Reading Siri Hustvedt’s work is always a stimulating treat. She is the author of six internationally acclaimed novels and the recipient of the International Gabarron Award for Thought and Humanities.
I first fell in love with her essays on art and psychology of which the most recent collection, Living, Thinking, Looking (2012), is a wonderful example. The clarity and beauty of her novelistic and essayistic vision is matched by her stylistic virtuosity. The result is a deceptively effortless execution that leaves the reader completely fulfilled.
The Blazing World, Hustvedt’s latest novel, is perhaps her best to date. Similarly to her other masterpiece, What I Loved (2003), it ventures into the treacherous world of art, greed and fame. The novel’s unusual format imitates an anthology composed of various pieces – interviews, letters, statements, notes, reviews, editorial comments, and diary entries – all of which centre on the life and art of Harriet Burden. Tellingly referred to as Harry by her family and friends, Burden feels that her artistic talents have been eclipsed by three unavoidable facts of her circumstances: her gender, age, and marital status. Hardly anybody wants to take her or her art seriously because she is a woman, she is middle-aged, and she is the rich widow of the famous art dealer, Felix Lord. A lethal combination for any artist trying to make her way in today’s world.
Her whole life Burden searches for a way to dodge misogyny. She grows up with a father who wishes she were a boy. Tall and curvaceous, she feels unattractive. Her intelligence and intellectual pursuits don’t help and turn her into an outsider. Feelings of inadequacy follow her into her marriage to Lord, a philanderer with many secrets. As a mother she finds how hard it is not to repeat the mistakes of our parents.
The art she creates is highly sophisticated, but largely ignored. She wants “to blaze and rumble and roar”, but something that is nearly impossible to articulate, “something horrible”, weighs her down and then rises like bile to her lips.
She wants revenge. She wants to have the last word. After Lord’s death, Burden employs three male artists to exhibit her artwork as their own: “There will be three, just as in the fairy tales… And the story will have bloody teeth.” One after the other, the exhibitions garner the recognition and success Burden had been craving for, but instead of proving a point, they cause a great deal of turmoil in the lives of people directly or indirectly involved in the project Burden aptly calls Maskings.
The novel cuts close to the bone. As a woman artist, I also found myself reading with this huge indigestible lump of “something horrible”, “fat, leaden, hideous”, stuck at the bottom of my intellectual and emotional stomach, and I knew exactly what Burden was experiencing when attempting to break down the prejudices she encounters in her life. However, Hustvedt’s rumbling and roaring is reassuring.
Her The Blazing World shines as brightly as Sirius.
Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 June 2014, p. 31.