Memoirs of a Muse
By Lara Vapnyar
Pantheon, 224 pages, $22.95.
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Tanya, the heroine of Lara Vapnyar’s first novel, “Memoirs of a Muse,” and (as far as Tanya is concerned) of numerous masterpieces yet to be created, doesn’t claim to be an expert on literature, but when it comes to choosing among the 19th-century writers whose photos line the walls of her mother’s Moscow apartment, her opinion is firm: “Dostoevsky was the one whom I loved.” As a child, Tanya imagines seating the great man with the bulging forehead alongside her dolls and serving him a bowl of kasha; as a teenager, she perches him and his shabby fellow geniuses on the edge of her bed, where they slowly unbutton her pajama top. “It must have felt ticklish to kiss a man with a beard, especially one with a long, fluffy beard, the kind favored by most nineteenth-century Russian writers,” she reflects.
The cult of the artist is so entrenched in Russia, so institutionalized on both official and unofficial levels, that it takes a former insider like Vapnyar to make light of its extremes. Vapnyar was in her early 20s when she left Russia in 1994, and her first collection of stories, “There Are Jews in My House,” captured the personal disorientation of her countrymen’s emergence from communism with a precision and density made all the more remarkable for being rendered in such poised English. In “Memoirs of a Muse,” Vapnyar’s comic though comparatively thin first novel, Tanya combines old-fashioned Russian artist-worship with a tough post-Soviet entrepreneurial hustle, convincing herself that the next best thing to becoming a writer herself is to become a writer’s muse. Her fantasy scenarios tend toward the soft-porn variety — “He, the great man, would be sitting frozen in front of a blank sheet of paper, empty canvas, silent piano, and I would walk in” — with a close-up of the finished masterpiece spliced in at the climax.
Of course, playing muse to a certified genius turns out to be a rather thankless business for both Tanya and her role model, Apollinaria Suslova, or Polina, whose torrid affair with Dostoevsky Tanya meticulously re-imagines. As far as Tanya is concerned, only Polina, “with her maddening attractiveness, with her sick pride,” qualifies as muse. Dostoevsky’s other so-called “muse,” his wife and stenographer, Anna Snitkina (similarly conjured up by Leonid Tsypkin in his novel “Summer in Baden-Baden”), is “devoted, calm, domesticated” — a nurse at best. Like some mortifying “woman of valor” from Tanya’s fossilized Jewish heritage, Anna is a cautionary example of precisely the type of muse Tanya does not want to be.
Tanya’s determination to find a genius to inspire takes her from New York City’s Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side, about as far from her greenhorn relatives’ bargain-hunting, matchmaking milieu as she can get. Frequenting a bookshop near Central Park, she quickly meets and moves in with a successful editor-turned-novelist named Mark Schneider, whose taste for monthly dental checkups, massages and organic shaving cream seems as foreign and mysterious to her as her “authentic” Russian demeanor seems to him. “I had never seen cappuccino before, and Mark had never seen a person who had never seen cappuccino,” she breathlessly concludes after their first date.
So focused is Tanya on being a Polina to her Dostoevsky that at first she looks past the fact that Mark spends more time on his psychiatrist’s couch than at his typewriter, or that she has yet to learn enough English to judge his writing for herself, or that the genius who should be quivering with creative passion in her presence appears to notice her most when his coffee runs out. “Mark must put enormous amount of energy into each of his works, and now he needed time to have that spent energy restored,” she rationalizes. Yet the longer she caters to her Dostoevsky’s needs, the further from a Polina — and the closer to an Anna — she feels herself becoming. It is only by chance and from the most unexpected source that she finally acquires some insight into how inspiration works.
Like Tanya, who as a student during the tumult of perestroika submits a thesis proposal on the history of 19th-century Russian makeup, Vapnyar takes a pointillist approach to reality, zeroing in on the smallest of details until the entire picture lights up by itself. In “There Are Jews in My House,” her gentle satire and exquisite attention to domestic ritual transformed some of those stories into delicate gems. Yet stretched out without much added texture in “Memoirs of a Muse,” the facets seem less sharp, the meanings more straightforward, the loose ends too neatly tied up. “My whole life prior to meeting Mark was a series of predetermined and interconnected steps all leading me to this inevitable high point — becoming a writer’s muse,” Tanya says. The difference between a story and a novel, however, is largely in the unforeseen layers and disjointed trajectories that convey the sheer messiness of life — a lesson taught, not least, by Dostoevsky.
Rebecca Reich is books editor of The Moscow Times and a writer at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.