Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, unspools itself messily in the mind of the reader. A tangle of testimonies, it purports to be an academic’s attempt to reconstruct the life of ‘Harriet Burden’, a minor New York artist and widow of Felix Lord, a wealthy art dealer. Lord and Burden – therein lies the central premise – can women make art and be taken seriously? How does patriarchy render female power grotesque, and what innate value might this grotesquery hold? Hustvedt is interested in the value of learning; the gendered notion of making art, and the terrible exacting price of the ego.
Beautifully dense, this is a footnoted novel that takes in Frankenstein, Kierkegaard, Kant and Louise Bourgeois. It sparkles with a lifetime of academic immersion on the part of the author and is demanding – the reader must keep up. It feels extravagantly intellectual, indulgently so even – and is all the more enjoyable for this fact. A clever, challenging, baffling book addressed to a learned milieu. This book is everything that must still be fought for by female authors who, are still limited in the content they can produce if they wish to court commercial success.
Harriet Burden is a phenomenal heroine, whose marginalization in the art world has led to bitter bombast, speech that oscillates between self-erasure and egomaniacal outbursts. She asserts that: “All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.” Her speech is monitored throughout the book, and the multiplicity of perspectives offered by the book’s conceit allow the reader to see her through many eyes, so that her assertions, which exude a reasonable anger when in the first person, can be re-cast as appalling feminine overstepping in a world where women are supposed to shut up: “She was talking to Rodney Farrell, the critic … anyway, something he said must have set her off, and this woman, who we all thought of as very quiet, burst out and rattled on about philosophy, art, language. She was very loud, lecturing, unpleasant…” Burden lacks finesse, her art – domestic grotesques, including life-size self-heating mannequins of her dead husband – lacks appeal, and her body is condemned to be unloved and untouched because of her age. The result? She undertakes to wreak vengeance on the art world, using three proxies – young men(the desired “cock and balls”) – to act as fronts for her work.
The novel is part tragedy, part thriller, and towards the end, as the third of her art proxies, Rune, begins to cause her to unravel, the books takes a sinister turn. The only proxy who remains largely pleasant – and whose status as an artist gains less attention in the wake of ‘his exhibition’, is Phineas Q. Eldridge, who is bi-racial and queer, and whose status as an artist is almost – but not quite – as marginal as Burden’s. He is reluctant to be her proxy because he is so aware of his status: “I told her she should think twice about taking on a swishy black man, but Harry was undeterred by my status as a member of not one but two minorities”. But Burden is undeterred. The novel is cruelly realistic on the subjects of age, race, sexuality and gender as impediments for success in the commercial world.
The stand-out success of the novel lies, however, in the central character of Burden. Halfway between tragic hero and comic relief, and all fierce intellect and quick speech, Burden is the female protagonist it feels as if we have been waiting to see for many years.