the blazing world

By Siri Hustvedt

Simon & Schuster. 357 pp. $26


By Siri Hustvedt

Simon & Schuster. 357 pp. $26

"The Blazing World" by Siri Hustvedt. (Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster)

‘The Blazing World” is Siri Hustvedt’s best novel yet, an electrifying work with a titanic, poignantly flawed protagonist. Harriet Burden’s rage, turbulence and neediness leap off these pages in a skillfully orchestrated chorus of voices both dark and brilliant.

Harry, as her friends call her, was the wife of Felix Lord, a suave, successful art dealer. After his death in 1995, she reanimates her dormant career as an artist with a project she calls “Maskings.” She persuades three male artists to exhibit her installations as their own. Following the third show, she intends to reveal this deception, “not only to expose the anti­female bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”

Harry is an unabashed intellectual, and her notebooks, which form a major part of the narrative, are crammed with citations esoteric enough to require footnotes. But this is not merely postmodern game-playing­; the counterpoint between Harry’s ideas and her unruly emotions drives the plot. “Maskings” goes disastrously awry because she is so focused on her internal conflicts that she fails to take proper notice of her male collaborators’ rather different motives and intentions.

These come to light in interviews with the three men and various art-world denizens. The viperish recollections of a gossip columnist turned “cognoscente of the arts” named Oswald Case give a nasty glimpse of how Harry appears to the uncharitable: “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.’ ” Tender reminiscences by people who love her soften this cruel assessment without denying that Harry could be scary and overbearing. “I felt her like a red scream,” says Sweet Autumn Pinkney, the New Age psychic whose spacey insights prove surprisingly important.

The novel’s polyphonic structure delivers a wrenchingly sad story. As a girl, Harry felt suffocated by her cold, remote father, who found her too smart, too loud, too there. Then she married Felix, a much older man, much more prominent than she in the art world. Subsumed by motherhood and his elegant, affluent lifestyle, she again chased a distant, detached man, howling “Look at me!” at someone who wished she’d just simmer down. “A thousand times I witnessed the same scene,” says their daughter wearily. “My father could be maddeningly evasive and my mother annoyingly persistent.” But Felix admired her depth, and she was drawn to his mysteries. In a book filled with sensitively nuanced depictions of tangled personal relationships, the Lords’ loving, wounding marriage is Hustvedt’s master stroke, gentle to both and heavy with grief.

We know from the start that this is a posthumous account of Harry’s life, but the painful pages that trace her last days culminate in a moving affirmation of Harry’s astonishing art. Throughout the book, as the various stages of “Maskings” are unveiled, superb descriptions of these unnerving installations immerse us in imagery that manifests Harry’s primal dramas as a daughter, a wife, a mother and, of course, an artist. The woman who has spent her life begging people to truly see her gets a final benediction from Pinkney, who stands in her studio looking at “each and every one of those wild, nutty, sad things Harry had made . . . alive with the spirit.”

Smith frequently reviews books for Book World.