Literary Wives: The Blazing World

What a tour de force this book proved to be. My head and my heart are still spinning from everything that is going on here. I kept thinking about how much work it must have been to stuff so much into one book and to keep track of everything. I greatly admire Hustvedt for it. Harriet Burden is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in a long time—not a burden, but a challenge. I loved that this entire book was about an intelligent, loud, and angry woman, and I loved that she was not very likeable. Is it still ok for me to complain just a little bit that it was work reading this book? At times, everything that was going on started to feel just a little too complex, to the point where it almost seemed forced. But then Harriet is a very complex character. I guess it’s only right that her book is complex as well.

The story is centered around Harriet’s experiment to figure out whether the art world, which has ignored her for her entire life, would take more notice of her work if everyone thought the artist were a man. She tries the experiment three times, only the third time, the artist posing as the creator double-crosses her and later dies under mysterious circumstances. But all three art shows were indeed successful, proving the point that it is easier for a male artist to be seen than for a female artist. This point is not only made in a simple, straightforward way. We get to hear a good number of dissenting voices, but the way they are presented, however convincing, makes it feel almost egregious for the reader to agree with them.

I could write quite a bit about this, but in the context of the Literary Wives discussion, I want to focus on how the book talks about the experience of being a wife. And, interestingly enough, this is the question I have the most trouble with. There is no doubt that her marriage was troubled, whether Harriet realized it at the time or not. Her husband ignored her and did not support her work. He cheated on her regularly as well. Heck, the first thing he said to her when they first met was that they had to do something about her wild hair. But I got the strong impression that this didn’t bother Harriet until after her husband had died, which made it hard for me to assess her role as wife. It seemed to me that she was angry about so many things that she only got angry about her husband once the anger was already going strong. He wasn’t what ignited her anger; he was just one more log on the already brightly burning fire. And while it would be easy to argue that the anger was either caused or fueled by Harriet’s career taking a backseat during her marriage or that her lack of success was based solely on the fact that she’s a woman, I can’t do that because there’s so much more to her than that.

I actually think she short-changed herself by not going out to conquer the world as herself. She might have thought that no one would see an aging woman, and, yes, she has a point, but from everything we know of her, she is hard to overlook, in both body and mind. It works with her complicated character that she would try to orchestrate her conquest the hard way, but seeing how having someone pose for you necessarily involves a second person, even if her experiment had worked as she intended, it would have never been just her. She would have always been one of a pair, and frankly, I am surprised that she never considered that people would focus more on the intrigue than the art once she revealed herself.

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

And if you have read the book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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10 comments

  1. This one has been on my TBR for ages, and I had hoped to join in for your discussion (but, then, lost track of the dates and neglected to add it to my library list). I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book and particularly about her as an angry woman struggling to put her voice out in the world. Have you read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I wonder: that sounds like it might make an interesting reading companion (although Messud’s wouldn’t fit with the theme of literary wives)!

  2. The story does sound a bit complex and a challenge. I like the discussion you raise. I’ve read yours & Naomi’s review of it. I haven’t read it but I have read the author’s other novel called What I Loved. That too is thought-provoking & chock full, but it’s been a long while now since I read it. No wonder your head is spinning.

  3. I had no issue with Harriet being unlikable. I appreciated that she was kind of done with everyone’s expectations for her and was ready to blaze through the world on her own terms. I also had a hard time looking at this book via the question of being a wife. I was a bit stuck on her own gender identity and how she felt that made things more difficult.

    Man, this book really was work to get through. I’m still mostly thrilled that I don’t have to read it anymore.

  4. Both of you are assuming that Harriet hadn’t tried to make it on her own, but I think she had been trying all along. The book doesn’t really say one way or another, but she’s been working for years without getting anywhere. Is that not trying? I didn’t get any sense that she quit working just because she was married. What she didn’t get was any support from her art dealer husband.

    • No, I didn’t think that she wasn’t trying on her own. The book did say that she was frustrated because she had to interrupt her work to take care of her children (rather than her husband doing that), and it also said that she had to act demurely during dinners, etc., so that her husband wouldn’t be embarrassed by her behavior. Believe me, I fully agree that she had every reason to be very angry, especially since he didn’t support her creativity in any way. But it did say that she didn’t try to exhibit her work after the death of her husband. And I kept wondering how much her art changed for the three men’s exhibits. Did it influence her at all knowing that the pieces she was producing would be exhibited in an effort to trick the art world? As much as I hate to even admit it, there were times when I agreed with that shallow, sexist reporter who wrote the book about Rune.

      • Well, it’s been a while since I read it, but just because she didn’t try to exhibit after her husband’s death doesn’t mean she didn’t try before it.

  5. “I loved that this entire book was about an intelligent, loud, and angry woman, and I loved that she was not very likeable.” Yes!
    “I actually think she short-changed herself by not going out to conquer the world as herself.” And yes!! I feel like if she hadn’t been so caught up in her anger and wanting to prove her point, she could have made it on her own. She could have channeled all that anger into determination instead, and I imagine it would have been more rewarding for her. And she could have voiced her opinion about sexism in the art world in another way. But that might have made a less interesting story…

    • Yes, you are right, it would have been a less interesting story, and there’s no way to really tell whether she could have finally made it on her own. I just think that maybe things could have been a little easier for her if she had let go a little of her anger. Do you think she was a bit self-indulgent with her anger? Obviously, she had every reason to be angry, and it must have been deep-seated for her to have the frequent nightmares about her husband, but then I also couldn’t help thinking that because he left her all that money to live rather carefree in Brooklyn, she had plenty of time to do nothing but be angry. (I feel like I’m not doing her justice by thinking that…)

      • Yes, I think I feel similar to you regarding Harriet’s character. I really admired so many things about her, but I didn’t always like her, or agree with her choices.

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