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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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From the internationally bestselling author, praised for her “beguiling, lyrical prose” (The Sunday Times Review, UK), comes a brilliant, provocative novel about an artist, Harriet Burden, who after years of being ignored by the art world conducts an experiment: she conceals her female identity behind three male fronts.

Presented as a collection of texts, edited and introduced by a scholar years after the artist’s death, the book unfolds through extracts from Burden’s notebooks and conflicting accounts from others about her life and work. Even after she steps forward to reveal herself as the force behind three solo shows, there are those who doubt she is responsible for the last exhibition, initially credited to the acclaimed artist Rune. No one doubts the two artists were involved with each other. According to Burden’s journals, she and Rune found themselves locked in a charged and dangerous psychological game that ended with the man’s bizarre death.

From one of the most ambitious and internationally celebrated writers of her generation, Hustvedt’s The Blazing World is a polyphonic tour de force.  It is also an intricately conceived, diabolical puzzle that addresses the shaping influences of prejudice, money, fame, and desire on what we see in one another. Emotionally intense, intellectually rigorous, ironic, and playful, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.
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It’s unlikely I’ll forgive Amal El-Mohtar for this one for some time. Her review of the book for NPR, and her in-person and online joy in it, convinced me to pick the novel up. It’s not one I’ll ever really be able to put down again. Treating themes familiar to readers of queer theory, of Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing, of the hidden female history of art and indeed of history, The Blazing World blazes a trail of feminist conciousness across its pages, leaving an indelible trail in the mind of the reader. But what about it as book, rather than as feminist conciousness-raiser?

It’s a palimpsetic novel, a collection of various parts – reviews, diary entries, notebook entries, written recollections, stories, interviews, and often footnoted in scholarly fashion by Hustvedt’s mask in the narrative, I. V. Hess. Indeed, that intertextual complexity, that layering of masks, reaches its apotheosis on page 272, wherein Burden and Hess both discuss Hustvedt’s novel The Blindfold, commenting on its meaning and content – a layering of masks, complexity, and content the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen before in any novel. The layering of different voices and points of view is fantastically executed, and “Hess’ curation” gives us a narrative that, even though we know how it turns out in the end, unfolds and refolds and changes shape as we delve further into the book, and reflecting back on previous parts, they never look the same having read the next element. The footnotes add to this, explaining the scholarly references in an accessible manner, but also drawing attention – not explicitly, though – to continuities, links, chains of circumstance.

However, this brings me to a problem with the book. I had to put it down from time to time not because it was affecting – although it was certainly that at times – but because the narrative voice had switched to one I couldn’t deal with, couldn’t accept; not necessarily because the speaker was vile (as in the case of Oswald Case, for instance) but because the writing style was one I struggled to get into. Whilst obviously a mark of both Hustvedt’s talent as a writer able to utilise a multiplicity of very different voices in the same story for this particular reader it at times made the book hard going, and I found it rather jarring.

Despite this rocky element, the novel is more than worth persevering with; the cast of characters – those who speak actively, such as Harriet Burden herself, those who exist in the margins around the speech of others, such as Hess, and those who only exist through the eyes of others, such as Rune – are all fascinating individuals, however appalling we may find them. The three most fascinating characters, Burden aside, are Phineas Q. Eldridge, the mixed-race genderqueer queer mask Burden works with for her second experiment; Rune, whose strange past, multiple stories and impossible-to-pin-down life and personality reminded me strongly of the Joker of Nolan’s Dark Knight; and Hess, the ungendered mask of Hustvedt, following Burden in pinning down her references, the academic curator of a strange compilation of different kinds of document into an overlapping narrative. Every character is richly painted, often from multiple angels by multiple people, and that authenticity of writing is absolutely wonderful, with different people seeing different facets of the personalities of different characters.

As far as fiction with a message goes, it’s a truism that writing a novel to make a point degrades both novel and point. The Blazing World completely undermines this; especially in the wake of the furore over The Cuckoo’s Calling, the idea of pseudonymous art and the effect of creator on perception of creation has been in the public eye, and Hustvedt turns it to excellent advantage in The Blazing World. The point is conveyed forcefully, undoubtedly, but by casting it as the central feature of the life of the protagonist, it is the story, rather than the message taking over the story. Feminist-theoretical discussions and asides mingle with discussions of conciousness, AI, the role and purpose of art, irony within art, and more, but we return again and again to the central message: women are not encouraged to make art, and – when they do make it – it’s devalued, even by other women, as compared to if it were made by a male artist. This heartbreaking truth is undeniable, and Hustvedt refuses to pull any punches in conveying it.

The Blazing World is a complex, brilliant, moving, painful book; not without its flaws, but Siri Hustvedt may have written the single most important book I read this year.


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