The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Through a collection of fragmentary sources, the novel builds a posthumous picture of Harriet Burden, a larger-than-life feminist and modern artist who released her work under male pseudonyms. An engrossing puzzle as well as a bold commentary on gender identity and the fractured self. Stylistically risky and fiercely intelligent.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781444779646

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'All intellectual and artistic endeavours…fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.' Thus we are introduced to the unforgettable Harriet Burden – larger-than-life, six-foot-tall amazon artist – and to some of the novel's essential elements: musing on what makes intellectual products successful in a postmodern marketplace, feminist resentment of the overvaluing of male achievement, and an unapologetic, playful boldness with language.

The Blazing World is presented as a collection of disparate writings by and about Harriet Burden, edited by I.V. Hess some years after her death in 2004. Hess acknowledges the difficulty of assimilating the disjointed and 'dialogical quality' of her writings and concludes that 'The best policy may be to let the reader of what follows judge for him- or herself exactly what Harriet Burden meant or didn't mean and whether her account of herself can be trusted.'

After her husband's sudden death, Harriet suffered a mental breakdown and underwent psychoanalysis before returning to work at her Brooklyn studio. Soon she concocted the idea of experimenting with public reaction by taking on male personas. First is Anton Tish, then Phineas Q. Eldridge (who, with his mixed-race background and half-man/half-woman drag costumes, reminded me of one of Angela Carter's chimerical characters), and last Rune. These three male artists vary in their level of compliance; two tire of being pawns and try to take credit for the work themselves. Harriet's relationship with Rune turns particularly bitter; when he is later found dead in one of his own installations, Harry's complicity becomes a disturbing question.

This is not a mystery novel, however, or if it is, the central mystery is not a death but a life – who is Harriet Burden? Readers start to build a composite picture of Harriet (or 'Harry', as she is known to her friends) through magazine reviews of her exhibits and written remembrances from art critics and Harry's family and friends, including her children, Maisie and Ethan, and her late-life lover, Bruno Kleinfeld (who has the most delightful voice in a novel with a myriad of well-realized voices).

Harry's own voice comes in the form of alphabetical notebooks, their content disorganized and ranging from long-form sermonizing to one-line aphorisms. Notebook C is the closest we get to straightforward 'Confessions', while Notebook O contains a disorienting mixture of first- and second-person narration. Crucially, the notebook labeled 'I' is missing – a clue that despite all this documentary evidence, Harry's true self will remain unknown. That sense of a fractured self, of personal identity as variable and shifting, is a key refrain that echoes Doris Lessing's feminist masterwork, The Golden Notebook, in which the protagonist compartmentalizes various aspects of her life into coloured notebooks. The challenge of achieving a holistic personality, especially for a woman in the arts, is, then, one of the novel's central themes. Hustvedt completed doctoral studies on Charles Dickens, and in some ways her sprawling narrative, with its large cast of characters, resembles a Dickens novel for the postmodern age, with the quest for the fragmented identity taking the place of the standard Victorian hero's journey.

This is a big, uncompromising novel of ideas, full of provocative thinking about modern art, technology, neurobiology and gender politics. Few women writers take such stylistic risks and accomplish such fiercely intelligent work. Along with Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Marilynne Robinson, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan and A.S. Byatt are some who have been successful. Yet, all too often, women's novelistic preserve is limited to relationships and domesticity. George Eliot set the pattern for women in the echelons of intelligent fiction – but then again, she had to take on a male pseudonym to do so.

In the kind of audacious self-insertion more common to hotshot male writers like David Foster Wallace or Martin Amis, Hustvedt even references herself in one of Harriet's notebooks – self-deprecatingly, as an obscure novelist and essayist. As I neared the end I almost wished Hustvedt had made her novel a puzzle-within-a-puzzle by releasing it under a male pseudonym; it would have been amusing to watch the media circus as everyone proposed (mostly male?) authors who might have composed it. Though perhaps a frivolous experiment, it would have been a telling metanarrative as well as an echo of her main character's struggle to be taken seriously as an artist within a male-dominated marketplace.

This was my first encounter with Hustvedt; I am so impressed that I would eagerly read anything else she's written, fiction or nonfiction. Meanwhile, I highly recommend The Blazing World. Take Harriet's advice: 'Peel the onion of personas, from one to the next, moving further and further into the book.' You'll find her intriguing story entirely worth the mental effort."

Further reading suggestion: For more of Hustvedt's erudite writing, try her essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking. The Children's Book by A S Byatt is another wonderful novel of art and ideas.

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