Summary and book reviews of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2014,
    368 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Morgan Macgregor

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Book Summary

From the internationally bestselling author, praised for her "beguiling, lyrical prose" (The Sunday Times Review, UK), comes a brilliant, provocative novel about an artist, Harriet Burden, who after years of being ignored by the art world conducts an experiment: she conceals her female identity behind three male fronts.

Presented as a collection of texts, edited and introduced by a scholar years after the artist's death, the book unfolds through extracts from Burden's notebooks and conflicting accounts from others about her life and work. Even after she steps forward to reveal herself as the force behind three solo shows, there are those who doubt she is responsible for the last exhibition, initially credited to the acclaimed artist Rune. No one doubts the two artists were involved with each other. According to Burden's journals, she and Rune found themselves locked in a charged and dangerous psychological game that ended with the man's bizarre death.

From one of the most ambitious and internationally celebrated writers of her generation, Hustvedt's The Blazing World is a polyphonic tour de force. It is also an intricately conceived, diabolical puzzle that addresses the shaping influences of prejudice, money, fame, and desire on what we see in one another. Emotionally intense, intellectually rigorous, ironic, and playful, this is a book you won't be able to put down.

Excerpt
The Blazing World

After she moved to Brooklyn, my mother collected strays—human strays, not animals. every time i went to visit her, there seemed to be another "assistant," poet, drifter, or just plain charity case living in one of the rooms, and i worried they might take advantage of her, rob her, or even kill her in her sleep. i worry too much; it's chronic. i became the worrier in the family—my job. The man who called himself the Barometer lived with mother for a long time. he had spent two weeks in Bellevue not long before he landed on her doorstep. he rattled on about the words of the winds and made peculiar gestures to lower the humidity. When i mentioned my anxiety about him to my mother, she said, "But, maisie, he's a gentle person, and he draws very well." She was right about him, as it turned out. he became the subject of one of my films, but there were other, more fleeting and unsavory characters who kept me up at night until Phineas came along ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss Harry's partnerships with Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge, and Rune in relation to the artwork she created for each of them. How did each partnership differ from the other two? Why did Harry choose these three men?
  2. How did the novel's multi-voiced, fragmentary style affect your reading experience? In the introduction, I.V. Hess writes, "All of Burden's notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue" (p. 6). Did this comment help you navigate the novel's structure? What role does dialogue play in the novel as a whole?
  3. Harry tells stories of other artists who used pseudonyms or false identities to present their work to the world. Alice Sheldon had two personas: James Tiptree and Racoona Sheldon (pp. 186–188). ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

The theme that carries through is a concern with how and why we look at things the way we do. We realize that, alas, this perception is the only truth. Of course, nowhere is the idea more heightened than in the art world, where the commodification of image means the difference between success and failure, and where artworks accrue merit based on the perceived "value" of the artists themselves. After all, what makes something Art? Siri Hustvedt has written a superb, important, and wildly engrossing novel. I have only just finished the last page and I already miss the characters in that blazing world as I would miss dear friends. You must read this book.   (Reviewed by Morgan Macgregor).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Larger-than-life Harry reads vociferously, loves fervently, and overflows with intellectual and creative energy…This is a funny, sad, through-provoking, and touching portrait of a woman who is blazing with postfeminist fury and propelled by artistic audacity.

Library Journal

Intelligent and evidently knowledgeable about the world of modern art, theory, and philosophy, Hustvedt describes in detail the insular world of the New York City art scene. References to cultural exemplars from Hegel to Kierkegaard are included as footnotes and discussions among the characters, but the most meaningful connections for the reader are those between mothers and daughters. Despite the smart tone, the novel does not invest the matters at hand with a feeling of importance.

Booklist

Starred Review. A heady, suspenseful, funny, and wrenching novel of creativity, identity, and longing.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Blazing indeed: not just with Harry's fury, but with agonizing compassion for all of wounded humanity.

Reader Reviews
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James Tiptree Jr.

In The Blazing World, the protagonist Harriet Burden's notebooks often include references to female artists, writers and intellectuals who struggled for recognition in male-dominated circles. One of the writers she mentions is James Tiptree Jr., an award-winning science fiction author who turned out to be a woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.

Alice Bradley Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr. Born in 1915 to prominent Chicago naturalists, Sheldon spent a good deal of her childhood traveling the world, most notably accompanying her parents on several celebrated expeditions to the African Congo, where they hunted large game and lived among Pygmy tribes. After studying painting at Sarah Lawrence College, marrying and divorcing her first husband, and having the first of many struggles ...

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