Published in Venus Zine, Spring 2006Memoirs of a Muse by: Lara Vapnyar
This first novel by Lara Vapnyar tells of a modern muse living in New York and obsessed with the great Russian writers, Dostoevsky in particular. The main character Tanya emigrates from Russia to the States, after deciding in adolescence that she is not gifted in her own right and asking, “could I fight death by living my life to the utmost degree?”
Tanya’s ideas about muses went far back into childhood, when her grandmother warned her about the trials and tribulations of the role. Still, Tanya is so impressed (and turned on by; she masturbates while thinking of Dostoevsky) the great writers that she decides to achieve immortality by inspiring another person’s work. Vapnyar’s lyrical style is notable for its fine detail, economy of words, and tight, crackling dialogue, best evidenced in the gender-interplay between Tanya and Mark Schneider, the writer that (in the absence of Dostoevsky), she takes up with. Mark is confident, with well-honed tastes in everything from coffee to clothing to architecture, and he enjoys schooling Tanya on the tenets of his sophisticated world, paying for her clothes and food, and letting her live with him. In turn, she listens to his childhood memories, discusses his work, brings him coffee while he writes, sleeps with him, and undresses the way he requests, until the affair turns up its eventual pitfalls.
However, the reasons why a modern-day woman would choose this role instead of pursuing her own path, are left unanswered. After all, which of us in adolescence had a declared passion, other than the prodigies or geniuses? Why did Tanya lack the curiosity to find and develop a talent of her own, rather than glomming onto some dude? We never discover why Tanya decides on such a lazy route at such a young age. To be sure, muse-dom is a complicated notion to tackle, especially since muses are usually female and have roles similar to that of “kept” wives and mistresses. In the latter half of the book, Tanya begins to understand what her role entails, and Vapnyar handles the contradictions of a muse’s role with intelligence and dry humor and earthy, womanly insight.
-- Gretchen Kalwinski