In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

One Smart Cookie

 - Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Siri Hustvedt is a very smart cookie. She writes fiction and non-fiction - probably more of the latter. Her subject matter ranges broadly, with her main interests being art (Mysteries of the Rectangle, Living, Thinking, Looking)  and neuroscience (The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves). She lectures in both subjects to relevant august bodies.
In her brilliant new novel, The Blazing World, Hustvedt creates a character, Harriet (Harry) Burden in whom she invests much of this knowledge. The book purports to be a posthumous anthology about Burden, edited by an art historian. It consists of interviews, texts and written statements by artists, theorists, friends, her lover (lucky Harry to have found Bruno!) and her children. Harry's personal diaries are at the centre of the book and are so wide-ranging and erudite, that they are heavily footnoted by the editor with pithy explanations of French philosophy, art theory and yes, neuroscience. For a reader such as me, who knows of Merleau-Ponty for example, but has never read him, this is not only delightful but informative. Hustvedt adeptly avoids looking like a show-off, and Harry's wide-ranging intellectual interests are probably the only way in which author and character are alike.
Through these texts and memoirs we gradually learn about Harry Burden, a woman of a certain age, recently widowed to a famous New York art dealer and angry that her own work has been overlooked. She creates a work called Maskings, consisting of three separate solo exhibitions and chooses three young male artists to 'front' for her, the plan being to reveal herself as the real artist after the exhibitions' openings, thereby exposing the art world's inherent prejudice against women artists - especially ageing, overweight, women artists. 
Harry is a fascinating character, confronting in her anger and her outspokenness, deeply intelligent, well-read, passionate, loving, at once self-doubting and egotistical and of course, just a bit mad. The first male artist she works with is ambivalent about the project and wants nothing to do with her afterwards, while the second, a gay man, is behind her all the way and stays her friend until the end of her life. The third, most important artist is Rune, with whom she enters a strange psychological game when he welshes on the deal and refuses to acknowledge her as the real artist of 'their' work. Her collaboration with him ends in tragedy and throws up questions of identity, truth and ownership of art, all of which she has hidden too well.
This is a wholly original novel, its unusual format easily involving the reader in the characters and plot as a conventional narrative. Here is poignancy, anger, tenderness, familial and sensual love, art, literature, sexual politics and psychology - all wreathed in Hustvedt's deep humanity and blazing intelligence. 
I particularly liked the descriptions of Harry's strange but wonderful installations and thought of how Orhan Pamuk created in real life, in Istanbul, the same museum he has his character create in his novel, The Museum of Innocence. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Hustvedt were able to do the same and have her imagined artworks and exhibitions made real. Or would that unnecessarily confound the boundaries between art and life? Morgan Smith