Saturday, February 15, 2014

Boks I'm Reading: The Lives of the Muses

Francine Prose's book The Lives of the Muses (Perennial 2003, but originally published in hardcover by Harper-Collins in 2002) is now more than ten years old. I've owned a copy for many years, but read only one or two of the nine segments when I first acquired the book. I'm happy to have now read it from cover to cover. Subtitled Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired, the book looks at Hester Thrale, Alice Liddel, Elizabeth Siddal, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Gala Dali, Lee Miller, Charis Weston, Suzanne Farrell, and Yoko Ono and the relationships of these women to the men they inspired--the writers Dr. Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Rainer Maria Rilke; Nietsche; Freud; the painters Gabriel Rosetti and Salvador Dali; the photographers Edward Weston and Man Ray (although Man Ray was also a painter); a choreographer (George Balanchine); and a musician (John Lennon). There are more than nine men in the list because at least one of these women--Lou Andreas-Salome--was a "serial muse," as Prose puts it.

In her introduction, Prose looks briefly at the classical muses, what it has meant to be a muse in more Earthly terms since then, and specifically at the notion of inspiration in the arts. She admits that artistic inspiration remains somewhat mysterious, but points out that we are stubbornly curious about the genesis of art anyway. Again in her afterward, she attempts to find some common threads in the stories she has told. In the end, however, I feel the book is best read as a collection of nine essays about specific relationships without trying too hard to extract broad conclusions about musedom, and each of the nine essays reads well as an independent piece of writing. The essays about Lee Miller and Man Ray and about Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine were of special interest to me--perhaps because in these two cases both the muses were themselves artists of importance, and, in the case of the choreographer and his muse, the love seems to have been particularly deep, the relationship between artist and muse particularly close, although it never became sexual. Recommended.

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