“We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us but because it draws us after it,” wrote Goethe. Maggie Nelson’s book, comprised of 240 short numbered, mostly beautifully written passages, describes her life-long affinity for and attraction to (what she calls ‘love’ for) the colour blue in all its literal and figurative senses, along with describing a period of mourning after the end of an intense relationship (also called ‘love’). She is, she says, not interested in learning “what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet.” To this end, and with the assistance of a range of co-opted “blue correspondents” reporting from art, literature and history, she intimates a field of nuanced responses to the colour blue, even though subjective colour response is almost impossible to communicate. Indeed, blue’s attraction is almost its absence of meaning, or its relief from meaning. “Blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. It leads neither towards justice nor away from it.” More than colour, blue is also merely colour, altering the cast of whatever it is seen upon. Although she attempts to draw correlations between the two (“I have found myself wondering if seeing a particularly astonishing shade of blue, for example, or letting a particularly potent person inside you, could alter you irrevocably, just to have seen or felt it. In which case, how does one know when, or how, to refuse? How to recover?”), there is an apparently unbridgeable gap in Nelson’s life, at least in the period treated in this book, between, on the one side, her intellectual passions and, on the other, her physical passions, between, as she would term it, thinking and fucking. Each side yearns towards the other, but encounters only the seductively nullifying colour of the void between them: blue.
Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting along the way with famous blue figures, including Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Yves Klein, Leonard Cohen, and Andy Warhol. While its narrator sets out to construct a sort of 'pillow book' about her lifelong obsession with the colour blue, she ends up facing down both the painful end of an affair and the grievous injury of a dear friend. The combination produces a raw, cerebral work devoted to the inextricability of pleasure and pain, and to the question of what role, if any, aesthetic beauty can play in times of great heartache or grief. Much like Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse, Bluets has passed between lovers in the ecstasy of new love, and been pressed into the hands of the heartbroken. Visceral, learned, and acutely lucid, Bluets is a slim feat of literary innovation and grace, never before published in the UK.
"It's been said that a great writer can turn any subject into an engaging book, but most authors still choose inherently dramatic themes, and few approach the static or plotless. But this is precisely what Bluets, Maggie Nelson's arty, smart and gorgeous meditation on the color blue, sets out to do, and it is alarming how much drama she creates from a subject so apparently simple... Wittgenstein, Goethe, Gertrude Stein and Yves Klein are just a few of the writers and artists whose work Nelson uses to uncover the potency of the colour. But their true function in the book is to establish a stage on which the author can dance." -- Catherine Lacey Time Out "What could be more invented than a life story that reads like a novel? Bluets doesn't invent that way: its inventions are wilder, wiser (and more true) than that... Nelson is interested in looking and what it means to see the world and how that is or isn't different from what it means to write about it...Perhaps another way of thinking about Bluets is as an instrument: a looking machine whose sensitivity includes the telescopic, the microscopic, and the flash of heat we feel just before we start to cry... Rather than attach herself to an aesthetic of ugliness in an effort to refuse the confines of ... the patriarchal literary establishment, Nelson transcends them: each proposition is breathtaking." -- Jocelyn Parr Brick
Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic and the author of five books of non-fiction. Her books include The Red Parts: A Memoir, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (a New York Times Editor's Choice) and The Argonauts (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), as well as five collections of poetry. In 2016 she was awarded the MacArthur Genius fellowship. She teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.