Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Blazing World includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Siri Hustvedt. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss Harry’s partnerships with Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge, and Rune in relation to the artwork she created for each of them. How did each partnership differ from the other two? Why did Harry choose these three men?
2. How did the novel’s multi-voiced, fragmentary style affect your reading experience? In the introduction, I.V. Hess writes, “All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue” (p. 6). Did this comment help you navigate the novel’s structure? What role does dialogue play in the novel as a whole?
3. Harry tells stories of other artists who used pseudonyms or false identities to present their work to the world. Alice Sheldon had two personas: James Tiptree and Racoona Sheldon (pp. 186–188). Why did Ursula Le Guin prefer the works of one pen name over the other? What does Harry mean when she tells Maisie that by assuming a male identity, “You get to be the father”(p. 187)? Find and discuss other stories of pseudonyms and cross-dressing that appear in the novel.
4. A different person describes each of the three works in Maskings (The History of Western Art, Suffocation Rooms, and Beneath). Return to these passages and discuss how the observer’s personality, relation to Harry, and biases influence his or her interpretation of the artwork. What was Harry trying to convey in each work? How does she make each persona fit inside her own art?
5. Harry struggles with questions of gender inequality throughout the book. She is convinced her sex has hampered her, but others disagree. In Maskings she hopes to prove that when her work is shown with a male pseudonym attached, she will finally achieve the success she deserves. Bruno Kleinfeld, Harry’s lover and partner at the end of her life, also fails to achieve the success for which he had hoped. What would Harry have thought of Bruno’s opinion that “it was worse for a man, worse for a man to fail, to lose the strut in his walk” (p. 158). How does Bruno’s view of manhood complicate Harry’s view of womanhood?
6. Harry asserts that she is not interested in living as a man physically, that she is interested in “perceptions and their mutability, the fact that we mostly see what we expect to see” (p. 33). Discuss the recurring theme of perception in the novel and its relation to character. For example, how does Oswald Case read Harry’s art? Compare his view to that of other characters in the novel.
7. Ethan’s chapter “An Alphabet Toward Several Meanings of Art and Generation” (pp. 135–136) is a highly abstract, compact version of Harry’s Maskings experiment that parodies the language of analytical philosophy. Analyze the text and discuss what it means in relation to the book as a whole.
8. Hess includes statements from reviewers who praised Harry’s work long before she embarked on her pseudonymous experiment. Rosemary Lerner calls Burden on the phone after viewing The History of Western Art because she recognizes its similarity to Burden’s earlier work. Lerner’s inclusion in the novel proves that there were people in the art world who took notice of Burden. Discuss why this recognition is not enough for the artist.
9. As the story unfolds, we learn more details about Harry’s marriage to Felix Lord. The complexities of her relation to Felix reveal that despite her desire for independence and power, Harry admits that she was often submissive in her marriage. In her journals, she writes, “I am Odysseus, but I have been Penelope” (p. 327). What does she mean by this and how is her double position as both hero and waiting wife connected to her relationship to Felix, her father, and Rune?
10. Harry includes memories of her childhood and her parents in her journals. Consider the passage in which Harry tells about her unannounced arrival at her father’s office (p. 142–143). Why does this small event stay with Harry for so many years? Find other passages that treat Harry’s relationships with her parents and discuss how her early family life shaped her personality.
11. Discuss how dreams figure in the novel. Harriet, Ethan, and Rachel all recount dreams and provide interpretations of them. Analyze one of these dreams. Is your own understanding of the dream different from the character’s?
12. We hear three different versions of the kitten story from Rune’s childhood: first from Oswald Case (p. 181), then from Harry (p. 213), and finally from Rune’s sister (p. 311). What do you make of these varying accounts? Why does Rune alter his past? Which story do you believe? What does the story in its shifting versions tell you about Rune as a person?
13. Reread and discuss Richard Brickman’s letter to the editor (p. 251–255), which reveals Harriet Burden as the person behind the three works in Maskings. Hess refers to the letter and the project of Maskings as “a philosophical comedy” and further argues that the letter is Burden’s “ironic treatment of her own position” (258). Is Hess right? Was this the best way for Harry to reveal herself to the world? Why or why not?
14. Discuss the role of footnotes in the novel. Why did Hustvedt include notes? How did they affect your reading experience?
15. We only hear Hess’s voice a few times during the course of the novel—in the introduction and in his interviews with Cynthia Clark, William Burridge, and Kirsten Larsen Smith. In the interview with Burridge, Hess begins to dominate the conversation. Is Hess an unbiased observer of the Maskings story? How does the editor influence the reader’s experience of the novel?
16. Sweet Autumn Pinkney is a minor character in the novel. Unlike many of the other people in the story, she is possessed by new age ideas and is not highly educated. Why does Sweet Autumn have the last word? Is there something she seems to understand about Harry and Harry’s work that the others don’t?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research a true story of an artist using a pseudonym to present or publish work and share your findings. How did the art community or general public receive your artist’s work?
2. Imagine Harry’s response to Hess’ selection of writings and the order in which he placed them. Do you think this collection telling her story would satisfy her desire to be recognized? Why or why not?
3. Visit a museum or gallery and try to determine whether a man or a woman created a piece of art. Can you tell? How does this knowledge affect your opinion of the work?
A Conversation with Siri Hustvedt How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I have been immersed in questions about human perception for a long time, including how works of art are received in the culture. Pseudonyms have also been a longstanding interest of mine, especially Søren Kierkegaard’s use of them in his work. By adopting various pseudonyms, the philosopher explored points of view he didn’t necessarily share but which nevertheless fascinated him. I knew I wanted to write a story about a woman artist who hides behind three male masks, but it was Harry herself who became the burning catalyst for the book. Once I began to hear her voice, see her, and feel her, I found the heart of the novel. And yet, I did not want the book to belong only to Harry. She is an explosive character, and her view had to be tempered and framed by other perspectives. I knew that an unstable, polyphonic form was the only one that could embody the book’s themes as a whole.
While this is a work of fiction, you present it as a true collection of writings on the subject. Why did you decide to present the story in this form?
Journals, diaries, letters, published texts, and art works can survive the person who made them. Once the author/artist is dead, “the body of work” is all that remains. My fictional conceit is that an editor, I.V. Hess, has gathered the texts included in the book because interest in the work of the now deceased Harriet Burden has surged. From the beginning, the reader knows that the main character is dead, that she conducted an experiment, and that she craved recognition, which she gained only posthumously. The narrative urgency is not about what happens, but about how what happens is experienced by the people intimately involved in the story and by others who have a far more distant relation to the events.
What was your writing process? Did you write sequentially, as the story unfolds to the readers, or did you write every section from one person’s perspective before moving on?
I have always thought of a novel as an organism that develops in time, and so I write sequentially. I feel my way forward as if the shape of the narrative is already there, and my job is to find it. When I returned to a particular character’s voice, it could take me some time to “recover” it. Writing as Harry, Rachel, Bruno, Ethan, Maisie, Phinny, Oswald Case, and Sweet Autumn, as well as some of the people who appear only once meant adopting very different vocabularies and verbal cadences. I did not imitate what I had written earlier, but rather, like a method actor, I would feel the presence of the character and then the words seemed to come of themselves.
In this novel, and in previous work, you discuss gender and play with its meaning and how people perceive it. How has this novel advanced your thoughts on the subject?
I think I have always been interested in escaping the social conventions that define gender and the metaphors that shape the constricting oppositions between the feminine and masculine that remain active in our culture, such as soft and hard, mind and body, reason and passion. The novel as a form is in itself an escape hatch for a writer because inside a book, one can become women and men with different personalities. In all my novels I have characters who trespass gender norms, who move from male to female or female to male. In my fifth novel, The Summer Without Men, my heroine Mia sums up the problem of sex difference this way: “It is not that there is no difference between men and women, it is how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.” Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that one is not born but becomes a woman. De Beauvoir was well aware of the reproductive bodily differences between men and women, but her argument about becoming a woman remains powerful. The Blazing World might be seen as a meditation on the question of becoming a woman. For many reasons, Harry finds herself torn between her masculine and feminine identities, two sides of herself she finds difficult to reconcile.
There are many characters with differing opinions about the art community in this novel. Do you side with any of them in particular?
No, I do not have a uniform view of what is called the “art world.” Harry’s view of it has a paranoid coloring. Case’s view is mostly cynical, but he is nevertheless prone to celebrity worship. Phinny sees how money, status, and racism afflict that world. Rosemary Lerner is an intelligent observer, especially in her discussion of women artists. Hess is more interested in philosophical ideas than in sociology. All of these views together are meant to provide some insight into the diverse community of visual art in New York City.
Harry is a very strong female character, in touch with her masculine side, and keen to assert herself in a man’s world. Do you consider Harry a feminist and is this novel a feminist story?
Today there is not one feminism but several feminisms. The debates among people who call themselves feminists are vociferous. That said, Harry is a feminist for the simple reason that she longs to be free. At times she is her own worst enemy, but that is nothing new. The constraints that bind her are internal as well as external. Women in the arts continue to struggle for the recognition that comes more easily to their male counterparts. Much of the prejudice against women is unconscious, not conscious, but that only makes it more corrosive because people, both men and women, are not aware of their own biases.
A working title for this novel was Monsters at Home, but it became The Blazing World in the end. Can you discuss your decision making process for titling this, or any novel?
I like to have a working title as I work on a book. I began with Monsters at Home and felt sure I would keep it. The monster theme is strong in the book: Frankenstein’s monster, Milton’s Satan, the cyborgs of artificial intelligence. Harry feels monstrous. Some of her neighbors in Red Hook call her “the witch.” Margaret Cavendish, Harry’s seventeenth-century alter ego, was regarded by some in her time as a monstrous travesty of masculinity and femininity. Teratology, the study of monsters, appears as a word with scrambled letters in The History of Western Art. After I finished the book, however, I realized the title didn’t fit what I had written. I no longer wanted the comic undertones of monsters lounging about at home. The monster Harry is redeemed by the artist Harry. The book belongs to her own blazing world.
Do you have any future projects in mind? Will you continue to tackle with issues of gender and art?
I have many future projects in mind, and I am sure I am not finished asking questions about sex and gender. I plan to pursue questions of the self and sexual identity and how they relate to culture and biology in both my fiction and nonfiction.