Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Muse On This

The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired by Francine Prose

The Goods: Nine mini-biographies from four centuries, and all kinds of variations on the idea of woman as muse - from women who worked as partners with artists to women who were artists and thinkers in their own right to the poor souls who were seduced, sapped and discarded.

The Women:

Hester Thrale: kept Samuel Johnson sane

Alice Liddell: received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University for inspiring Charles Dodson to write Alice in Wonderland

Elizabeth Siddal: husband and pre-Raphaelite asshole extraordinaire dug up her corpse to retrieve a book of poems he'd buried with her in the hopes that it might revive his career

Lou Andreas-Salome: serial muse; recipient of Nietszche's hottest pick-up line; convinced Rilke to change his name; called 'the great understander' by Freud

Gala Dali: inspired much of Salvador's work; masterminded his PR and marketing campaign, then encouraged him to sign hundreds of blank canvases to be lithographed (the Surrealist sell-out)

Lee Miller: by the age of 30 had modeled for Vogue, apprenticed with Man Ray and modeled for his best-known works, invented solarization, become an established photographer with her own studio; later became a war photographer

Charis Weston: went from model to muse to cast-off art wife

Suzanne Farrell: her dancing inspired choreographer George Balanchine to compose his best work

Yoko Ono: inspired John, and vice versa

Thoughts: In most ways, the idea of the muse is outdated and a little bit insulting. Prose writes early on, "Certainly, feminism has made us rethink musedom as a career choice." At the same time, the lives of the muses (and the muses themselves) are typically regarded as glamorous, dramatic, enviable. It is probably not a coincidence that biographers of muses spend endless amounts of time speculating about their sex lives.

Prose doesn't really offer much more in the way of a thesis than this: muses are as different as the women who become them, and then go on to be and do other things. Yet, what they do is quite interesting - and the quality that makes a woman fascinating to an artist makes her fascinating to others, too.

In another writer's hands, this book could have been disjointed and clunky. However, Prose writes like gangbusters and is snarky as hell. It's not every biographer who would describe the moanings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "the language of the gifted teenage contributor to the high school literary magazine."

It's a fun book, filled with juicy little tidbits that may not provide comprehensive biography, but serve as a good springboard to further reading. I picked up Lee Miller: A Life because of Lives of the Muses and totally love it even if the accomplishments and daring of Lee Miller do fill me with jealousy and the vague sense that I should, like, do more stuff.

That said, I guess I'm a muse. If inspiring your husband to finish his Ph.D. out of fear of what you'll do to him if he doesn't qualifies one for musedom.

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