If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014)
The elevator pitch for this novel would run something along the lines of, “Aging, ignored female artist shows her work under three male pseudonyms and is proclaimed a genius.” That’s fine as far as it goes — and it’s certainly a catchy premise for a novel — but it also oversimplifies the book. The artist, Harriet Burden (talk about loaded names!) chooses three separate male artists, and gets them to agree to show her work as theirs. As the novel goes on, though, these masquerades are revealed to be more complicated than they seemed at first, and the dividing line between mask and collaborator blurs, raising the question of whether it is possible to create art under an alternate identity without that other identity somehow influencing the nature of the work. One of the pleasures of this novel, with its multiplicity of voices and plot that constantly twists back around on itself, is that everything turns out to be much more complicated than it seems.
The novel is set up as if it were a scholarly book about Harriet Burden, edited by “I.V. Hess” and composed of excerpts from Harriet’s extensive notebooks, interviews and written statements from her friends, lovers and family members, and articles and reviews from art journals that chronicle the reception of Burden’s work. This approach becomes a bit tedious at times — it’s hard not to notice that all the “speakers” of the different documents sound not just remarkably like one another, but also remarkably like an upper-middlebrow literary novelist — but overall it’s an effective way to construct the narrative and build suspense (The Blazing World is surprisingly suspenseful for a novel about contemporary art.)
The first reference to Canada comes from one of Harriet Burden’s journals, which make up a significant portion of the novel:
There was also the remarkable case of Dr. James Barry, who entered medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons in England in 1813, became a surgeon in the military, traveled from post to post, and rose through the ranks. When his career ended, he was inspector general in charge of military hospitals in Canada. He died in London in 1865 from dysentery. It was then discovered that he had been a she. Barred from medicine by her sex, she had changed it. (32)
James Barry was a real person, and the outline given here is essentially true. (S)he did serve as inspector general of hospitals in Canada, though for a relatively brief period, and Canada appears at this point in the novel merely as an element of historical fact; Hustvedt has nothing to say about Canada or Canadians, though the fact that an English person was in charge of Canadian military hospitals does reinforce our status as a (former) British colony.
The second reference comes in a footnote, added by the author/editor Hess to another of Harriet’s notebooks, in which she provides this quote from one of Harriet’s inspirations, Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish is describing burning her manuscripts after the works have been printed:
“But howsoever their Paper Bodies are Consumed, like as the Roman Emperours, in Funeral Flames, I cannot say, an eagle flies out of them, or that they turn into a blazing star, although they make a great Blazing Light when they Burn; And so leaving them to your Approbation or Condemnation, I rest, Madam, Your faithful Friend and Servant, CL.” Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, eds., Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (Toronto: Broadview, 2000), 81-82. (329)
This only tells us that the book was published in Toronto, so it doesn’t say much about Canada as a country, other than to make clear that work of intellectual value is sometimes produced here. It’s a real book, so you can consult it if you’re curious to learn more about Margaret Cavendish.
From our perspective, then, The Blazing World is a bit vexing: it mentions Canada twice, but it’s hard to glean much from these references. I suppose we can conclude that a book can mention Canada without actually saying anything about Canada.