Published by Simon & Schuster on Mar. 11, 2014
After years of struggling in the New York art world, seeing her work dismissed or ignored, Harriet “Harry” Burden is full of rage. She is tired of being sidelined, viewed not as an artist in her own right, but merely as the wife of her famous art-dealing husband. In middle age, she decides to create her most ambitious work yet — a work that will reveal both her own genius and the prejudices of the art world.
For her grand experiment, “Maskings,” Harriet exhibits work under three male pseudonyms: Anton Tish, a young fledgling artist; Phineas Q. Eldridge, a gay, black performance artist; and Rune, a critical darling of the artist intellectual set. Each of these shows are successful, reinforcing Harry’s conviction that her work has been ignored because of her gender. After years on the perimeter, she looks forward to her grand unveiling — the day that she will claim the work as hers and finally receive recognition for her talent.
However, this moment never quite comes. When she finally reveals herself (through the use of another pseudonym), people are hesitant to believe her. Although most critics grudgingly accept that she played a part in the creation of the art exhibited by Tish and Eldridge, the entire art world scoffs at her claim to have created the work released under Rune’s name. The entire matter is even further complicated by Harriet’s charged relationship with Rune, his public denial of her role in the art’s creation, and, later, his bizarre death.
The Blazing World takes the form of a scholarly book written about Harriet after her death a few years after Rune’s. It collects writings from her diaries; interviews with artists, critics, and people close to her; articles written about her, etc. The supposed author, I. V. Hess, compiles these materials to search for answers to a mystery that has never quite been solved among the artistic society, sifting through writings and statements to discover the truth about her relationship with Rune, who she was as a person, and what drove her to create.
This is an incredible, layered, challenging book. At times I really struggled with it; it’s dense and intellectual, and I couldn’t keep up with references to Kierkegaard and other philosophers whose names I can’t remember. However, once I pushed through and stopped worrying so much about understanding every reference, I could see what a fantastic book this is.
It has a twisty post-modern structure; The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is a novel that contains The Blazing World by Hess, which poses as a collection of factual writings about an artist. It’s rich in symbolism, with many of the characters bearing very telling names. Harriet Burden’s name evoke’s her burden as a failing female artist. Her husband Felix Lord, whose first name comes from the Latin for “happy” or “lucky” is a famous art dealer and the lord of their family. Rune goes by a single name, which seems to allude to both mysterious ancient runes and Harry’s ruin.
Additionally, this novel does a lot more than I was expecting it to. I expected a novel about gender bias in the art world, but Hustvedt goes so much farther than this. The Blazing World does convey the frustration felt by a woman who feels she is not taken seriously because of her sex, but it is about perception in a much broader way. It’s about how we perceive art based on so many factors: sex, age, attractiveness, affluence, one’s place in society, one’s aura or manner of presenting oneself. Each of the Harry’s works that are presented under male pseudonyms are perceived very differently depending on the identity of the purported artist. Hustvedt could easily have gotten away with making this novel primarily about sexual bias, but I admire her choice to make it about perception in general.
The Blazing World also has threads of duality running through it. Burden presents her work under male pseudonyms, and she herself goes by both male and female names (Harriet, Harry). There is also some fascinating, charged gender reversal play between her and Rune that really evokes this sense of blurred gender lines.
This is not a light read, or one I would encourage readers to take to the beach. It’s heavy and challenging and requires some serious thought. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Hustvedt’s writing seethes as Harriet, a perpetual outsider, records her rage at being overlooked and seen only as the wife of a famous art dealer. Her sentences are blazing and poetic, and this novel has many layers that I have probably barely touched. The Blazing World is a powerful, thought-provoking book, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.