Sometimes the books we read have a funny way of mirroring what we are feeling off the page. As I read Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel The Blazing World I was not in my best frame of mind. Since arriving in Berlin I have been struggling to knock-off a summer cold, the kind that acts as an endless reminder of how delicate my immune system was coming here. And I have been riddled with stress about the fate of my visa interview. The paperwork required and the language barriers to overcome to make those happen, the stress that I didn’t have enough money in the bank, or that I didn’t have enough work ahead of me, or that I didn’t have enough work behind me, and that the Ausländbehörde would find any number of reasons to either keep me on the paperwork merri-go-round like so many others, or worse, they would flat out deny me a visa and my partner and I would desperately have to scramble for a Plan B. The day before my visa interview I had a day-dream that I was on a dreadful reality tv show, the kind where I would, direct to camera, give some god-awful teary plea ‘I’m not ready to go home’.
There were many difficult things about this visa process, but perhaps the most unusual thing about applying for Germany’s Künstler Visa — a wonderful offering by the Bundesrepublik Deutschland to encourage more creative people to call Germany home — is that it forced me to announce myself as a writer. This is something I’ve spoken about many times before on book-plate, as the last eighteen months that this blog has been going has seen me push myself to write, to own my desire to create, and to build my self-confidence to a point where I am no longer shy to tell people that I am a writer. Coming to Germany was an opportunity for me to re-brand myself in a way (though I despise that turn-of-phrase, I fear it’s correct in this instance). I made a very deliberate decision on my leaving Australia to call myself a writer — to own it, stand up to it and stand up for the chance to be one. And then I sat in the immigration office and showed the officer my portfolio, my plan for the next twelve months, the letters of support of organisations back home helping me out. It was the most surreal job interview of my life, not just to prove that I have the skills and the experience to do something, but that this is the right place — the right country — for me to do it in.
And so, before I knew it, my passport was opened to a fresh page, the sticker with my face and my terms and conditions signed, the stamp pressed and the ink left to dry. Germany has already given me so much, now they have given me two years in which to write. It feels like the most freeing creative development one could ever apply for, yet I certainly feel a responsibility to make the most of this time. This is an opportunity that has come just at the right time. It buys me time to write, but it also cements myself as a writer. Somewhere my name is a line in a database and next to it the word ‘writer’ appears. The terms of my visa state that I can only make money in Germany as a writer — it will be difficult, but it forces me to hone in my focus, to commit to my plans, to sit my bum in a chair and type.
But of course, I will always be chasing away my indecision, my fears, my concern that nothing I do is of worth or will be read or deserves to be out in the world. I’m being dramatic to a point, but every artist has moments where their brain must be silenced in order to just focus on making the work. In Blindfold, Siri Hustvedt’s debut novel which I wrote about here, she wrote of a young artist moving to New York City to find who she was as a woman, and who she was as an artist. It spoke to power struggles within male/female relationships and touched on the themes that Hustvedt would go on to explore more broadly in this most recent novel. In The Blazing World, we meet Harriet Burden, an established mid-career artist who is battling for recognition of her work. These fears, these insecurities, riddle artists at any stage.
Burden’s growing anger and resentment at being ignored by the New York art world leads her to conduct an experiment: to show her own work in three separate exhibitions, but in each the name of the artist will be listed as a male counterpart. The three men who agree to take part in the experiment will act as the face of the work, will be interviewed and photographed, critiqued and perhaps lorded, but will not disclose the truth until Burden is ready. As we follow Burden’s experiment Hustvedt is not shy to ask the big questions facing her central character, but also of many artists practising today. How much of Burden’s recognition was tied to her marriage to a prominent critic? How much of her lack of recognition was due to the art itself? And would people be ready to listen, or indeed care, if and when Burden were to reveal the truth?
The art world was Harry’s laboratory—her microcosm of human interaction—in which buzz and rumor literally alter the appearances of paintings and sculptures. But no one can prove that one work of art is truly superior to another or that the art maker runs mostly on such blinkered notions. As Harry pointed out to me repeatedly, there is not even agreement on a definition of art.
Like How to be Both, The Blazing World tackles big questions of the art world in a highly experimental and sophisticated way. Refusing to act as a linear narrative, as ‘sensational biographies can also erase all nuance when they appear to fit a prefigured character and script—tragic hero or heroine, victim, genius’, The Blazing World is a posthumous scrapbook of Burden’s life and work. After an introduction from the ‘editor’ come testimonies from family and colleagues, as well as entries from Burden’s fastidiously maintained — though not necessarily reliable — notebooks. As the points of view change, the story builds intrigue and intensity. I must admit that this format did not allow for a smooth reading. It was often jarring and disorientating, but I feel like that was indeed Hustvedt’s desire. The Blazing World forces you into a state of questioning — of the artist, the art, the materials, the characters, the voices, the authenticity — to a point where you begin to question whether you are actually reading a work of fiction at all. Perhaps the peak of this dissociative state comes when Hustvedt breaks the fourth wall completely by quoting her own work in the footnotes late into the novel.
Hustvedt’s best moments in this novel examine the identity of the artist mirroring the identity of the maker. As the artist questions their work — the work that belongs to only them, that requires their heart and soul and sweat and tears — they are also questioning themselves. Just as I questioned my ability to receive a visa based on my ability to be a writer, Burden questions her recognition as an artist as an inability to be her true self:
“Rachel,” she said, “isn’t it strange that we don’t know who we are? I mean, we know so little about about ourselves it’s shocking. We tell ourselves a story and we go along believing in it, and then, it turns out, it’s the wrong story, which means we’ve lived the wrong life.”
We know from the work of VIDA, The Stella Prize and #readwomen that there are certain disparities between the value of literature created by women than that of their male counterparts. (I’ve written about this extensively throughout book-plate but also in these articles for Kill Your Darlings and The Wheeler Centre). What Hustvedt does in The Blazing World is not only put this disparity in context of the contemporary art world, but does so through a human voice, with all its natural flaws and quirks, to show the very real pain it can cause. But despite Hustvedt’s feminist argument, she does not lecture the reader. She is fully aware of having created a flawed hero, one that will in equal measure draw in and alienate readers throughout the book. Just as Harriet Burden struggles for answers and closure throughout her life, Hustvedt wrestles with notions and finds no clear answers. While the scrapbook structure challenges the reader, it also highlights the fragmented characters and the inability to find easy resolution. It is not always easy reading, but the last one-hundred-pages or so make for redemptive and thought-provoking reading, even if we already know the outcome. This is a book for readers who enjoyed The Flamethrowers or other studies of what it is to be a contemporary artist, or for readers who are willing to question what they know, as well as what they are reading.
And so now, with visa in hand, it’s time to get on with making a life here. To keep improving my language skills, to make new friends, to commit to new routines. As I’ve mentioned previously, one of our routines here is to visit the twice-weekly Turkish Market in Neukölln, where seasonal fruit and vegetables are sold amidst the bazaar-like atmosphere. In fact seasonal eating is a way of life across Germany, as discussed here by NPR or put into context beautifully by my friend Christie in this piece for Young Germany. Right now, the markets are filled with bright summer vegetables reminiscent of the mediterranean, such as eggplants, capsicums and tomatoes. Their deep, rich colours and healthy glow are enticing, and their price-tags irresistible. As I scoured for online recipes to find new and interesting ways to use these bountiful vegetables, I found this recipe for Aubergine Parmigiana by Jamie Oliver. With less cheese and more emphasis on the vegetables than this version I’ve made previously by Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall, it made for a more summery version of the dish. I added sliced capsicums to the tomato sauce and omitted the mozzarella in place of feta cheese which I already had to hand. The key to the dish is the breadcrumbs, which create a crunchy and satisfying topping (even gluten-free breadcrumbs achieved this). Here’s to the year ahead — now stamped with certainty — in all it’s seasons, and to the new experiences it will bring.
This weekend I am travelling to Scotland for the first time to attend the Edinburgh Book Festival. I am so excited to see this goliath of a festival in action, to absorb all it has to offer and in the process, hopefully discover some new books. I’ll be in town for a week and would love to hear of any tips you have for sight-seeing, or where to buy the essentials of life: good flat-whites and good books. Please say hi on Twitter if you’ll be at the festival, I’d love to see you.