Sometimes all it takes is a name and the die is cast. For Harriet Burden, the fact that her father called her Harry from a young age felt like a challenge; one that she grabs onto with all the tenacity of a pit bull, even when it causes her nothing but pain. Harriet is the protagonist in Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, a tour-de-force of one woman’s determination to get recognition in the male dominated world of art. Harriet is already deceased when an aesthetics professor decides to write about her greatest project—the use of three male artists as beards for her own work. To do so, Professor Hess gets access to Harriet’s copious journals, interviews with the male artists, art critics, her children, and numerous other key people in her life. What we get is a fantastical mashup of Harriet’s personal life, art history, psychiatric schools of thought, gender history and a novel that provokes and rewards.
From its opening sentences The Blazing World is a novel that will challenge the reader on numerous levels. It’s intellectually rigorous with references and footnotes from people real or created, yet irreverent and wry. Initially, this feels intimidating (ala David Foster Wallace), but Hustvedt layers the demanding and dominating part of Harriet’s personality and it’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge with the quieter and more human aspects of her life. The novel starts hard and big with one woman’s desire to prove everyone wrong and, as posited by her lover, Bruno, for the sole reason that
”I want to be understood,” she would wail to me.
If artists one and two make any headway in her theory artist three, Rune Larson (who goes only by his first name), destroys the project. He refuses to give her any ownership to her final piece and causes her entire project to collapse into the ravings of a mentally unstable woman. None of the people she hoped would finally come to see her gift ever take her seriously. Rune is yet another example of how exhaustive Hustvedt has been in crafting the reader’s experience—everything warrants the reader’s attention—even the linguistic acrobatics surrounding the character’s names. There is Burden, Lord, Brickman, and then Rune, with its multiple meanings—one of which could be the hill country pronunciation of the word ‘ruin’.
Harriet’s machinations in pursuing this belief make her vulnerable to the theories of others about her mental state. Even the accounts of people who knew her well indicate that once Rune reneged on his agreement with her, she became paranoid. Without the gift of a highly intelligent and imaginative writer, The Blazing World could devolve into a one-note about the gender inequities within the artistic community but while Hustvedt stakes Harriet’s claims in that territory she then leads us, quietly, to see Harriet the person. This is what makes this pastiche of time, place, perspective, and character so engrossing. Just as Claire Messud captured Nora’s “unseemly anger” in The Woman Upstairs so does Hustvedt unleash the emotions that both invigorate and imprison Harriet.
“I wanted to fly, you see, and breathe fire. Those were my dearest wishes, but it was forbidden, or I felt it was forbidden. It has taken me a very long time to give myself permission to fly and to breathe fire.”
The fire breathing virago, who would as happily throw a chair as walk away from a disagreement, is brought to life, just as is the woman who loved her children and her husband, who still suffered the insecurities of being an ungainly girl, who had a screaming need to be understood. If this does not frighten you, then The Blazing World is a marvelously constructed work, with authorities who disagree on the same subject, eye witnesses who contradict each other, mass confusion and by the end, utter simplicity. It is about the humanity in art and the art in being human.