Saturday 6 May 2017

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt   {Reviewed by STELLA}
After reading Margaret the First and becoming interested in Margaret Cavendish and her work, most notably her 1666 novel The Blazing World, I came across references in articles to Siri Hustvedt’s novel, also called The Blazing World. This isn’t a novel about Cavendish or her work, but it is a story about a female artist who felt she was sidelined by the art establishment due to her gender. Margaret Cavendish felt she was ignored and belittled by society, particularly the academic and philosophical circles she so wanted to be admitted to. And Cavendish is mentioned and studied by our fictional artist, Harriet Burden. Burden, an installation artist in 20th century New York, married to a famous dealer, is marginalised and seen by the art world as a hobbyist, lucky to be married to a man of influence. When her dear Felix dies, she packs up her life and moves to a warehouse, ignoring the art world, and continues to make work with a passion, but she is obsessed with having recognition. To this end, she devises her plan. Siri Hustvedt’s novel is set out as a collection of interviews, gathered articles, letters and diary entries gathered by a researcher, I.V. Hess, after the death of the artist. Hess is intrigued by Harriet Burden and is studying her work, attempting to find out what was true and false in her life and art. To gain recognition and overcome the gender bias that she believed was inherent in the art gallery world, Burden hid behind three male fronts. As they gained in reputation, the experiment seemed to prove her point. Unveiling herself as the true artist caused chaos: some believed her, others didn’t, and the situation is not helped by the actions of her colleagues, particularly artist only known as Rune who claims the work as his own. As the researcher digs deeper into the life of Harriet, interviewing family friends, associates and artists, reading diary entries and poring over the artist’s notebooks, the stories become tangled and contradictory. A clever and nuanced novel, this is an intriguing look at the art world and gender politics. It is intellectually stimulating, with references to philosophical ideas about identity and existence, and also a satisfyingly emotional book, dealing with obsession, delusion and mania. 

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