Sceptre £18.99

The Blazing World, By Siri Hustvedt: Book Review

 

Framed as an academic’s attempt to piece together the story of a dead artist, Harriet Burden, The Blazing World comprises journal entries (with copious footnotes glossing Harriet’s references to everyone from Edmund Husserl to Kierkegaard and Milton to Mary Shelley), alongside cuttings and accounts from friends and relatives. Hustvedt offers a slickly written multiplicity of perspectives – an apt format, given that the novel is so deeply concerned with differences of perception.

Harriet marries a successful collector, Felix. She silences herself for him, stoically suffering his affairs, while her own work is ignored by the art world. Following his death, Harriet - though loathing the shallow, fame-obsessed art scene - is consumed by a “greed for recognition”.

So begins her “Maskings” hoax - by exhibiting under the name of three young male artists, she proves we cannot help but view art through the tinted lens of who made it, and their gender. If that person is a handsome young man, pumped up with charisma and hype, it makes the art desirable. Harriet’s revenge will be to whip away the mask, exposing such prejudices.

Yet Hustvedt, also a brilliant cultural essayist, goes further and deeper with this idea: the way Harriet works, and the very art itself changes when she presents it as created by men. Working with and through her “masks”, Harriet is able to access different versions of her self; a herm-aphrodite plurality.

But this comes at a price: the boundaries between art and life, mask and self, may slip in horrible ways.

The Blazing World ramps up thrillingly as it becomes apparent that Harriet’s final collaboration has taken a sinister turn. The artist, Rune, refused to acknowledge the hoax - and later died mysteriously. Did Harriet use Rune to play an intricate trick on the art world? Or did he seduce her, as he manages to seduce everyone, ultimately manipulating her to further his own art?

The Blazing World allows conflicting answers from different characters by supporting the thesis that perception is all. The menace builds, but when Hustvedt gets to the crunch point of what “really” happened between Rune and Harriet, the blow isn’t as nasty as anticipated. Nor is the intrigue so intriguing – perhaps I, too, am guilty of seeing what I want to see, but it feels unlikely that a reader wouldn’t side with Harriet (even if she is also deliberately exasperating).

Densely brilliant, but terrifyingly clever too, the text is laden with references to neurological research and phenomenological philosophy. Hustvedt does not wear her learning lightly. It’s easy to fret that, in a novel about artistic trickery, there are additional layers of authorial trickery to chase down (one source cited is “an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt.” Ho, ho.)

But you don’t need a PhD in Kierkegaard to enjoy Hustvedt’s writing, and it’s a pleasure to feel your brain whirring as it forges links and finds the cracks across differing accounts.

Even if The Blazing World is about ambiguity and mutability in everything from authorship to gender to memory, Hustvedt’s text is carefully, impressively constructed: she’s as convincing in each fictional voice as Harriet is in her masks.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam