To “review” Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World would be an insult. After a stream of too many fun, feel-good memoirs based on nothing much in particular, too many novels with little plot and even thinner characters, The Blazing World is a welcome jolt. This book places demands on the reader, forcing you think in the best possible way. Instead of reviewing this novel, allow me to offer you The Blazing World on a virtual silver platter.
Harriet Burden Lord, Harry to her friends, is wife of famed art dealer Felix Lord and mother of Maisie and Ethan. She is an accomplished artist, able to draw, paint, sculpt, sew, fabricate, and work in video and mixed media. Harry is a serious intellectual, widely read, interested in literature, science and, like her creator, neuroscience. Atop all this, Harry is physically imposing, a tall, large woman with a cap of frizzy, unruly hair.
When Felix Lord suffers a stroke and dies unexpectedly, Harry is shellshocked. With regular visits to psychiatrist Dr. Adam Fertig, she staunchly reassembles herself. Felix’s wealth means Harry now has the freedom, time, and money to work. She sells their Park Avenue apartment, purchasing a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. There a lifetime of smothered rage blossoms into an ingenious plan.
Siri Hustvedt has long cultivated multiple interests. Three of her non-fiction works, Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting, A Plea for Eros, and Living, Thinking, Looking address art and the art world Her fiction is often about art and artists: 2003’s What I Loved enfolds art, artists, family life and loss into a tour de force. Even 2008’s The Sorrows of an American, far more about the death of Hustvedt’s father, philosophy professor Lloyd Hustvedt, features an artist, the deranged Jeffrey Lane. And once more in The Blazing World, we are immersed in the art world.
All of Hustvedt’s work carries a strong neurological element. Hustvedt is a “neurological sensitive”, a lifelong migraineur and synesthete who began experiencing full-body seizures in 2006, at age 51. These seizures remain undiagnosed. Undeterred, she threw herself into research and writing, penning The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves, a remarkable neuro-medical history and memoir of her neurological experiences.
Hustvedt is fond of characters “visiting” from novel to novel, a source of delight for her readers; in The Sorrows of an American, art historian Leo Hertzberg appears, nearly completely blind from the macular degeneration that began plaguing him in What I Loved. In The Blazing World, Harry discusses Leo’s dear friend, the artist William Wechsler, and his piece, O’s Journey, with fellow artist Rune. In What I Loved, there is a minor character named Pinkie; In The Blazing World, Sweet Autumn Pinkney comes to Harry after receiving a sign outside the Siri Pharmacy—a pun on the author’s Norwegian first name.
The Blazing World is related by multiple narrators. The novel’s structure shows Hustvedt at wry play: Professor I.V. Hess, in cooperation with Maisie and Ethan, is attempting to assemble a posthumous narrative. Central to the project are Harry’s voluminous notebooks.
The disarrayed notebooks are lettered rather than numbered, exemplars of Harry’s prodigious intelligence. They also offer a conclusive narrative of what actually happened amidst a panoply of conflicting voices.
Hess also interviews Harry’s friends and acquaintances. Thus, we hear from Maisie, Ethan, Harry’s companion, Bruno, colleague Phineas Eldridge, Rune’s sister, Kristen Larsen, Harry’s best friend, Rachel Briefman, and various art world personages. Hustvedt has a bang-up time with the art community: many are pompous blowhards who make fools of themselves.
Harry is 62 years old when she begins work on “Maskings”, a series of three pieces intended to seek revenge on a male-dominated art world. Harry has spent a lifetime being stifled and in return stifling her rage, first as the dutiful daughter of a philosopher professor father. Her rage easily carried over into marriage. Felix Lord had no trouble shutting his wife down when he found her too loud, too aggressive, or too unpleasant. Half-Thai and half-British, a cosmopolitan, cultural misfit, Felix Lord was a dishonest and unfaithful man who took advantage of the fact that his younger, taller, homely wife loved him.
In “Maskings”, Harry seeks male collaborators to represent her work to the world, acting as the creators. The first piece, “The History if Western Art”, ostensibly created by young artist Anton Tisch, is a huge commercial hit. The piece is full of complex, obscure art historical references, including one that hasn’t yet been translated from French into English. Nobody in the art world wants to acknowledge that the 24-year-old Tisch, a recent art-school graduate, speaks no French and can only mumble incoherently about Andy Warhol.
In an ironic twist, “The History of Western Art’s” success is Anton Tisch’s downfall. Although Harry compensates Tisch for both his silence and his “contribution” , Tisch lacks true talent. He’s unable to replicate the success of his first “work”. To Harry’s lasting guilt, Tisch’s personal and artistic life are upended. He vanishes permanently from the art world.
Harry’s next collaboration is far more equitable. Phineas Q. Eldridge is a black gay male performance artist, older and more sophisticated than Tisch. He becomes close friends with Harry, working with her on what becomes “The Suffocation Rooms”. The piece debuts only days after 9/11. Harry again has a hit, though one quite different from “The History of Western Art”. Phineas falls in love and moves to South America to be with his partner. Harry begins the final installment of “Maskings”, with a surprising partner: Rune Larsen.
Rune, who has dropped his last name, doesn’t need Harry Burden. He’s already famous, an art-world bad boy. Harry’s lover, Bruno, instinctively despises him, immediately recognizing him as sadistic manipulator. Fiercely protective of Harry, he rightly fears the outcome of their collaboration.
Yet Harry brushes off Bruno’s fears. She enjoys her repartee with Rune, even when they disagree. The two rapidly fall into dangerous gender/sexual role play. Though not physically intimate, it is psychologically and emotionally destructive. Rune behaves in accordance to his name. Why? Some people get their jollies wrecking others. he show they create, “Beneath”, is a tremendous hit. Yet Rune behaves with shocking cruelty toward Harry. The matter is painfully unresolved, for Rune is also deceased.
The questions Hustvedt raises of inequality, of chauvinism, of unmitigated brutality toward women in the arts and out remain at issue. Only after her death does Harriet Burden Lord’s artwork begin receiving the critical praise it deserves.
In reading The Blazing World, which takes it title from the 1666 utopian novel by the Duchess of Newcastle, I was reminded of the Dire Straits song “In The Gallery”, a song about another ignored artist, also named Harry:
Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse
And a fine coalminer for the NCB that was
A fallen angel and Jesus on the cross
A skating ballerina you should have seen her do the skater’s waltz
Some people have got to paint and draw
Harry had to work in clay and stone
Like the waves coming to the shore
It was in his blood and in his bones
Ignored by all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds
He might as well have been making toys or strings of beads
He could not be in the gallery
And then you get an artist says he doesn’t want to paint at all
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall
The birds of a feather all the phonies and all of the fakes
While the dealers they get together
And they decide who gets the breaks
And who’s going to be in the gallery
No lies he wouldn’t compromise
No junk no bits of string
And all the lies we subsidise
That just don’t mean a thing
I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
And now all the vultures they’re coming down from the trees
He’s gonna be
He’s gonna be
in the gallery
—Lyrics by Mark Knopfler / Universal Publishing Group
The Blazing World has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. It is unquestionably one of the year’s finest novels, a serious examination of what female artists continue to endure.