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.