The Blazing World

by Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World

Hardcover, 357 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 | purchase

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The Blazing World
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NPR Summary

A provocative tale told through a series of scholarly texts draws on notebooks and conflicting accounts about the life and work of an acclaimed artist who after years of being marginalized conceals her female identity behind three male fronts.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Read An Excerpt: 'The Blazing World'

Maisie lord

(edited transcript)

After she moved to Brooklyn, my mother collected strays — human strays, not animals. every time i went to visit her, there seemed to be another "assistant," poet, drifter, or just plain charity case living in one of the rooms, and i worried they might take advantage of her, rob her, or even kill her in her sleep. i worry too much; it's chronic. i became the worrier in the family — my job. The man who called himself the Barometer lived with mother for a long time. he had spent two weeks in Bellevue not long before he landed on her doorstep. he rattled on about the words of the winds and made peculiar gestures to lower the humidity. When i mentioned my anxiety about him to my mother, she said, "But, maisie, he's a gentle person, and he draws very well." She was right about him, as it turned out. he became the subject of one of my films, but there were other, more fleeting and unsavory characters who kept me up at night until Phineas came along and put her affairs in order, but that was later. my mother's place was immense, an old warehouse building. She had two floors, one to live in and one to work in. When she renovated the place, she made sure there were several bedrooms for "all my future grandchildren," but i think she also had a fantasy about supporting young artists directly, putting them up, giving them space to work in. my father had his foundation. my mother had her ad hoc red hook artists' colony.

Not long after she moved, my mother said to me, "maisie, i can fly." her energy was up, to say the least. i read somewhere about hypomania, and i asked myself if my mother might not be hypomanic. mourning can be complicated by all kinds of nervous ups and downs, and she was really sick after my father died. She was so weak and thin, she could hardly move, but after she recovered, she didn't stop. my mother worked long hours in her studio every day, and after that she read for two or three hours, one book after another, novels, philosophy, art, and science. She kept journals and notebooks. She bought herself one of those big, heavy punching bags and hired a woman named Wanda to give her some boxing lessons. Some- times i felt limp just looking at her. She'd always had a streak of fierceness in her — she could explode suddenly over a trivial incident. once when she had asked me to brush my teeth and i dawdled — i must have been about seven — she lost it. She yelled and screamed and pressed an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink. But most of the time she was a patient mother to me and my brother. She was the one who read to us and sang to us, who made up long stories that satisfied both me and ethan, not an easy task, because i wanted fairies and goblins, and he wanted vehicles that released various weapons and robots, so she would make a hybrid. For a whole year, she told us a long saga about the Fervidlies, who lived in a country called Fervid. Lots of magic and fights and elaborate weaponry. She helped us with our homework all through high school. i'd call her from college, too, and ask her questions about my classes or papers. my mother was interested in everything, and she seemed to have read everything. She was the one who attended our games, recitals, and plays. my father came when he could, but he traveled a lot. Sometimes, when i was little, i would go in and sleep with my mother when he was gone. She talked in her sleep. i don't know why i remember, but once she yelled out, "Where's Felix now?" children are selfish. i knew my mother was an artist who made intricate houses filled with dolls and ghosts and animals she sometimes let me touch, but i never thought of her work as a job. She was my mother. my father called her his madonna of the mind. it's awful when i think about it, but it never occurred to me that my mother was frustrated or unhappy. The endless rejection must have hurt her, the injustice of it, but i can't say i felt it when i was a child. She liked to hum and sway when she worked on one of her constructions, and she'd waggle her fingers over a figure before she touched it. Sometimes she sniffed the materials and sighed. She'd close her eyes from time to time and liked to say that there was no art for her without the body and the rhythms of the body. of course, when i was a teenager, i found these gestures and tics excruciating, and i tried to make sure none of my friends witnessed them. When i was seventeen she once said to me, "maisie, you're lucky you didn't get my breasts. Big breasts on a little woman are fetching; big breasts on a big woman are scary — to men, that is." it hit me that she felt her womanliness, her body, her size had somehow interfered with her life. This was long before the pseudonyms, and i was busy making my first little film in high school, a visual diary, i called it — very pretentious, lots of long, moody shots of my friends walking down the street or sitting in their rooms at home in states of existential anguish, that sort of thing. What did my breasts have to do with it?

much, much later, when it came out, i had the sickening thought that she had been right. of course, by then i was an adult and had run into my share of belittlement and prejudice with my own work. i believed she used those men as fronts to prove a point, and she did, at least in part, but when i read the fragment of her memoir and the journals, i saw how complicated her involvements with them had been and that the masks were real, too. She's been terribly misunderstood. She was not a calculating beast exploiting people right and left. i don't think anybody really knows when she first started thinking about pseudonyms. She published one dense art review under the name roger raison in a magazine in the eighties, dumping on the Baudrillard craze, demolishing his simulacra argument, but few people paid attention. i remember when i was fifteen, our family was in Lisbon, and she went over and kissed the statue of Pessoa. my mother told me to read him, and, of course, he was famous for what he called his heteronyms. She was also deeply influenced by Kierkegaard. No doubt her urge to be other people went back to her childhood. my mother's best friend, rachel Briefman, is a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. She is probably right that psychotherapy unleashed a harriet Burden none of us had ever seen before, as well as a number of other characters or personas she had been sitting on for quite some time. i don't mean as in multiple personalities but as in protean artist selves, selves that popped out and needed bodies. i could never have said any of this even a year ago, but slowly i've come to see my mother in a different light, or maybe, i should say, several different lights.

But that's happened over the years. When i first saw Memorial Dream, i was unprepared. it shocked me. one Sunday i brought my daughter, Aven, to red hook for brunch. my husband, oscar, didn't come along. i can't remember why. he probably had to write a report on one of the kids he works with. (he has a PhD in psychology and sees private patients, but he also spends time with foster children in the system, for which he is paid next to nothing.) if mother had any strays at the time, none of them was around. Aven had just started to walk then, so it must have been the spring of 1996, and we had an eventful meal because my daughter spent every minute walking, or rather walking and falling, walking again and falling again. my mother clapped and laughed, and Aven was delighted, showing off more and more until she exhausted herself, sobbed, and i settled her in for a nap on a sofa surrounded by pillows to keep her from falling off. my mother had many pillows, in both muted and bright colors. She used to talk about color and meaning. color, she said, has corporeal meaning. Before we can name the color we're seeing, it's in us.

Where was i? When Aven woke up, my mother told me she wanted to show me something she had been working on, and she took me to the far end of her studio space, which was still under construction at the time. She had built a little room with translucent glass walls the color of milk. i could see a figure through the wall and all at once i understood i was looking at my father seated in a chair. The likeness must have been in the figure's posture, because when mother pushed open a nearly invisible door, the soft stuffed body that had looked so much like Father had only blunt features, but it was wearing one of my father's suits and Don Quixote was open in its lap, the book my father loved most. When i looked down, i saw that the floor was plastered with papers, Xeroxes, memoranda, notes my father had taken, and that my mother's own handwriting was scrawled on the red linoleum squares. And there were three miniature stairways that jutted upward and ended against the three walls. Five doors had been crudely drawn onto one of the walls. i burst into tears. Then Aven started crying, and my mother tried to repair the situation. "i'm sorry, i'm so sorry." That was typical. She couldn't bear to see people distressed. it affected her physically. She would clutch her rib cage as if someone had hit her.

We all recovered, but before i left in a car service with Aven, my mother looked me in the eyes. it was a severe look, not cold but strict, the way she sometimes looked at me when i was small and had lied or cheated or hit ethan.

i remember it because i felt guilty, although i wasn't sure why. She closed her eyes, then she opened them, and in a calm low voice said, "i'm sorry you were unsettled, maisie, but i'm not sorry i made him. There are more dreams, i'm afraid, and they must out." She smiled sadly and escorted us down to the waiting car.

i can still see her as she turned away from us. i wish i had filmed her then. it's beautiful out there by the water with the view of the Statue of Liberty, but it was desolate, too, bleaker then than it is now, and the sight of my mother striding away from us toward the brick building under a big cloudy sky made me feel that i was losing her. i used to feel that way after i said goodbye to her at my summer camp. And then — it was just a minor thing — i noticed that she was letting her hair grow, and it looked like a small wild bush on top of her head.

From The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt. Copyright 2014 by Siri Hustvedt. Excerpted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

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