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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 4th, 2004


 

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired

by Francine Prose

Jungly Janes

A review by Gillian Beer

"O for a Muse of fire": in the event most artists must be content with a muse of flesh and blood, a force often as all-consuming as fire. The muse may represent the transforming power that condenses an artist's life and the work of art: but the muse is also a human person, in The Lives of the Muses usually a woman, with her own needs, drives and absurdities. Francine Prose understands passion and its varieties, particularly passions growing in what she calls "the jungly climate of the creative psyche". In this witty, perceptive and occasionally exasperated study, she examines ways in which the creative relationship between two people is inevitably tinctured by current fashions in feeling. She argues boldly that all her examples are examples of love, love experienced in different centuries and societies, feeling at odds with expectations. She takes nine women as her examples. Most of them inspired one man above all, though Lou Andreas-Salome made her way through Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud, preserving always what Prose marks as her talent for "triangulation", however various the relationships.

The success of this study is grounded in Prose's appreciation of love's varieties and the strangeness of others. Early in the book she argues that "our culture has too narrowly defined the parameters of what it calls love and drastically foreshortened the continuum along which each individual passionate affair or painfully repressed romance, each homosexual or heterosexual alliance, each socially condoned or 'inappropriate' attraction, is located". The tales she tells certainly stretch that continuum again, though mainly along the heterosexual axis.

Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth Siddal and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Andreas-Salome and her three lovers, Gala Dali and Salvador Dali, Lee Miller and Man Ray, Charis Weston and Edward Weston, Suzanne Farrell and Balanchine, Yoko Ono and John Lennon: some of these couples are dazzlingly close, others obscure. In each case, Prose tenaciously observes the arc of their involvement and she watches the outcome of that engrossment not only in their lives but in the works that emerged within the relationship — or, as it foundered. She is astute about the dangers of setting works of art too close to their sources, or of seeing them on a straight path emerging from a particular set of events: "Artists know there is no clear path on which to trace one's step back to the wellspring of a work". She is good on failures as well as successes and on the demands placed on artists to perform that backward walk: artists get worn down. It's easier, when repeatedly asked, to falsify a little:

Ah yes, I remember exactly what I was thinking about, what got me started. If Shakespeare had been interviewed as frequently as John Lennon, we'd know who the dark lady was, . . . and what friend or enemy was the model for King Lear.

Inevitably some of the examples are more engrossing than others and yield more to her analysis. Occasionally she throws off her equable approach: her discussion of Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal goes beyond the pithy to the acrid. She simply finds him a blight, though her indignation also elates her. She is at her best when she doesn't quite lose her temper with the lovers, as in the account of the ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell and the choreographer Balanchine. Here her eye is acute to the foibles of jealousy, but also compassionate and respectful of achievement and loss. The first two chapters show this capacity for tonic free-spirited observation to the full. The account of Hester Thrale and Dr Johnson's eighteen-year friendship and its collapse when she married a second time, happily at last, has often been told. But here their mutual dependence is accorded its full meaning and its unaccountable force: "The intensity of Mrs Thrale's dependence upon Johnson is the subtext of the letter she sent him from Bath: 'I think you shall never run away so again. I lost a child the last Time you were at a distance'". And the horror Johnson felt at his repudiation of her is caught in the quotation: "I drive her quite from my mind. If I meet with one of her letters, I burn it instantly . . . . I never speak of her, and I desire never to hear of her more. I drive her, as I said, wholly from my mind". The obsessional repetition, the contradictions, are there for all to hear. He is speaking to Fanny Burney.

The most delicate of the pairings and the one that also provides the frame for the whole book is the loving relationship between the child Alice Liddell and the youngish mathematician, Charles Dodgson. Prose's account opens with the eighty-year-old Alice receiving an honorary doctorate at Columbia, an event with its own pinched comedy since the University President sat himself on the garlanded throne intended for the aged Alice and left her standing throughout. At the core of the day is Alice Hargreaves's ringing assurance, which brings to life what might be dead: "Mr Dodgson knows and rejoices with me in the honor you are doing him". Rejoicing together is what they did in her long-ago childhood too. Prose will have none of the current queasiness about that friendship, though she is forthright about Dodgson's tally of child friends. Instead, she enters their mutuality, observes Alice alert, unafraid, responsive to Dodgson's presence and his marvellous stories, stories which issue in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass guided by their ever-curious and undaunted heroine.

Although the chapters are named for the women, the excitement lies in Prose's exploration of pairs of people. Much of what she says is true too for those (that is to say most of us) whose love affairs do not issue in a great poem, dance, painting, play, epistemology, dictionary, fantasy, or body of song. In her unillusioned way she observes that the unique being that is formed between the pair in a love affair is irreplaceable; and temporary. It is neither of them; it is both of them; it is other than them; it will not outlast the relationship unless — and this is the great exception — it finds form as a work of art. We would not remember or value what Prose calls Dali and Gala's "demented-peacock mating dance" were it not for his surreal, exacerbated canvases. Yet this is by no means solely a romantic reading of the liaisons between muse and creative artist: Gala was Dali's manager as well as his succubus. She arranged for him to sign thousands of sheets of lithographic paper "which Dali would be paid for, and which someone else would print". Even in such sordid financial and anti-artistic arrangements a heartening excess gives the whole a touch of genius. At the Andorra border, French customs officials seized a lorry with 40,000 such sheets on board. It begins to sound like performance art, a satire on the market.

The chapter on Lou Andreas-Salome has a voluptuous energy quite at one with its subject: Lou was the one of all these women who most expanded the intellectual horizons of the men she talked with and inspired, and those men were all giants of the past century and a half. She waited long before she committed herself to sexual encounter, preferring conversation, and able always to involve two men at a time in a skein of thinking and feeling where her own intermittent presence controlled the whole psychic economy. She was sacred, and a monster, and a psychoanalyst of real innovative power in her old age. Prose is good, too, on the struggle to be the artist, to take predominance or else to merge entirely, that she perceives in the shifting struggles between Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Sex is their medium, but their desire is for new creativity. Prose's judgement is temperate. She looks with some despair at the failures and infantilisms. If her analysis of Ono's work is sometimes harsh, she yet respects Ono's will to autonomy and her refusal of invisibility.

Can we ever understand the trajectory from an artist's life to the work of art? Is it a passageway or a fusion? Is longing needed to force creativity? Possession, it seems, may sate or inspire. The art-wife or the art-husband risks becoming psychiatric nurse, rather than exuberant inspiration, Francine Prose suggests. This exhilarating study realizes the force of creativity in unlikely alliances, some sexual, some pure passion of another kind. Virginia Woolf, the position of whose own husband, Leonard, raises other questions about muse and mistress, described it in Jacob's Room:

It is thus that we live, they say, driven by an unseizable force. They say that the novelists never catch it; that it goes hurtling through their nets and leaves them torn to ribbons. This, they say, is what we live by — this unseizable force.



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