The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt, Sceptre RRP£18.99 / Simon & Schuster RRP$26, 384 pages

Siri Hustvedt expects a lot of her reader. While it might be possible to enjoy some novels without possessing a grounding in western philosophy, psychoanalytic theory and art history, The Blazing World is not one of them. Its main character, the artist Harriet Burden, is resolutely cerebral, as are most of the New York art world figures around her. It all makes for a particular effect – this is a novel in which, when Harriet says, “I read a lot of Husserl in those days”, the implication is meant to be clear.

Few of Harriet’s complex ideas lend themselves to dramatisation. Sometimes this is because they are too abstract – another character remembers fondly that Harriet “liked to say” she had “taken the Kierkegaardian position”. At other times it is because they are too outsize. In her youth, Harriet was ignored by the same New York art world that made boy-millionaires of Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel and she is still being ignored in her sixties. In response, she has become “a feminist warrior”, a “Medea, mad with vengeance”. When she asks three male artists to exhibit her work under their name, it’s not collaboration but a “Faustian bargain”.

It isn’t that Harriet’s indignation about sexism in the art world is misguided, it’s just that to function successfully as the emotional centre of a novel, she would have needed to possess more common humanity. It’s a stretch for the reader to know how to feel about a woman so fervent she “pushed her art out of her like bloody newborns” and so highbrow she sang her kids “odd, repetitive Philip Glass-like songs”.

In this respect, The Blazing World sets out as it means to go on: without much care for the reader’s capacity to engage. As a whole, the novel takes the shape of a book by IV Hess, a professor of aesthetics who decided to write about Harriet’s work shortly after her death. This conceit sees Hustvedt opening the novel with a desiccated scholarly introduction and then following it with a series of excerpts from Harriet’s notebooks, interspersed with the “written statements”, interviews, transcripts, and less anchored communications of people in Harriet’s circle.

It’s a difficult form – one that doesn’t generate the warmth and coherence of Hustvedt’s best-known book, What I Loved (2003). One problem is that while the characters in The Blazing World all know Harriet, they don’t all know each other, and there are few occasions on which any of them interact. Instead, they enter and exit the stage alone, coming on to offer a subjective account and then receding into the shadows. Though Hustvedt succeeds in giving them each a live voice – especially the performance artist Phineas Q Eldridge – they remain separate and the reader is short-changed on the pleasures of setting, dialogue and scenes.

“Written statements” exist in a vacuum, as do chapters of bullet-pointed logical analysis entitled “An Alphabet Toward Several Meanings of Art and Generation”. What with Harriet’s tone of high drama – “Of this I am certain: there has been more than one turn of the screw” – the novel seems to veer repeatedly between abstraction and frenzy and the end result is at once lifeless and manic.

Hustvedt is at her best when she is at her least erudite, and Phineas, the novel’s sensuous voice, gives her an opportunity to come down to earth. An account of his father’s sudden death is understated and artfully compressed. His mother’s grief “seemed to paralyse her for a while until the Pentecostal religion of her youth stepped in to take over the blank spot Daddy had created. We changed churches.” The “we changed churches” succeeds in implying the urge towards psychological survival that a lesser writer might have taken pages to describe.

Unlike essays, novels can convey their author’s ideas solely through gesture, dialogue and setting, and yet the structure of The Blazing World greatly restricts Hustvedt’s access to all three. The repression of female vitality is an important and potentially gorgeous theme but, even in the case of a cerebral female artist, what’s needed to depict it may have less in common with the language of art theory and more with Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy skirt.

Talitha Stevenson is author of ‘Disappear’ (Virago)

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