Best Book of the Week!
Every once in awhile I read a book that is so remarkable that I doubt my powers to convey it. Such a book is The Blazing World. This novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014, but frankly, I think it is better than the novel that won. It is stunningly filled with ideas about such varying subjects as perception and misogyny in the art world, but it is ultimately the touching story of a flawed but compelling human being.
Harriet Burden is already dead when this novel begins. It is purportedly a book about her life, assembled through interviews, excerpts from her diaries, and art reviews and journal articles.
Our examination of Harriet’s life really starts with the death of her husband Felix. Harriet realizes that she has spent her entire life submerging her identity to please first her father and then Felix. She is a ferociously intelligent, well-read woman who has sat by and let Felix take credit for her ideas. Even more importantly, she is an artist. Although Felix was an art dealer, he never helped her find a market for her art. She has become convinced that no one pays attention to her work because she is an older woman.
Harriet, or Harry, as her friends call her, concocts a project she calls Maskings. She will convince a series of young male artists to present her work as his. Once the work gains the recognition it deserves, she will reveal it to be her own.
This novel is remarkable for the character Hustvedt creates in Harry—intelligent, articulate, caring, and extremely angry. Other characters are also complex and insightfully depicted—her grown children Maisie and Ethan, her lover Bruno, her second mask Phinny who becomes her friend, and even the Thermometer, a mentally ill man whom Harry gives a place to stay.
The novel is also remarkable for its ability to describe Harry’s art so that you can imagine it and understand its power. Some of Harry’s ideas are too abstruse for me—she is much smarter than I am and I couldn’t follow all of them even with Hustvedt’s footnotes. Still, this novel is an accomplished feat of storytelling, intellectual and dazzling.