The Blazing World: A Novel

by Siri Hustvedt

Hardcover, 2014

Call number




Simon & Schuster (2014), Edition: 1St Edition, 368 pages


"When Professor Hess stumbles across an unusual letter to the editor in an art journal, he is surprised to have known so little about the brilliant and mysterious artist it describes, the late Harriet Burden. Intrigued by her story, and by the explosive scandal surrounding her legacy, he begins to interview those who knew her, hoping to separate fact from fiction, only to find himself tumbling down a rabbit's hole of personal and psychological intrigue. Before she died, Harriet had claimed credit for three shows of contemporary art that had been the biggest sensations of the previous decade, sending the critics into a tailspin, since no one had even thought to connect the three shows before. The sculptures and paintings, while all of unquestionable quality, would seem to have nothing in common, and of the three young male artists who presented the work, one has fled the country, another isn't talking to anyone, and the third appears to have committed suicide--though not before denouncing Harriet to the world. So was Harriet Burden one of the greatest artists--male or female--in recent memory, having masterminded a puppet show of grand proportions, or was she a washed-up has-been looking for glory on others' coattails? As Hess seeks to solve the puzzle, he soon finds everyone has a different story to tell, and that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With a playfully intricate narrative structure, flawless prose, and fierce emotional insight, award-winning novelist Siri Hustvedt takes us into the heart of human nature, exposing our prejudices and preconceptions about ambition, feminism, and the complex psychology of love"--… (more)

Media reviews

[This snippet is actually from the letter exchange, Terry Castle responds to a reader, condensing the viewpoint to a nutshell]: [. . .] I would not describe The Blazing World as a first-rate novel. But I have to say I concur with the rest of his opening salvo: I did find myself hankering for things the novel failed to provide. Among them: true wit and intellectual depth (as opposed to the author’s relentless grad school preening), a minimally plausible story line and believable characters, some appreciable emotional resonance, and—how exactly to put it?—whatever
it is that makes a good novel all of a piece: delightful and risky and alive and worth caring about. It’s no defense of Hustvedt to say that the problems I mention arise because I’m
too rigid to see that she is “ambivalent” about her tedious heroine and “knows better than to invest uncritically” in Harriet/Harry’s cartoonish anti-male views. Authorial ambivalence—about anything—has nothing to do with a book’s readability. And unlike Nabokov or Woolf, two of the great masters of literary multivocality, Hustvedt often just seems confused—unable (technically or emotionally) to manage all The Blazing World’s moving parts. By the end the whole lumbering, lurching juggernaut goes quite spectacularly off the rails. Faced with what I suspect is a basic weakness in the conception of the work,
the novelist’s recourse is to confound matters further by heaping on gratuitous literary and philosophical references—the more recherché the better. Margaret Cavendish, Harriet’s revered “Blazing World Mother,” is one of a cast of thousands. Witness this passage in which Harriet’s daughter describes her peculiar parent: I don’t think anybody really knows when she first started thinking about pseudonyms. She published one dense art review under the name Roger Raison in a magazine in the eighties, dumping on the Baudrillard craze, demolishing his simulacra argument, but few people paid attention. I remember when I was fifteen, our family was in Lisbon, and she went over and kissed the statue of Pessoa. My mother told me to read him, and, of course, he was famous for his heteronyms. She was also deeply influenced by Kierkegaard. It’s not because I don’t “get” the references ostentatiously piling up here—Baudrillard on Disneyland, Kierkegaard’s aliases, Pessoa and his heteronyms, or, indeed, the whole Mommy’s-kissing-a-statue saudade of it all—that I find Hustvedt’s name-dropping way of characterizing her heroine coy and insufferable. A Little Wikipedia Is a Dangerous Thing. The fact is, the book is pretentious and contrived to the point of readerly burnout. It is also (dare one say) often dead-in-the-water boring.
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Siri Hustvedt is far too subtle and multifaceted a raconteur to present us with a simple tale of institutional misogyny. “The path to the truth,” in her heroine’s words, “is doubled, masked, ironic.” Harry Burden, as revealed through both her own testimony and that of others, is a self-sabotaging bundle of confusion. “Loud, lecturing, unpleasant,” prone to haranguing or snapping at people who might be useful to her, alternating between gawky silence and explosive rage, the 6-foot-2-inch-tall Harry looks “like a cartoon character, big bust and hips, . . . a galumphing jump-shot-sized broad with long, muscular arms and giant hands, an unhappy combination of Mae West and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men.’ ” In one of the novel’s most heartbreaking passages, Burden’s childhood friend, now a psychoanalyst, tells us that the literary character with whom the teenage Harry most identified was Frankenstein’s monster. “The terrible being Frankenstein makes is so lonely and misunderstood that his very existence is cursed. . . . His awful isolation is transformed into vengeance.”
Hustvedt has constructed the novel as a kind of artefact, out of numerous kinds of testimony: it purports to be the work of an academic researching Harriet Burden's claims of authorship years after her death, and is a collection of interviews, essays, articles and letters demonstrating the spectrum of responses to the would-be scandal. . . .
. . .
Hustvedt has a lot of very entertaining satirical fun in The Blazing World, but that particular note of tragedy, though she tries to sound it, remains lost.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brleach
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I am heartbroken and in love with this book. It is raw and deeply emotional on the one hand and urbane and intellectual on the other. I want more books like this. I read it slowly just so that I could savor it a little longer. Hustvedt blends PhD-level theoretical analysis with an engrossing tale populated by wonderfully and grotesquely human characters. I identified with Harriet, with her lumpy old lady body, churning emotions, her constant grasping for more, and a brain too canny for her own good. I loved to hate that insufferable moron Oswald Case. I adored Rachel Briefman and Phineas Q. Eldridge and Bruno. I came to appreciate the central importance of the characters who seemed simple and marginal but who were really essential to the lived reality of the main characters all along - the Kirstens and Sweet Autumns of the world, and the Maisies suspended indefinitely between the ordinary and the artistic. Most of the book had an eerie, ominous vibe as the novel meandered towards Rune's artistic death - but then the story veered suddenly into the gnawing brutality of Harriet's all-too-recognizable end. I sobbed through the final chapters. Earlier, I laughed. I raged. I analyzed. I was moved, emotionally and intellectually. This book and its characters will stay with me for a very long time. I believe it is the best book I have ever read. It is perfect.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Some books baffle me as for whom they are written; what is their intended audience? This one seems to be written for the author’s co-citizens of her seemingly rarefied world; the New York Art Scene. Anyone outside of this sphere is made to feel it sharply. Those on the inside, and perhaps us rabble, are clearly meant to wonder at her grasp of the philosophically and the neurologically arcane. Granted, it is her background and authors are coached to write what they know and in light of that I shifted my approach to the book and came at it as if it were an anthropological project. To spend time among the strange people who glorify concepts that don’t have much rooted to the real world and to see what they’re like when they think no one’s watching.

The thing is, everyone in this book is convinced everyone else is watching. To some degree they’re right; their attendance at various openings, galas and shows is a chance for them to parade their newest personas and to view others’, not necessarily to take part in the event. To see and be seen is what it comes down to. The narcissism on display was quite amusing and I hope that Hustvedt did is on purpose. I especially liked how Phineas justified his sponging by becoming Harry’s administrator. As far as characters go, he was one of the most thorough and I wish that Rune’s innate sinister quality had been emphasized a bit more.

The premise and the construction are great though. The basic idea is that women’s artistic endeavors are ignored, belittled and under-valued. The construction is that an editor is gathering and presenting material about the life, achievements and potential downfall of the artist Harry Burden. I thought it would give the author a real challenge to alter her voice and she pretty much pulls it off although all the characters seem to need editorializing to explain obscure facts gleaned from their lofty intellectual heights. In one or two it could have played, but all of them?

It’s easy to wonder if Harry is a stand-in for Hustvedt herself. She is a woman of high-achievement, but frequently only described as Paul Auster’s wife; something that must be REALLY annoying. Harry’s agony and frustration are palpable and pitiable, but she spent more time axe-grinding than combating the source. It’s also an easy conclusion that the editor represents Hustvedt and she couldn’t help using it as a vehicle to show off. Not knowing her or any of her other books, I tried not to linger on these ideas long. Instead absorbing the story as distantly as I could; not interpreting or assuming.

Did I enjoy it? Not enough to read another of her books. The narrative kept me at arm’s length and I can’t say that I was enmeshed in the story; I put it down for days. When I use the word story I do it lightly. There was one in there somewhere, but it was so diluted by navel-gazing and intellectual claptrap that it got lost for dozens of pages, multiple narratives and sometimes months or years in the timeline. It was an intellectual exercise and an experience, but one I don’t intend to repeat.
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LibraryThing member thorold
As several other reviewers have commented, the premise of this book — female artist adopts male personae in order to overcome art-world gender-bias — leads us to expect a good old-fashioned piece of reductionist feminist martyrology. But what we actually get is something a good deal more subtle than that. Hustvedt has fun provoking us to think about how the viewer's — and the artist's — perception of the artwork reflects the identity of the artist (and vice-versa), how factors like social status, age, gender, and money enter into the equation (on both sides), and how preconceptions about "intellectualism" and "madness" can also complicate the whole issue.

Of course, all this is happening not only within the story of Harriet Burden but also in the formal structure of the text, where we have a string of different narrators with different levels of status and authority (and some of whom are actually Harriet in disguise), and it's also implicitly happening in the interaction between the reader, the author and the text, since we know that Siri Hustvedt is a formidably intellectual middle-aged woman novelist writing in the character of a dim pedantic male professor who is supposed to be editing a collection of texts about a formidably intellectual (but possibly mad) middle-aged woman artist...

Fortunately, the whole thing is handled with a great deal of charm and humour. Hustvedt in the persona of Harriet enjoys blasting us out of the water with chunks of Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Lady Margaret Cavendish, but it's carefully set up so that any reader who has at least a vague general idea who Kierkegaard was should be able to keep up. (In one of her other personae, though, she undermines our self-confidence by drawing our attention to this journalistic trick and how it is done.) We don't necessarily understand Harriet and the artistic game she's been playing by the time we get to the end of the book, but we have definitely been made to think, and possibly shown just how much more complicated the real world can be than our nice theories would have it.

I know next to nothing about contemporary art, but I got the impression that at least some of the satire here must have been aimed at real targets that would be recognisable to anyone who knew the New York art world of the late nineties/early 2000s. Not exactly a roman à clef, perhaps, but certainly some in-jokes.

I've somehow managed to overlook Hustvedt up to now (obviously one of my many American blind spots), but she's someone I would certainly like to read more of.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
It was easy. It's still easy. You simply refuse to answer a woman. You don't engage in a dialogue. You let her words or her pictures die.

Harriet Burden is a talented artist who can't get any traction in the art world. Even her beloved husband, an important gallery owner, doesn't notice her art. So she comes up with a plan; she creates three stellar shows and has a different male artist take the credit for each one. Her plan is to then reveal herself and prove to the art world how sexist it is, but it doesn't work out as planned.

This is not a gentle or tactful novel. It is an angry, vibrant portrait about living as an artist in New York, about pushing against boundaries, about mental illness and genius. Were Hustvedt to have wanted to simply preach, she would not have created Harriet Burden. Harry is wonderful; chaotic, impulsive, angry and immensely talented. Her life blazes across the pages of the novel, which is told in the form of interviews, articles, diary entries and other biographical notes. It's an effective way to tell the story, with Harry's friends and family, as well as her detractors and other artists able to give their view of the events. Harry is as controversial and colorful as Francis Bacon or any other modern artist.

I was impressed by Hustvedt's writing and the depth of her knowledge. I'll certainly be reading more by this author.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
This is a very smart novel about a very smart artist-protagonist by a very smart author. First off, I thoroughly enjoyed it and was engrossed by the journey of artist Harriet Burden, the recent widow of an famous art dealer, who decides to test and tease the NYC art world. The novel may be too clever by half for many readers who are impatient with stylistic devices and games, but I found Hustvedt's writing amusing and entertaining.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, opening with an Editor's Introduction, which explains that the text is composed of a series of journals kept by Burden as well as as other commentary on and criticism of her work and testimony of significant people and family members in her life.

After her husband has died, Burden decides to present her installation works under a series of male pseudonyms -- she calls her work "Maskings." Each of the three installations garners increasing critical attention, until the third culminates in a crisis of identity and ownership. The relationships that Burden has with the three artists she hires or co-opts as fronts mirror certain aspects of her personality.

The Blazing World is probably not a novel for everyone, but if you're interested in the art world, feminism or literary experimentation, I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member mjlivi
Dense, angry and complicated, I think this was probably the wrong choice for an inter-continental flight - the layers of intelligence, nuance and self-reference were a bit overwhelming. Hustvedt is a brilliant writer though - nobody writes about the art world with more power and creativity - and in this book she's cramming in every idea she's ever had. There's art, feminism, neuroscience, grief, artifical intelligence, authorship and creativity, love, sex, death, illness and so much more. It's compelling stuff, but I probably need to re-read it to really get my head around everything that's going on here.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This is a very clever book, but one that left me utterly cold., The basic premise was enticing: a widowed female artist, unable to secure any recognition for her work in a largely male-dominated market conceals her identity and passes her own work off as that of three male artists, thereby demonstrating the extreme sexism of the New York art world.

I found the approach attractive too. The story is made up of a series of separate narratives, some of them drawn from a series of journals compiled by the artist (Harriet Burden) herself, while others purport to be personal memoirs from her friends and associates. Sadly, however, I found that the novel never quite sparked to life for me. All very clever, but I felt that Hustvedt almost became a victim of his own ingenuity and the succession of different narratives simply became burdensome.

Rather too much emphasis on style at the expense of substance.
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LibraryThing member capiam1234
I liked the way the story weaves throughout the different masks. I'm just not as interested in the art world after reading this and the Goldfinch, but it was a well written book within a book.
LibraryThing member DougJ110
The same premise, over and over: the art world is sexist. It got tiresome, after over 100 pages of the same thing.
LibraryThing member bodachliath
A very clever book about the art world, feminism, philosophy and neuroscience. The core story is about an artist, a rich widow who wants to prove that the artistic establishment discriminates against women, and particularly older women, and devises a scheme to exhibit her work presented as the work of younger males.

The book presents itself as an academic treatise, a mixture of interviews, the artist's notebooks and the accounts of her friends, family and various other players. The notebooks in particular allow Hustvedt to explore her own interests and provide her own footnotes explaining the ideas and historys of artists, scientists and philosophers.

If that sounds dry and difficult, that would convey a false impression - Hustvedt is a lively literary ventriloquist, and the narrative weaves its way through the various contradictory accounts and delivers some surprising conclusions.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
This was my second installment of an Indiespensable subscription from Powell's. I couldn't be happier with that. I never would have read this novel otherwise, and found it a delight. The novel itself was almost a 'who-dunnit', set in the nearly present-day New York art world. I eventually came to enjoy the supposed philosophical asides, complete with footnotes that were equally likely to be completely fictional as real. I would recommend the book to any serious reader.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This is a very clever book, but one that left me utterly cold., The basic premise was enticing: a widowed female artist, unable to secure any recognition for her work in a largely male-dominated market conceals her identity and passes her own work off as that of three male artists, thereby demonstrating the extreme sexism of the New York art world.

I found the approach attractive too. The story is made up of a series of separate narratives, some of them drawn from a series of journals compiled by the artist (Harriet Burden) herself, while others purport to be personal memoirs from her friends and associates. Sadly, however, I found that the novel never quite sparked to life for me. All very clever, but I felt that Hustvedt almost became a victim of his own ingenuity and the succession of different narratives simply became burdensome.

Rather too much emphasis on style at the expense of substance.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Amusedbythis
This is an amazing, engrossing novel. At times, it felt so real. It is filled with historical data that prompted me to research persons who I discovered by virtue of reading this book.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Complex and subtle, dark and funny, cold and poignant all at once. When I finished I almost wanted to just turn back to the front and start over again, since I'm sure I missed lots of interesting bits.
LibraryThing member SChant
I mostly enjoyed the sardonic central character railing against the sexism of the New York art world with humour and inventiveness, but I feel it would have worked better 100 pages shorter. There was a lot of repetition in the later sections, and what felt like extraneous commentaries popping in. All in all a solid 3/5.
LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
A rich, dense, multi-layered academic novel about an artist who chooses to present herself through the guise of three men, in protest for the poor recognition she's received as a woman. Beautifully written and imaginatively narrated. This is one of my early favorites of 2015.
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
(if/when I get around to reading this, I will use Diane's review as a resource for appreciation)




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