Randomly picking up the book at the top of the pile I started this year’s marathon with Siri Hustvedt The Blazing World. I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book but I found it a bit like swimming through treacle.
Mea culpa, mea culpa: I found that the text was too loaded with references. So to roll back a bit…the novel is “compiled” by I.V.Hess and purports to be a study of the works and life of an artist, the late Harriet Burden, widow of the famous film director Felix Lord, also deceased. The novel is a collection of transcripts of interviews with friends and family, extracts from professional journals and extracts from a voluminous collection of Harriet Burden’s own notebooks, which themselves are a collection of thoughts, things she has read, ideas for her art works which we would now call installations.
The whole book is a meditation on perception, exemplified through art. What are we “seeing” when we look at a piece of art? How much are we influenced by the name/sex of the artist, and what has been written about the piece before we go to the exhibition? I will not deny that it is a brilliant book, Siri Hustvedt certainly deserves her place on this list.
But if you are new to her work, please start with another book, The Sorrows of an American. Both these titles are heavily influenced by the works of Søren Kierkegaard. Both share an interest in the life and experience of the outsider, someone who is neither at ease in society nor his/her own skin. A study of dislocation, abiding sadness and loneliness. These books are not page turners, they are so dense with philosophy, psychiatry and deep thinking. But I have come away fuller even though I found The Blazing World more indigestible. Here is a page from this book which gives you an idea of why!scan0001[clicking on this link will open the document]
Reading these two books reminded me of a book I read in the sixties. The must read at the time, a study by Colin Wilson called The Outsider. Written in 1956 it is a study of existentialism, more Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William Faulkner and many others whom you will also meet in The Blazing World. The book examines the lives, both non-fictional and fictional, of famous outsiders: Hemingway’s fictional heroes and Hemingway himself, Van Gogh, Kafka, Camus and many others.
Another randomly selected book on the Man Booker list is also, as it happens, about an outsider. Ruth Swain is a twin, she is ill from an obscure blood disorder, she is Irish and the book is set in the wettest year on record, just as the Tiger economy has bust.
It is History of the Rain by Niall Williams. Ruth’s father is a poet and much of the book is a background of his family, back to her great, great grandfather, The Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, his son Abraham who arrives in Ireland and her father Virgil and brings us right up to the moment Ruth herself goes into hospital for a last resort treatment. How can you not be enchanted by these men? It also covers the history or mythology of her MacCarroll grandmother’s family, whose roots lay way back in the Irish mists, and apparently rose from the sea as seaweed…mmm only in Ireland? Salmon fishing features and the Shannon River flows past the house. I told you it was romantic.