Siri Hustvedt

In her latest novel, The Blazing World, American writer Siri Hustvedt has - by her own admission - created a central character who is "a piece of work".

"I don't know if Australians use the expression but we do," laughs the writer, who is the author of six novels but is also known for her essays and other non-fiction writing on art, philosophy and science.

It's an apt description for the fiercely intelligent, unapologetically passionate Harriet Burden, better known as Harry. Following the death of her wealthy and powerful art dealer husband, Harry resolves to reclaim the artistic career she sacrificed for marriage and motherhood. But, distrustful of what she perceives as the inherent sexism of the art establishment, Harry adopts a series of "masks" - young men who provide a front for her successive exhibitions, publicly claiming the work as their own while Harry controls proceedings from behind the scenes.

Or tries to, for, as she rapidly realises, each of her masks has a mind and an agenda of his own.

"Harry's project is about the strange revelations that hiding behind a mask can bring and the relations between the person who is using the masks and, in this case, these actual real masks," Hustvedt explains.

"So it's about the in-between - what happens between people, in some profound way. Each person that Harry works with changes both Harry and the works of art."

Richly complex and compulsively readable, The Blazing World draws the reader into what might be its greatest mystery: what transpired between Harry and her final mask, an enigmatic artist known as Rune who engages her in a dangerous and ultimately doomed battle of wits.

Indeed, one of the novel's most striking qualities is its ambiguity - the way that, for example, the reader sympathises with Harry while also recognising her self-sabotaging nature. This is enhanced by the structure of the novel, in which extracts from Harry's personal writings are pieced together with articles and reviews, along with testimonies from other characters, all ostensibly after her death by a scholar named I.V. Hess.

"I wanted to frame the text with a certain amount of distance," Hustvedt explains. "Harry's own writings are really hot - she's full of blasting emotion and also ideas . . . so I wanted to have a certain cool distance from the central character that was created by Hess but also the multiple points of view on Harry that are presented in the book itself - her children, her dear friend Rachel, and then others like Oswald Case (a fictional art critic), who really detests her.

"I didn't want to come down on a single point of view - the act of reading the book is, in some ways, an act of interpretation."

The fragments contribute to an intricate portrait of an intensely determined woman who nonetheless bears the psychological scars of the trauma of her relationships with her icily intellectual father and her charming but unreliable husband.

Indeed, while Hustvedt thinks her protagonist's arguments about the art world are "to some degree accurate" - "there is a demeaning effect just because a woman makes a work of art," she asserts - Harry's story "can't be read purely as a feminist parable".

"There are, of course, women who have done extremely well (in the art world); the highest prices for women are not commensurate with the highest prices for men but that doesn't mean there are not famous women artists.

"The other part of the story is that there is a psychological history for Harry - she has a very contentious relationship with her father, whom she adores and at the same time resents, and her mother is a kind of classical housewife character. So there's a psychological profile of Harry as well as a sociological one, which is that she's really p…ed off about the fact that women don't get their due."

While acknowledging the many differences, Hustvedt says this kind of gender bias is not without parallels in the literary arena, particularly when it comes to the reading habits of men and women. Here she quotes a character from her previous novel, The Summer Without Men, who observed: "Women read fiction written by women and by men. Most men don't".

"The statistics bear this out - that men avoid fiction in general and then they avoid fiction particularly written by women. Ian McEwan once said if women stop reading fiction, the novel will die, and I think he's more or less right."

These kinds of unconscious biases in readers of both genders mean novels tend to be undervalued as "a really serious and fascinating form for ideas".

"I think the culture is failing to see that the novel form in itself, because of its flexibility, is tremendously important and that the imaginary worlds that are what fiction is should not be denigrated as flimsy, feminine concoctions that have no meaning," Hustvedt says.

Indeed, it is an exploration of how these kinds of biases affect our perceptions of the world that ultimately underpins The Blazing World.

"All of us partake of certain types - human perception works in these ways, it works on patterns, it works on expectations," she says.

"And that, of course, is a huge point in the book itself; that perceptions vary.

"At the heart of the book is a character but the way people understand her - the way they perceive what she's doing - is highly varied and it's dependent on the individual's biases, some of them conscious, some of them unconscious."


The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West