Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, “The Blazing World” (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26), borrows its title from the 1666 novel by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, an imaginative and brilliant woman who was constrained by her society’s attitudes toward female intellectuals.
It is also the name that Hustvedt’s main character, artist Harriet Burden — likewise constrained by the norms of the contemporary art world — gives to the last project she creates: a “house-woman” filled with multitudes of meticulously created tiny figures.
The book is framed as a posthumous investigation sparked by controversy over Burden’s claims to several exhibitions presented under the names of other artists. It opens with a letter from the editor, the fictional conductor of interviews, solicitor of statements and compiler of Burden’s notes. The story is woven from the statements of her daughter, son, lover, collaborator and workshop assistant, as well as the critics who accused her of lying about the whole thing.
The pages are full of quotations and citations, links to fictional art reviews and actual articles from scholarly journals of neurobiology, contemplations of art and psychology, identity and memory. Footnotes explain many of the more obscure references, usually from Harriet’s journals, which jump centuries and subjects.
With frequent reference to the work of Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher, Harriet’s journals record her preoccupation with seeing and perception, the nature of the self and the multitudes contained therein. Her pseudonyms become embodiments of the many pieces of her personality, in some sense the people she was not allowed to be, constrained by her roles as daughter and wife and woman in the art world.
The “masks,” as she refers to them, are the men she uses to present her work, pieces of her grand experiment and a joke on the art world. The exhibitions and their reception are all part of a project she titles Maskings, meant to illuminate the way identity shapes a work of art and its reception.
Using male artists to act as fronts turns out to be the least predictable part of Burden’s plan, the risk she runs attempting to use another person as a hollow shell, a mask, when everyone has his or her own agenda.
Even in the minds of those willing to grant her authorship of the first two exhibitions, doubts linger about her role in the third, presented by a celebrated young artist named Rune. The big mystery is what happened with this last mask, with the games Burden played with Rune, both of them deceased and unavailable for questioning.
Emily Walz is a freelance writer from southwest Minnesota currently living in Nanjing, China.