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Interview: Siri Hustvedt on The Blazing World

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Internationally acclaimed New York based author and critic Siri Hustvedt has released her latest novel, The Blazing World. This book is set in the New York art world and recounts the provocative story of artist Harriet Burden. After years of seeing her work dismissed by critics, Burden decides to hide her identity behind three male ”fronts” who exhibit her work as their own. Daily Review‘s Anna Taylor caught up with Hustvedt in Brooklyn to chat about women in art, hoaxes and the art of telling a great story.
“All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.”
Siri-Hustvedt-WEBThese are the terrific opening words of The Blazing World’s protagonist Harriet Burden. Could you begin by telling us about Harriet, what kind of a person is she?
Yes, that sentence is a quote from Harriet. The book is actually introduced by an editor, I.V Hess, who begins his/her introduction (we don’t know the sex of the editor) with that rather vulgar quote. Unlike the editor who is a cool academic character, Harriet is a hot burning artist who has a lot of anger about what she feels has been the neglect and treatment of women in the art world.
The book is presented in a very particular way. How is it actually structured?
The conceit of the book is that the central character, Harriet Burden, is dead. The book is a compilation of texts about Harriet; both her children write, her lover in the last years of her life writes about her, her best friend writes and then others who are more distant write, such as art historians and reviewers. The idea is that this is an anthology of texts about the artist Harriet Burden.
Was it difficult to write from so many different points of view?
I had a lot of fun. At some point in the novel I began to think of it as my multiple personality disorder book because the voices of the characters are very different. I began to feel what I suppose actors must feel when they go from one role to another (of course my body was not involved but the voices did appear). I didn’t write all of one character at one time and then move onto another, because the book has an organic form and I needed to feel the shifts between voices as I went along.
Harriet has a tough time in the New York art world; she is basically denigrated and ignored, she believes, as a result of her being female. Do you think it’s more difficult for female artists and writers to gain recognition even today?
Yes. Harriet is older even than I am. I wanted her to come from a generation somewhat ahead of me so that she would experience second wave feminism after I did, and grow up in a world where male and female roles were even more highly defined than they are today.
The statistic that is cited in the book, that only about 18-20% of all one-person shows in New York City are by women, remains true. The numbers fluctuate somewhat but it isn’t anywhere close to 50%. Men’s art is also much more expensive than women’s art. Even the most famous female artist – someone like Louise Bourgeois who commands enormous prices – is nevertheless much cheaper than the most expensive man.  So this is about value and what is valued.
In the book, Harriet withdraws from the art world rather than fighting on and devises an experiment to show her work behind three male masks. That is, three living human beings that show the artwork for her. The results are mixed, to say the least. The book is in some ways a feminist book, and it is in some ways a feminist parable but it isn’t an easy feminist parable.
Where does the title of the book, The Blazing World, come from?
The Blazing World is stolen from Margaret Cavendish, a 17th century natural philosopher, poet and playwright. She wrote a utopian fantasy called, The Blazing World. Cavendish is one of the most fascinating historical characters that I have ever encountered and I got deeply involved in reading her work a few years ago. When I entered into this extraordinary writing and personality, I knew that she was a good reference for this particular book because Harriet forms a strong identification with Cavendish.
Cavendish was a wealthy woman (she was the Duchess of Newcastle) in a wonderful marriage to a man who supported her. She knew Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes but none of them would enter into discussions with her that she deeply and dearly wanted. In some of her writing she invents interlocutors to have these philosophical conversations with herself. She also wrote brilliantly about natural philosophy in ways that anticipate certain current ideas in neuroscience and phenomenology. I fell in love with the woman but also her ideas. She was mocked, she was ridiculed, and yet 300 years after her death she really has been resurrected.
You don’t paint a very charming picture of the New York art world. At one point you describe it as an “incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets.” Is it really that bad?
You know, when I was a young girl, I read Balzac and it bore no resemblance to my world in Minnesota in a small town. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I see that Balzac really was talking about a world that exists, and that world does exist here in New York. Money talks. Fame talks. And a lot of people are run over in a rush to wealth and glory.
In the book, you outline a long history of identity hoaxes in the arts (a history that includes our own Ern Malley!) What do you think these hoaxes say about us as a society?
Well, I think it’s about the nature of human perception. In other words, every single person is vulnerable to being hoaxed; I don’t think a single one of us has a hoax-like prophylactic inbuilt. The social contract is that we believe one another, we’re pretty trusting creatures.
At the same time, what thrills us about these hoaxes is that they do seem to reveal judgments that are based on other aspects of perception, certain biases that we all have for example. A female name attached to a work of art does have a certain polluting value and a masculine name has an enhancing value — that is absolutely true. On the other hand, there are other qualities that are enhancing, such as fame and celebrity. Anyone who lives in a big city knows that celebrity lights up a room.
You’re a novelist, an art critic, an essayist, and a researcher in the areas of neuroscience and psychoanalysis. I’m curious as to why, in a world of increasing specialisation, you’ve chosen to buck that trend…
First of all, I think it’s fair to say that it’s because I can. I’m not a member of the academy and don’t have to keep up in any one field. I read several hours a day so I can follow my nose wherever it takes me, and many people do not have that freedom. But then, I also remain wildly curious. Because no single theoretical model about human beings can encompass the complexity that is us, I keep roaming around in various disciplines to see what each of them has to say about us.
What do you think is the key to telling a great story?
This is such a good question. My husband (the writer Paul Auster) and I like to quote Mickey Spillane, the crime writer who we met as an old man many years ago in Sweden. He said: “No one ever reads a book to get to the middle” and I think that is true. The key to telling stories is to maintain the urgency of the text. It is strange because I’m currently reading (Virginia Woolf’s) To The Lighthouse, a book in which not all that much happens. It is not a plot-driven book but the urgency is totally present: You want to move to the next page even though Woolf has not set up some elaborate plot structure. There is something in the writing itself that creates a tempo of necessity. I would love to know exactly what that is and how that works but there’s no question that every good book has it.
[box]This interview was first published in the Avenue Bookstore Podcast series. Click here to listen to the full interview.[/box]

One response to “Interview: Siri Hustvedt on The Blazing World

  1. As a Siri Husvedt fan, my mouth waters for her recent work. Hustvedt’s take on art, especially looking at paintings has been inspired. Now she turns to the art world. Can’t wait.

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