The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The writer's sixth work of fiction has been Booker longlisted

By Ian Whitfield

When her powerful art-dealer husband dies suddenly, Harriet Burden – or ‘Harry’ to her friends – an artist who feels her career has been overlooked because of her sex and her intellect, becomes obsessed with revenge. Siri Hustvedt’s sixth work of fiction takes the form of an archive of documents gathered after Burden’s death by the scholar I.V. Hess, who is researching the mysteries surrounding the artist and her ‘Maskings’ project, which had involved exhibiting her own work as if it were that of three complicit established male artists, in a plot to expose ‘them’: the ignorant dealers, artists, spectators and critics.

Burden designs her project to expose what she sees as the heinous phallocentricity of the artworld, which she blames for stunting her career. She is also consumed by ideas about ‘how we see’, and it is her intellectual and emotive wrangling with this issue that constitutes the wider interest of the novel beyond artworld mechanisms. The first of these motives is undermined and the second activated by the fact that Hustvedt’s character adapts her work for each surrogate artist, thus at least partially becoming them rather than, as Burden describes it, ‘wearing’ them.

Burden’s affected artworks often come across as literal-minded and adolescent: for example, one work involves an effigy of her husband behind misty glass, made shortly after his death. This has the effect of making the real art that pops up in the text, such as in Hess’s innocent footnote briefly describing the Guerilla Girls’ interventions, also seem madeup. The installation Burden devises for one of her artist guises, Anton Tish, is an outrageous stew of references, made via quotations written all over the gallery walls and an accompanying sculpture of a woman. This leads Hustvedt’s reader to wonder whether Burden is unsuccessful not because of any malign prejudice, but because her art is just not very good.

In Hustvedt’s New York artworld, fame is the only expertise, and this is withheld from Burden except in vicarious forms. Burden makes her best works for her Maskings and successfully vacates herself from their meaning. Under the guise of the handsome, young, unknown ‘Anton Tish’, her work is read by critics as exploring art history; through the black and gay ‘Phineas Q. Eldridge’ her work explores identity; and through the celebrity artist ‘Rune’ her work explores seduction and masculinity. Hustvedt surrounds the reader with multiple unreliable narrators and all are implicated as misrememberers, all telling the wrong stories about ourselves, warped and blinded as we are by perspective, memory and desire.

Rune is the master trickster of the novel and its most uncanny creation, whose self is consciously re-represented and reimagined from one moment to the next by his relentlessly mythomaniac interaction with family, friends and critics alike. Rune’s truth is deception, and his art consists of bland manifestations of this. Faced with this fey and weightless creature, Burden – heavy in the centre of multiple orbits and desperate to be the hero of her own book – loses control of her experiment. Longing to know herself as Odysseus rather than Penelope, she is drawn to Rune for his masculinity and chimeric audacity. In a glowing review of Burden-as-Rune, an exhibition is described as ‘muscular, vigorous and cerebral’, and she is ecstatic. Her anger finally stems not only from her sense of feminist injustice but also from an understanding that her consciousness is ambient in the gendered environment and that she cannot bodily access any objective platform upon which to metamorphose. There can only be perception and memory.

As an experiment in contingency The Blazing World is perfectly contained and made possible by the novel form. Burden sits in the middle of it all unmoving, steeped in the marinade of the ingredients Hustvedt tosses in, stopping only when she gets the right particular complex flavour on her wooden spoon, not unlike the making of the multireferential The History of Art installation Hustvedt invents for Anton Tish.

The article was originally published in the May 2014 issue.