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‘The Blazing World’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Woman in the Gallery from the August 14, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Terry Castle [NYR, August 14] wants from Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World all sorts of things that first-rate novels are not designed to provide. Castle says that “authors can do whatever they want with their characters,” when in fact Castle demands a novel that can satisfy readers like herself who have no patience for “cognitive dissonance” and who favor “feminist critique” that leaves no one in doubt about an author’s sentiments. Castle’s petulance is signaled throughout in questions like “What are we to conclude about women artists and the art establishment?” as if it were the business of the novel to lead us to conclusions (only correct conclusions will do) rather than to provoke unease. “The fact,” Castle writes, “that one can’t get a bead on Hustvedt’s own view of her heroine’s creations…suggests something of the novel’s underlying emotional confusion,” though “the fact” cited by Castle would seem rather to suggest not confusion but the kind of ambivalence that fuels resistance to easy ideological formulas.

Hustvedt’s “heroine” is herself compulsively drawn to elaborate fantasies of feminist retribution and to comforting, one- dimensional views about the pathetic status of contemporary women artists. But Hustvedt knows better than to invest uncritically in those views, and Castle rightly names many of the women artists who “managed to flourish at a very high level despite patriarchal obstacles.” Hustvedt refuses to resolve the troubling issues she sets in motion because she is both tempted by the bilious ressentiment of her heroine and, at the same time, clearly repelled by her and alert to the intellectual weakness of the arguments she mounts.

More dubious is Castle’s demand for a more “lesbian-friendly” or at least lesbian-oriented narrative. There is, as she says, a certain “Hermaphroditic polyphony” in the novel, but Castle complains that it never “gathers force and lifts off,” that is, doesn’t go where Castle thinks it should. Too much “conceptual static.” Again for Castle not enough resolution in the direction she herself favors. “The whole erotic set-up,” Castle says, “feels incoherent,” which is again to say, not coherently inclined in the single direction Castle demands when a work includes noises and statics that a more ideologically committed writer would wish to build into a case.

How, Castle wonders, can a novel built around a heroine who “looks and sounds, frankly, like a big old dyke” not make her into—you guessed it—a big old dyke? How can we possibly believe, asks Castle, that she is “not only straight herself, but bizarrely enticing to men,” even when Hustvedt has clearly and vividly made her straight, erotically aggressive in her transactions with male characters, and very much in touch with her own appetites for heterosexual transports? What the hell, exactly, does it mean to look and sound, indisputably, like a big old dyke? Is there some certain sign discernible to Terry Castle that is apt to escape the attention of others who regard Harriet Burden as complicated, brainy, bookish, troubled, often nasty and mean-spirited, and yet an impressively powerful woman apt to be attractive to a great many men?

One more question: What is the point of noting—as Castle does—that Hustvedt’s long marriage to Paul Auster “has only enhanced her public profile as a major American woman of letters”? Hustvedt is a major woman of letters because she’s written several first-rate novels, a brilliant “neuro-memoir” called The Shaking Woman, and several volumes of essays that are among the most original and learned volumes of criticism anyone has lately written. Hustvedt’s marriage has nothing whatever to do with stature she has achieved in the world of contemporary letters.

Robert Boyers
Editor, Salmagundi
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, New York

Terry Castle replies:

Mr. Boyers describes me as wanting “all sorts of things” that a “first-rate” novel
like Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is not “designed to provide”: an easily digested “feminist critique,” an eradication of “ambivalence” and “cognitive dissonance,” some “resolution” in the ideological “direction” I am said to favor—that of the “lesbian-friendly” reader. Twats, ahoy!

Anyone familiar with my work knows I am hardly one to blanch at dissonance, ambivalence, or the failure of works to reach some clear-cut “ideological” resolution. On
the contrary: I positively batten on such things. (What Maisie Knew? Bring it on!) Nor am
I typically regarded as a dogmatic or purblind feminist, peering through novels in search of a “comforting, one-dimensional” view of the world. Rather—as per the amusing maledictions cast upon me by various Internet schoolmarm types (there’s actually an “I hate Terry Castle” blog thread out there)—I am more often charged with betraying, if not befouling, the sororal nest.

Unlike Mr. Boyers I would not describe The Blazing World as a first-rate novel. But I have to say I concur with the rest of his opening salvo: I did find myself hankering for things the novel failed to provide. Among them: true wit and intellectual depth (as opposed to the author’s relentless grad school preening), a minimally plausible story line and believable characters, some appreciable emotional resonance, and—how exactly to put it?—whatever
it is that makes a good novel all of a piece: delightful and risky and alive and worth caring about.

It’s no defense of Hustvedt to say that the problems I mention arise because I’m
too rigid to see that she is “ambivalent” about her tedious heroine and “knows better than to invest uncritically” in Harriet/Harry’s cartoonish anti-male views. Authorial ambivalence—about anything—has nothing to do with a book’s readability. And unlike Nabokov or Woolf, two of the great masters of literary multivocality, Hustvedt often just seems confused—unable (technically or emotionally) to manage all The Blazing World’s moving parts. By the end the whole lumbering, lurching juggernaut goes quite spectacularly off the rails.

Faced with what I suspect is a basic weakness in the conception of the work,
the novelist’s recourse is to confound matters further by heaping on gratuitous literary and philosophical references—the more recherché the better. Margaret Cavendish, Harriet’s revered “Blazing World Mother,” is one of a cast of thousands. Witness this passage in which Harriet’s daughter describes her peculiar parent:

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 his heteronyms. She was also deeply influenced by Kierkegaard.

It’s not because I don’t “get” the references ostentatiously piling up here—Baudrillard on Disneyland, Kierkegaard’s aliases, Pessoa and his heteronyms, or, indeed, the whole Mommy’s-kissing-a-statue saudade of it all—that I find Hustvedt’s name-dropping way of characterizing her heroine coy and insufferable. A Little Wikipedia Is a Dangerous Thing. The fact is, the book is pretentious and contrived to the point of readerly burnout. It is also (dare one say) often dead-in-the-water boring.

Facetiousness notwithstanding, I did not “demand” that The Blazing World be remodeled as some sort of “lesbian-oriented narrative.” I said I found the absence of any reference to lesbian artists, living and dead, intellectually puzzling, especially given the novel’s many gestures toward a familiar kind of verisimilitude—the real-deal New York art world, past and present—and the constant foregrounding of Harry/Harriet’s “mannish” nickname, physiognomy, dress, and manner. (“What the hell, exactly,” asks a plaintive Mr. Boyers, “does it mean to look and sound, indisputably, like a big old dyke?” With all respect, Mr. Boyers might consider getting out more.)

What I could have said but didn’t was that—consciously or not—Hustvedt seems weirdly determined to extirpate any real female same-sex love from the fictional world even as she invokes its customary literary tropes. The result is a peculiar “Purloined Letter,” hiding-in-plain-sight effect. In one (to me) particularly exasperating example, Harry/Harriet muses poetically in her journal about why certain women of past centuries disguised themselves as men. Some must have done it, she opines, in order to follow “their husbands to war” or to express their “patriotic fervor” by impersonating soldiers and sailors. Others no doubt did it to “inherit their father’s fortunes,” or simply because they “felt too vulnerable to go on as women and turned themselves into men.”

Some garments, a name, a differently inflected voice, and the gestures to go with them were all that was required. After a time being a man became effortless. Moreover, it became real.

Conspicuously absent from this list (or repressed) is the sapphic rationale: any notion that the male impersonator might wish for a chance to romance or flirt or sleep with—even furtively marry—another woman. Yet writers from Shakespeare and Ariosto and Henry Fielding to Colette, Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, and many others have made celebrated stories precisely by either hinting at or embracing the possibility. One might have expected Harry/Harriet, devotee of gender-bending literature and the riotous and romantic Duchess of Newcastle, to have read a few of these piquant tales.

Hustvedt’s marriage to Paul Auster seemed worth mentioning in part because artistic couples are always interesting; but also because the detail seemed to ratify—helpfully, I admit, for my argument—Hustvedt’s conventional (however glamorous) straight lady credentials. Harold and Vita they are not. At the same time—as Mr. Boyers well knows, having invited Hustvedt to speak at Skidmore College (where he teaches and edits Salmagundi, a literary magazine in which Hustvedt has often been featured)—she and Auster have recently taken to appearing together to read from their works and analyze their creative union.

Letters

‘An Accomplished Scholar and Intellectual’ October 16, 2014