Siri Hustvedt set herself a serious task: in her novel she tackles the question ‘are female artists recognized less than their male counterparts?’. Her main character, Harry (Harriet) Burden has started to believe more and more that her career as an artist was thwarted by her being a woman. She is truly convinced that she would have been recognized as an artist if only she had been a man. Hustvedt makes it clear that Harry herself might have played some part in not making it as an artist. Her marriage to Felix Lord, a famous art collector, might have put her at a disadvantage (he could not promote his own wife, could he now?), one might also wonder why Harry did not continue after two reasonably successful shows. Why did she chose to be only a mother to her children and a wife to her – not exactly faithful – husband? She could have continued making her art. It becomes quite clear that Harriet was not thwarted by public opinion only but also by her own character. She has chosen to become ‘Penelope’ whereas she would have been happier as ‘Odyssey’. Harry is not the easiest of persons and the older she gets the more she is troubled by frustrations that have been building up through the years. Harry decides to prove that female artists are judged differently by using three male artists as masks. The third, Rune, turns out to have his own agenda. He claims her work as his own and has made sure that Harry can never prove that she was the original artist. Hustvedt has structured her novel in such a way that it contributes to the confusion. By quoting from Harry’s diary, by using interviews with the people concerned, by articles in newspapers she paints a picture of a diffuse situation in which two people thought to take advantage of each other. Though it is quite clear that Harry is the brains between three expositions, it is less clear if Rune’s could be attributed to either Rune or her. It appears that its success is largely due to their cooperation.
Hustvedt makes sure that her readers have mixed feelings about Harry. Harry is not an easy person. Though she is a warm and loving person her darker side threatens to overtake her from time to time. As she gets older she lets negative memories and emotions get the better of her. She is opinionated, loud and socially awkward. Tone and style of The Blazing World support Harriet’s character. Her diaries are not easy reads. She is continually quoting other artists, psychiatrists or philosophers and expects other people to match her vast knowledge. I found myself being overwhelmed and slightly irritated by Harry, I suspect that Hustvedt set out for this effect from the start. Hers is definitely not an easy novel. It asks time and attention from its readers. Hers is a novel that makes you question things: is Harry right or is she exaggerating? Why did she not leave her husband? Why did Harry choose such a difficult path to prove that she was right? Was she telling the truth or are her diaries influenced by her own state of mind? Hustvedt never gives a clear answer, the readers have to find out for themselves. I am quite surprised that Hustvedt did not make it to the Booker Short List. Maybe the fact that Hustvedt is (as) demanding (as Harry) of her readers has influenced this decision.