“No one rejoices more in revenge than women, wrote Juvenal. Women do most delight in revenge, wrote Sir Thomas Browne. Sweet is revenge, especially to women, wrote Lord Byron. And I say, I wonder why, boys. I wonder why.”
I read What I Loved last year and absolutely loved it. I thought I had found a new girl-crush in Siri Hustvedt, who is clearly a super-smart lady. But what should I read next? Well, The Blazing World was longlisted for the Booker Prize, was mentioned on numerous “Best of 2014” lists, and centers on that dreaded f-word: feminism. I was sold.
Harriet Burden left the New York art scene years ago, partly because she was being ignored, and partly because she became a wife and mother. After her husband’s death, she decides to come back, but with a twist. Convinced that critics would be less dismissive if she were a man, Harriet enlists three male artists willing to exhibit her work as their own. After the success of the three shows, she reveals herself as the creator only to be met with disbelief. Only one of the men confirms his role; the first has disappeared and the third denies her involvement. Harriet does gain a reputation, but unfortunately not for her work.
Feminism has been getting so much flak lately, it was just nice to read a book that validated my experience as a woman. (In this case, it’s a pretty privileged experience, but I can care about the underrepresentation of female artists and other women’s issues. Screw y’all.) I found myself nodding my head at several points: A dinner guest disagrees with something Harriet says, but agrees with her husband when he says the same thing. A snippy critic mocks Harriet’s appearance, like that has anything to do with her ability to create art. Rune, the artist who claims Harriet’s work as his own, suggests she is mentally imbalanced. But The Blazing World reads like a slightly fleshed out thought experiment. I feel like plot and characters were passed over in favor of intellectual density.
Right from the “Editor’s Introduction,” The Blazing World is presented as an academic study on the life and times of Harriet Burden. It collects Harriet’s journal entries, articles from art mags, and interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances from the art world. Even if you aren’t familiar with academic reviews, this shouldn’t be a real deterrent. What got to me was the namedropping of writers, philosophers, and artists on pretty much every page. Around the fifth time Søren Kierkegaard was mentioned, I went, “Uh oh.” I am not versed in philosophy at all, and the footnotes just seemed to demonstrate how encyclopedic Harriet’s – and by extension Hustvedt’s – knowledge is. Some references I knew, some I did not, and some were definitely made up. Yeah, I suppose I could have googled all those names, but ain’t nobody got time for that! What I Loved was smart without being overly cerebral.
Now I am going to stop writing this review and just start handing out copies of What I Loved. I can’t say enough nice things about that book. Read that one instead.