Siri Hustvedt’s breathtaking “The Blazing World” (2014)

14 May 2014

Can you please run out and read this right now, so we can talk about it?9781476747231_custom-87695c3b0ead8f2daec953d7b7d75dc26d4464bf-s6-c30

It’s so good. This is what I wanted Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs to be, although it never quite rose to those heights. Like that book, it circles around a woman artist (why so many good books recently about women artists?) 

The novel proceeds as if an editor has compiled all the relevant information about a late female artist who, after her death, has been revealed as the artistic genius behind three celebrated shows, each purportedly the work of male artists. Her journals, interviews with her friends and critics, and other documents show that Harriet Burden arranged with those male artists for them to “wear” her art as if it was theirs in order, ultimately, to show the pervasive male bias of the art world.

But Harriet is far more than your typical cranky middle-aged woman who perceives bias. This book explores all aspects of artistic celebrity to show that this isn’t just feminist bitchiness but a true uncovering of how we — as a culture — see art through the artist (or, dare we say, through the author). Harriet’s agonizing frustration at her treatment is so astute that by the time I finished the book I wanted to start all over again. She is my favorite protagonist in months and months and months — and I’ve read some great books during this time.

Take, for example, her assessment of one of the artists she uses as a mask for her own work:

It is so easy for Rune to shine. Where does that effortlessness come from? He is so light. I am earthbound, a Caliban to Ariel. And I must watch his weightless flights over my head, while I lurk underground with brown thoughts that roil my guts. “Himself is his own dungeon.”

God, I loved this book, which just shines brighter and brighter like a blazing world from beginning to end. Read it and tell me what you think.

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8 Responses to “Siri Hustvedt’s breathtaking “The Blazing World” (2014)”

  1. Servetus Says:

    This sounds like a downer …

    • Didion Says:

      Then I haven’t described it well enough! The protagonist is so brilliantly smart and creative — the descriptions of her artwork are riveting — and her intellect so expansive that I found my brain sort of wonderfully tweaked in all kinds of good ways. It reminded me in some ways of the female protagonist in Norman Rush’s Mating, a woman whose smarts and voice and responses were so compelling that she felt like my best grad school friend. The Blazing World somehow isn’t a downer at all, except insofar as its protagonist struggles against the world. But she also transcends that struggle in really interesting ways. I SO want you to read it.

  2. Hattie Says:

    I downloaded a sample and will read it after I get through the Piketty and the Greenwald.

  3. soirore Says:

    Just to say that upon reading this review I logged straight onto the library catalogue to make a reservation. Started the book last night and it is just so wonderful. Thank you!

  4. Servetus Says:

    Hmmm. I’m about a fifth in and I’m obviously missing something that you’re getting but I am not. This feels hugely contrived to me, but I’ll keep going a while longer.

    • Didion Says:

      Really?! oh no! I felt this deep to the bone … but I also responded like an ideal reader to her descriptions of Harriet’s art.


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