The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World is an ingeniously constructed piece of fiction. It is presented as a posthumous sampler featuring excerpts from the diaries of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an artist who created dazzling (and often frightening) multimedia installations from the 1970s to her death in 2004. The sampler also features critical reviews of her work and interviews with her family, friends, and collaborators.

Harriet is an amazing character, a flawed protagonist filled with rage, an intense creative energy, and a neediness to have her artistic endeavors acknowledged and acclaimed. In her fifties, she comes to believe that the reason that her work has been dropped from galleries is because of her sex and age. To prove her hypothesis, she decides to produce a series of installations for which she enlists men to present as their own work.

Over the course of five years, from 1998 to 2003, Harriet then creates three pieces (“The History of Western Art,” “The Suffocation Rooms,” and “Beneath”), each of which she attributes to a different male artist. The first two installations do garner critical approval, but it is the third that proves to be a huge success, both commercially and critically. The piece’s advertised creator is a 24-year-old artist, a hunk who looks great and thrives in the public eye. When Harriet, using an alias (presenting herself as a male reviewer), “outs” herself as the true author of the work, angry reviewers and gallery owners refuse to believe her… and the young male artist dismisses her claim as well.

Harriet Burden is a woman who is often loud, who lectures and can come across as too aggressive. But she also has a big heart, over the years sheltering a number of street people in her own home. At 6-foot-2, she is a towering presence, prone to explosive rage when it comes to the critical indifference to her art. It is only after subordinating her own ambitions as the “perfect” daughter, wife, and mother that Harriet begins to truly turn into “Harry”. She even claims that her works take on a different quality when she creates the piece impersonating a man.

In this novel Harriet Burden wears many masks, and the glimpses into her diaries reveal a complex personality, obviously creative and intellectual, but also often crippled by self-doubt despite her aggressive public persona. The Blazing World is a dazzling read, one that touches upon numerous subjects, including art history, philosophy, and even neurobiology. It is a novel that engages both the mind and the heart. The book’s title is well-chosen, for this story does blaze with the energy that creativity generates.

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