Monday, September 22, 2014
The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt
Some time ago, I made a vow that I would stop reading a book at a certain point if I grew too frustrated. I've really struggled with this. I feel that quitting a book shows a lack of endurance, and I also worry that the fault lies with me and not with the book. By the time I decided to quit The Blazing World, I'd grown angry about having spent so much time on it. I wanted it to live up to what I thought it had promised. I wanted to like this book, but one evening, I noticed that I was staring vacantly at the Kindle screen and pressing it intermittently to advance the pages. My eyes weren't even moving over the lines of text -- my mind was worlds away. I just wanted to reach the end of the book, no longer caring what happened in the meantime.
One of the reasons I selected this book was that it was on the Man Booker Prize long list this year. I've heard readers say that they pay no attention whatever to book awards, usually with their noses slightly elevated. I do pay attention to the awards, their long lists, short lists and winners, simply because someone thought these particular books worthwhile. There aren't any proper bookshops in Phnom Penh, certainly no libraries. Browsing is not an option, so I look to on-line reviews and lists to get ideas of what to read. Of course the Man Booker panel is comprised of human beings, each with his or her own prejudices, preferences and axes to grind. If they pick 10 or 15 books for the long list, they necessarily exclude thousands. Generally, though, I think the books that make the award lists are noteworthy. The Blazing World didn't make it onto the short list, and it certainly got bumped off any list of mine, but making an effort to read a novel and failing is perhaps educational in its own way.
Harriet (Harry) Burden is a frustrated, embittered, widowed New York artist. Although she'd been married to a prominent NY art dealer, Harriet's work had achieved little or no renown. After her husband's death, she concocts a plan to show her own work under the names of three different male artists.
I liked the premise. I could see some interesting plot twists had the male artists' shows been wildly more successful than Harriet's own efforts. But they weren't. Harriet Burden is an erudite woman, and she appears to manipulate the younger, less intellectual male artists with whom she's ostensibly collaborating. If she felt victimised by a sexist arts scene, I felt that she victimised these young men no less.
As I gave up on this book, I also thought about all the reviews I've read (and ranted about), in which the reviewer says, "None of the characters in this book is likeable!" Likeable? Who says that characters need to be likeable to be captivating? I certainly didn't like Harriet Burden (or any other character in this book), so had I fallen into a category of reviewers that I scorned?
No. I can think of many books whose characters I disliked, and yet I respected the books themselves. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road pops into my head. I didn't like either of the main characters, but I could empathise with both of them in one way or another. I wanted to see what they would do next, fearing that they'd disappoint me (and they did!). Harriet "Harry" Burden was simply burdensome. She annoyed me. I didn't care whether she came to a bad end or redeemed herself. For several hundred pages, she had proved nothing more than tendentious, tedious and self-absorbed. Are women slighted in the New York arts scene? I'm not even sure of that. Did Harriet have any notable talent? That's not clear, either. Harriet, like so many other New Yorkers, spent far too much time for my liking thinking solely about herself and finding herself far more interesting and relevant than I could find her.