A muse ... doesn’t simply entertain. She inspires, she influences the great man’s work. ... 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. Five feet five, flat-chested and skinny, but with a great fire in my eyes, or a strange remarkable gait or carriage, or speaking in an especially melodic voice, and he -- the writer, artist or composer -- would snap his fingers and say, “Yes!” and hit his piano, slab of marble or creaky typewriter, and create with great fire in his eyes an enormous, magnificent work. And then generations of people would admire that work and see the fire that would still burn behind it centuries later. And it would be I who had lit that fire! (p. 48-9)
Tatiana Rumer (Tanya) is a young historian from the collapsing Soviet Union, who emigrates to New York with the sole ambition of becoming the muse who’ll inspire some as-yet-unknown artist to magnificent works. She dreams of Dostoevsky, and is inspired by his passionate relationship with his mistress Polina (Appolinaria Suslova): who’d want to be Anna Grigorievna, Dostoevsky’s wife whose diaries barely mention the great novels her husband wrote while married to her?
In New York she works hard on finding a struggling artist, and settles on Mark, a middle-aged writer whose novel After the Beginning is stalled due to writer’s block. Gradually, Tanya -- who learns to read English from the romance novels supplied by a canny neighbour -- realises that from Mark’s point of view, she is not Polina but Anna: she does not inspire him. (Gradually, too, she begins to recognise that his work is banal in the extreme.) Mark and I were very much alike, if you thought about it. Two people with immense aspirations and limited abilities, except for our one great gift -- the belief that we were what we wanted to be ... (p. 201)
Memoirs of a Muse is often very funny, and Tanya’s growth from pretentious adolescent to thoughtful, cosmopolitan (and inspirational) adult is interesting. I can’t say I found her a likeable protagonist, though, and the final pages felt as though she’d given up -- although the end of the novel could also be read as another, more adult and realistic, form of success. She seems dismissive of the artist she has inspired, because that person is as different from her daydreams as is possible.
Memoirs of a Muse makes a window on modern Russian life, and on the experience of Russian immigrants in New York -- an experience shared by the author. There’s an interview here that gave me much more perspective on the novel, and made me revisit some of my impressions. There’s also more detail on the relationship between Polina and Dostoevsky, which Tanya tries so hard to emulate but which perhaps is less practical in modern America than in 19th-century Europe.