Where to start with Siri Hustvedt’s new novel? Perhaps with a warning that it’s not an easy read. If it’s good old linear narrative you’re after best look elsewhere. The Blazing World is made up of a collection of documents relating to Harriet Burden – interviews; written statements from her friend, her lover and her children; memoir fragments; excerpts from her journals labelled alphabetically although not chronologically; articles from art journals – all collated by I. V. Hess who introduces the book.
From the start Hess warns us that Harriet is a self-confessed trickster, telling us that she had shown her installations pseudonymously, hiding behind three male ‘masks’ while planning to reveal her female identity to the resolutely masculine New York art world once the exhibitions were over. An artist whose work had received barely any recognition, Harriet was the wife of a highly respected international art dealer, quietly hosting his dinner parties while inwardly seething at male complacency and feeding her voracious appetite for knowledge. When Felix drops dead one morning, Harriet suffers a severe breakdown until one day her therapist tells her it’s time to begin a new life and she hatches a plan. However, as plans so often do, things go awry: her third mask refuses to play ball, claiming the work as entirely his own.
That’s a very short, very simple summing up of what is an intensely cerebral, complex and challenging novel. It’s likely to have you googling frantically, wrestling with Kierkegaardian philosophy and tracking down details of Margaret Cavendish – Harriet’s seventeenth century alter ego, as Hess helpfully tells us in his introduction, and the author of the original The Blazing World. Harriet’s apparently limitless knowledge proves irksome to many more ignorant denizens of the art world who smile, nod and change the subject – and at times, I must admit, I found myself in sympathy with them. That said, this is an extraordinary piece of work, astonishing in its erudition. Hustvedt’s descriptions of Harriet’s art are as vivid as I remember from What I Loved, one of my favourite novels. The documents that make up the book are written in many disparate voices, some of which work better than others – I particularly liked Phineas Q Eldridge, the gay black performance artist who is her second male mask, and the contributions from puffed up art critic Oswald Case were very funny. There are as many themes running through the book as there are voices, from feminism to aesthetic perception, identity to sexual ambiguity. It’s bursting with ideas.
Shortly after starting The Blazing World I was reminded of Nat Tate – William Boyd’s spoof biography of a young artist, long dead, published by David Bowie which was launched in New York back in 1998. I remembered reading what the Oswald Cases had to say about how influential Tate’s work had been before the secret was revealed to them and chortling to myself. Siri Hustvedt has taken a similar idea and worked it into an extraordinary novel – fascinating and deeply ironic. Of course, shortly after I thought of the Nat Tate shenanigans I came across it in her book. There’s very little this woman doesn’t know.