Last week I went to the public library. How I love the public library! But I've already written posts about my love of the library (most notably here and here). I got a wonderful stack of books. I was able to find all of the ones I came for, which is most unusual.
I most wanted Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World, a book I read about in this blog post written by Jeannine Hall Gailey. It's a book about artists, about aging, about gender, about identity and masks. What happens when an older female artist pretends to be male? What happens when she doesn't just use a male name, but creates a living mask? The aging female artist makes the art, while the younger male pretends to be the artist who made the art. Intriguing!
I've been reading the book for a week, and the question that interests me even more than the gender issue is the idea of how the mask might transform the artist. Does the art change when the artist pretends to be someone else? To make the question even more compelling, the female artist has 3 male personas. Or does she?
The book is presented as a collection of statements by the artist's friends/therapists/family members, artist's journals, interviews, old magazine articles, all sorts of artifacts of an artist's life--masks of different sorts! I'm impressed with the overarching mask of an editor who has assembled these artifacts--complete with extensive footnotes in places. It's a brilliant concept, and so far, Hustvedt is pulling it off.
And it's more than just an intellectual exercise, more than showing off. It reads well as a narrative too, even though there's not much dialogue. I worried it might be tiresome, but it's the opposite--it's compelling.
I'm impressed by the way that Hustvedt makes each of the documents so different. She's mastered the voice of each character--and the voice of the type of document that she's creating.
Jeannine mentioned the book's connection to A.S. Byatt, and it does remind me of Possession, a book I loved as I was studying for my Ph.D. Comprehensive exams, but have never made my way through it again. The more interesting juxtaposition for me is that I'm reading this book just after rereading Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. That book asks similar questions about what makes a good artist. But it doesn't wrestle with questions of gender in the same, intense way that Hustvedt does.
I hadn't even heard of Siri Hustvedt until I read about her on Jeannine's blog. I wonder if her other books are as compelling. I'll find out soon enough. I also checked out a book of her essays.
But in the meantime, I've got to finish The Blazing World--I can't quite figure out how all the threads are going to make a unified cloth. Happily, I can already tell that I'm in the hands of a capable author, so I can trust that I won't be disappointed.
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