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Siri Hustvedt - Longlist author interview

Siri Hustvedt - Longlist author interview

We interview Siri Hustvedt about being longlisted with The Blazing World

What has it been like to be longlisted?

After I received the call about the Man Booker longlist from my editor at Sceptre, Carole Welch, I hung up the phone and thought, “Harry would be so pleased!” Harry/Harriet Burden is The Blazing World’s complicated, flawed central character, an artist whose desperate need for recognition results in her staging an elaborate experiment fueled by vengeance. She hides behind three male “masks” to expose the sexist prejudices of the art world. Because Harry’s experiment and the novel itself are about the vicissitudes of perception, about how we, all of us, are swayed by our often unconscious expectations, through which we perceive not just art but the world in general, there is something weirdly gratifying about the fact that this particular book has been seen as worthy of the list. One of my characters, Rachel Briefman writes, “Had there ever been a work of art that wasn’t laden with the expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener?” She thinks not, but then she is only one of many. Because The Blazing World has no overarching narrative view, no single truth, but many narrators, each with her or his view, the reader is plunged into the ironies, juxtapositions, and ambiguities of the multiple narrations and must decide for her or himself how to perceive the story as a whole.

What are you working on next?

I have just finished a paper on mirror-touch synaesthesia for an anthology on the subject that will be published by MIT Press. I am now working on a lecture about memory and visual art that I will give at a conference at the end of September in Finland, after which I will launch into a novel that has been growing inside me at a fairly rapid pace. It turns on a character who has lost time—a specific period of time and her attempts to recover the missing hours.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have begun reading papers by the neuroscientist Karl Friston to get a grip on his idea of “free energy.” I just finished a luminously intelligent book by the philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller: The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, and I am rereading the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s work with renewed admiration.

What is your favourite Man Booker winning novel?

Every time I have been asked to make a list of my ten favorite novels, I create a new list. You are not allowed to get one favorite: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K., A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall—each one very different from all the others, each one very good.

Do you think the contemporary art world is indeed misogynist and did you have any real, underrated female painters in mind when you created Harriet Burden?

I’m afraid I still think misogyny is around, not just in the art world, but in all worlds. In the West, it often lurks underground—in unconscious prejudices shared by both men and women. The reasons for this taint are old and complex, and I suspect at least partly rooted in the fact that we were all once helpless infants, and most of us were dependent on a woman for our survival. Dependent helplessness is not a heroic position. We still associate the “feminine” with softness, emotionality, and the body and the “masculine” with hardness, cool reason, and the mind. It is a vicious binary opposition. Until we acknowledge that men and women partake of both the feminine and the masculine, we will be stuck. Harry is not based on a real artist. And yet, there is a “long list” of women artists who have either been overlooked or gained little recognition until they were old or dead. One of my twenty narrators, an art critic Rosemary Lerner writes, “It is interesting that not all, but many women were celebrated only when their days as desirable sexual objects had passed.” Lerner, however, further cautions that Harry’s story cannot be read simply as “a feminist parable.” I would argue that this goes for the novel as a whole.