her career has been unsuccessful because of her gender and creates an experiment in which she hopes to fool the critics and art establishment. She conceals her identity behind three male fronts in three solo exhibitions. One of them, Rune, is manipulative, ruthless and determined to take his (or her) art to its very limit. I won’t tell more than that. It’s complex and clever, as is Harry herself. But even when the details of Harry’s experiment come out, reviewers and gallery owners refuse to admit that they’ve been tricked. One response is:

A 50-ish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodidgy, can she?

Ouch! And as a result, the brilliant Harry is labeled hysterical.

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The story is structured as a series of texts compiled by a scholar after Harry’s death. These include extracts from her notebooks, reviews, articles, accounts by her children, lover and best friend, philosophical, psychiatric and neurobiological reflections and theorizing – and extensive footnotes. It’s difficult in places, at times I floundered in Hustvedt’s intellectual quagmire and it sounds dull, but it absolutely isn’t. Here you find mystery, emotion and passion. Curiously, because I was reading ‘texts’, I approached the book as if were reading non-fiction. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but it kicked in almost immediately I started. It was fun and had the odd effect of making the story more real in the same way that, when reading a newspaper article or memoir, you know you are dealing with reality rather than fiction. It was as if Harry’s and all the other voices were those of actual people – a sort of memoir I suppose. Come to think of it, I couldn’t tell you whether all of Harry’s philosophical/neurobiological/psychiatric/artistic arguments were based on fact or entirely made up. For all I know some of those theories could be a Hustvedtian literary trick. This could be annoying but since I have, reluctantly, come to terms with the fact that I don’t know everything, I went along with it, and in a way, my ignorance began not to matter. Even Harry’s art installations are described in such detail, it is as if they too exist. How peculiar! In this way, I became very close to the characters and the story. If you love research then you’ll definitely enjoy this novel because it twists research into a story that you seem to discover for yourself, and you forget that it’s mostly invented.

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So why did I think of The Cupboard? For a long time The Cupboard was up there amongst my top ten favourite novels. It’s a while since I read it – I have different top ten now, but even so, I kept remembering bits of it while I was reading The Blazing World.

Rose Tremain’s novel was published in 1981 and tells the story of 87-year-old Erica Marsh, a novelist who is close to death and is recounting her life story to a young American writer, Ralph. In The Cupboard we are presented with extracts from Erica’s novels, Ralph’s interviews with Erica, and sections from Ralph’s viewpoint. The narrative is fragmented but in a different way to The Blazing World, and I found the excerpts in The Cupboard to be more of a distraction, particularly the extracts from her novels. But Erica’s is a wonderful story encompassing all the turbulence and trauma of the twentieth century. Both characters are viewing their lives from close to its end. Both are vigorous, challenging women who display strength along with fragility. I found Erica to be an enormously powerful character, one that I haven’t forgotten and it’s more than thirty years since I read the book! We hear less of Harry’s voice in The Blazing World but her brave individualism sings out. She’s undoubtedly unique and maybe I’ll feel the same way about her in another thirty years. Even if I don’t, all that intellectual stuff has given me more than enough to ponder. Hmm, Ok, it’ll take me more than thirty years and life’s too short. You probably have to be Siri Hustvedt to understand all that, better to admit defeat now. Even so, I loved reading the book and found a great deal to admire. I’m definitely going to search out more of Hustvedt’s work.

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About writing, trickery and a little music