The Woman in the Gallery

Dominique Nabokov
Siri Hustvedt, New York City, 2009

“Art is long,” wrote the poet Randall Jarrell, “and critics are the insects of a day.” Which is another way of saying that writing book reviews can make you feel like a manic-depressive housefly. You buzz and bang your head on the window out of sheer guilt and frustration. Siri Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World is liable to induce a particularly twitchy and abject version of housefly headbanging. The windows are shut fast; the book a distinctly mixed bag; a claustrophobic critic feels obliged to air her doubts. But then, along with the guilt, a familiar neurosis sets in. Huge and bestudded though they are, can one’s multiple convex eyes even be trusted?

One is forced to ask because ever since The Blindfold (1992)—hailed by the late David Foster Wallace as “very powerful and awfully smart and well-crafted, a clear bright sign that the feminist and postmodern traditions are far from exhausted”—to The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), The Sorrows of an American (2008), and The Summer Without Men (2011), the judgments about Hustvedt’s fiction have been loud and laudatory. “One of our finest novelists,” declares Oliver Sacks. A writer—says Salman Rushdie—of “sexy…indelibly memorable fiction.” “A contemporary Jane Austen,” writes a UK critic; “densely brilliant…terrifyingly clever.”

Adding to the consternation: Hustvedt isn’t only a novelist. In addition to her fiction, she’s published three volumes of much-admired art and literary criticism, plus any number of squibs, reviews, and off-the-cuff autobiographical forays of charm and candor. (One is about how it felt to wear a corset for eight days as a movie extra for a film of James’s Washington Square.) In 2010 she published the weirdly gripping neuro-memoir The Shaking Woman; or, A History of My Nerves, in which she explored—in full-on brain-science-mystery mode—her struggles in early middle age with an onslaught of terrifying and seemingly inexplicable quasi-epileptic seizures. (Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio went bananas over it.)

Hustvedt fans will no doubt greet The Blazing World—already being promoted as a masterpiece, if not the masterpiece of Hustvedt’s career—with relief and anticipation. The writing would appear to go on, vividly unencumbered, its author’s capacious reserves of intelligence and creative energy unimpaired.

Not unexpectedly, Hustvedt is also a serious feminist, much praised for her thoughtful fictional renderings of women’s lives, especially as lived among the urban, college-educated, Kindle-owning, heterosexual middle classes. (The Blazing World, Katie Roiphe suggests, is “feminism in the tradition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: richly complex, densely psychological, dazzlingly nuanced.”) Never having met Hustvedt—she’s from Minnesota and went to St. Olaf’s, where her father was a celebrated professor of Norwegian—I imagine her as a sort of sturdy lady-Viking crossed with George Eliot: deeply cultured, an unabashed exponent of the higher seriousness, but one whose bluestocking worldview has also been…

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