The blazing world

Before I return this book to the library, overdue (oh, the shame!), I wanted to write a brief notice of it.

The book is The blazing world, by Siri Hustvedt. The following, an excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review, will give you the flavour:

Art isn’t easy, and according to Hustvedt (What I Loved), the art market can be especially rough on women who are over 40, overweight, and overtly intellectual, which is why the novel’s protagonist, Harriet “Harry” Burden, a frustrated artist and art dealer’s widow, exhibits her artwork using male stand-ins in a performance art experiment that goes terribly awry. Suffering from deep depression after her husband’s death, followed by extreme elation, Harry relocates to Brooklyn, where she produces modern masterpieces dotted with clues to her identity, then shows them under a male collaborator’s name.

Choosing this plot sets up a series of interlocking themes: the male domination of the art world (particularly in New York), the vapidity and shallowness of that world, and the nature of gender and artistic originality. Harry’s plan is to pass off her work as that of the three male artists, then reveal herself as the creator. Echoes of the Ern Malley hoax abound. It won’t surprise anyone to know that her plans backfire spectacularly.

The book purports to be a series of diary entries and interviews with the protagonists in the hoax and those involved with them. These are preceded by an introduction from a fictional academic who has edited and compiled these texts, and whose commentary on the story becomes one of the sources. Yes, folks, we are in post-modern territory. The author has (literally in Harry’s case) shuffled off, leaving the presence of an absence. There are footnotes. The multiple narrators frequently contradict each other’s version of events. This technique is the same as that used in Faulkner’s As I lay dying, and is used with very nearly the same degree of virtuosity.

This all might sound about as enjoyable as a bowl of cold sick, but it is really good fun. Hustvedt realises the character of Harry in particular vividly and plausibly. The latter is quite a polymath, being knowledgeable about Margaret Cavendish, Edmund Husserl, WTH Myers, William James, and much more. Minor characters like the hippy-dippy Sweet Autumn Pinkney are much more than caricatures; her brief appearances add a great deal of texture to the narrative. Hustvedt lectures in psychology in addition to her writing career. This discipline is personified in the character of Harry’s analyst; it also possibly informs the psychological insight Hustvedt brings to the characterisation. I thought of Henry James, particularly The portrait of a Lady; the males are either well-meaning but ineffectual, or cold-hearted users and betrayers. Like that book as well, there is no neat resolution in which the loose ends are tied up and every dog gets a bone.

I can’t do more than hint at the multiple strands, rich content, and ingenious construction of this book. The overriding thing for me was the sense I had that Hustvedt enjoyed writing it. Forget the post-modern stuff; you will enjoy it too, and want to find out what really happened. Good luck with that!

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