Review by Christi Craig
A muse…doesn’t simply entertain. She inspires, she influences the great man’s work. In some very subtle and magical way—it’s elusive, it’s indescribable.
~ Memoirs of a Muse: A Novel
A muse may be “elusive,” but Lara Vapnyar unveils a bit of the mystery with humor and a unique perspective in her debut novel, Memoirs of a Muse (2006). Protagonist Tatiana (Tanya) Rumer is a young Russian woman set on becoming the creative inspiration for One Great Man. The particulars of such a man or his work matter little, except that he perhaps fit the description of Tanya’s favorite Russian writer, Dostoevsky, and that he adore her—as Dostoevsky did his mistress, Apollinaria Suslova—to the point of agony.
But such affections or fame in Soviet Moscow seem impossible. Having fought for her position as a successful professor, Tanya’s own mother still suffers from loneliness, still struggles to secure a simple can of instant coffee for their house. Hoping for a better life and excitement in romance (and good coffee), Tanya moves to America to live with her uncle and aunt. Her first day on American soil disappoints, though, the moment she meets her uncle at the airport:
Where was his thick mop of salt-and-pepper curls? Where was his Napoleonic posture (hands folded on his chest, head slightly tilted to the right)? Where was the wide smile of a person living his life to the upmost degree? The man who waved at me with a small bouquet of wilted carnations had a lost and timid expression. He was short, slouchy, and almost completely bald. He wore a shiny, dark blue club jacket and white pants. Both were clearly hand-me-downs; the sleeves and the trouser legs were too short, and the buttons about to burst. He looked like a caricature of an American the way they were drawn in Soviet propaganda newspapers.
Undeterred, Tanya goes in search of her self-determined destiny, beginning in New York City’s Central Park and ending at a bookstore where she meets author Mark Schneider. Here, first impressions are everything: “Mark Schneider wore the same jeans and a tweed jacket over a dark checkered shirt as in his picture. He looked older and somewhat broader though. His stomach pushed through his shirt. His beard and his short curly hair, black in the picture, turned out to be brown with streaks of gray.” He is, in other words, Tanya’s perfect image of a literary man in need of a muse.
Having emigrated from Russia herself in 1994, Vapnyar is part of a cohort of other American Jewish authors born in the former Soviet Union, such as Ellen Litman (Mannequin Girl, 2014) and Nadia Kalman (The Cosmopolitans, 2011). Bringing her own rich heritage to this literary landscape, Vapnyar weaves truth from the pages of Apollinaria’s diary with Tanya’s imagination of the other woman’s love affairs. At times, Apollinaria’s fate foreshadows Tanya’s. But Vapnyar keeps the reader turning the page in at least two ways: the alluring, whole-hearted way Tanya believes reality will surpass fantasy; and the author’s skillful use of humor. Nestled between her book of short stories (There Are Jews in My House, 2003) and her recent novel (The Scent of Pine, 2014), Memoirs of a Muse is a sweet and funny story about finding oneself in the old and the new.
Christi Craig lives in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer. Her work has appeared online and in print in journals such as The Drum and Hippocampus, and she was a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition. Visit her website at christicraig.com.