‘The Blazing World’: charting an artist’s turbulent inner life
Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, “The Blazing World,” is an electrifying portrait of a recently widowed artist trying to make her way in the contemporary art scene.
The Washington Post
‘The Blazing World’
by Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster, 357 pp., $26
“The Blazing World” is Siri Hustvedt’s best novel yet, an electrifying work with a titanic, poignantly flawed protagonist. Harriet Burden’s rage, turbulence and neediness leap off these pages in a skillfully orchestrated chorus of voices both dark and brilliant.
Harry, as her friends call her, was the wife of Felix Lord, a suave, successful art dealer. After his death, she reanimates her dormant career as an artist with a project she calls “Maskings.” She persuades three male artists to exhibit her installations as their own. Following the third show, she intends to reveal this deception.
Harry is an unabashed intellectual, and her notebooks are crammed with citations esoteric enough to require footnotes. The counterpoint between Harry’s ideas and her unruly emotions drives the plot. “Maskings” goes disastrously awry because she is so focused on her internal conflicts that she fails to take proper notice of her male collaborators’ rather different motives and intentions.
These come to light in interviews with the three men and various art-world denizens. The viperish recollections of a gossip columnist turned “cognoscente of the arts” named Oswald Case give a nasty glimpse of how Harry appears to the uncharitable. Tender reminiscences by people who love her soften this cruel assessment without denying that Harry could be scary and overbearing.
The novel’s polyphonic structure delivers a wrenchingly sad story. As a girl, Harry felt suffocated by her cold, remote father, who found her too smart, too loud, too there. Then she married Felix, a much older man, much more prominent than she in the art world. Felix admired her depth, and she was drawn to his mysteries. The Lords’ loving, wounding marriage is Hustvedt’s master stroke, gentle to both and heavy with grief.
We know from the start that this is a posthumous account of Harry’s life, but the painful pages that trace her last days culminate in a moving affirmation of Harry’s astonishing art.