Lara Vapnyar discusses her first novel, Memoirs of a Muse, about a Russian immigrant determined to become the muse of a famous artist.
The protagonist of Memoirs of a Muse is a young
Russian immigrant named Tanya. Raised by her single mother, a professor,
Tanya escapes the drudgery of post-Cold War Moscow life by reading about
Apollinaria Suslova, Dostoevsky's mistress and muse. Tanya romanticizes
that she too one day will become a muse like Suslova. After graduating from
college, she immigrates to New York, but unlike her relatives before her, who
try in more conventional ways to assimilate to American culture, she holds on to
her ambition to be "special," to become the muse to a great American writer.
American readers might be unfamiliar with an ambition like Tanya's, especially since the novel is set in present-day New York City where most women define success quite differently, and may initially misunderstand Tanya's idea of a muse as being intentionally subservient to the man or artist. How does Tanya define the role of muse? Would Tanya have wanted the same thing for herself in Russia? Does Tanya represent something larger about young immigrant women?
First of all, Tanya has a very idealistic view of a role of muse. She doesn't think that a muse is subservient to an artist, but that both the muse and the artist serve Art as equals. The inspiration that a muse provides is just as important as what the artist does with it. She would never have consciously agreed to be subservient to a man, and, later in the novel, she is horrified when she realizes that this is exactly what has happened.
Russian women are generally even more independent and self-sufficient (money-wise, not happiness-wise) than American women. In the Soviet era, being a housewife was practically unheard of. Tanya's mother has always been independent and had a brilliant career. And Tanya really wants to make something out of her life, too. But what makes her what she is is the discrepancy between her ability to dream Big (too big) and her very realistic assessment of her talents and her situation. She believes that the only talent she has is to inspire.
Immigration plays a big role as well. One of the major shocks of immigration is the loss of your social status. The class system wasn't as pronounced in the Soviet Union;, it existed, but it was kind of a taboo subject. But if it was as vivid as in the US, Tanya and her family (her uncle is a doctor, her mother is a famous scholar) would have belonged to the upper-middle class. In New York, she finds that upper-middle class life is absolutely unobtainable for her and for her family. And no matter what Tanya does, she will never get there. Some people accept it, others delude themselves, but Tanya with her big dreams and realistic perception cannot do either. Being a "muse" becomes her attempt to break through, to regain her social status. Which doesn't work of course.
There is another aspect of the role that immigration plays in Tanya's story. Most women tend to be blind to their lovers' flaws and deficiencies. But Tanya is doubly blind because her lover is a foreigner. I assume that if Mark were a Russian, she would have seen what he is, and what he thinks of her, much faster.
The inspiration for this novel came from your own graduate studies, specifically your investigations into the life of Apollinaria Suslova, who was Dostoevsky's mistress. Please tell us a little about Suslova's history and why it captivated you.
Apollinaria Suslova met Dostoevsky in 1861. She was 21, striving to find a way, any way, to lead an interesting life, either by joining the student movement, or becoming a writer or falling in love with a great man. Unfortunately, she lacked the conviction for the first and literary talent for the second. As for the third, she did manage to make one of the greatest men of 19th century fall madly in love with her, but it didn't leave her feeling happy or fulfilled.
When I found out that one of the options for my PhD project could be a translation into English of an important, but previously not translated work, I immediately thought of Suslova's novella A Stranger and an Intimate. Although A Stranger and an Intimate isn't a great work of literature, its importance is immense, because the two characters are thinly disguised Suslova and Dostoevsky, and because the plot is mainly biographical. A woman in the novella informs her lover that she has fallen for another man, and he proposes that they take journey abroad, remaining like "a brother and a sister," which is exactly what happened with Suslova and Dostoevsky in the fall of 1863. As I began my research for this project, I found out that Suslova kept a diary throughout the journey, and that some scenes in the novellas come almost verbatim from the diary, while others are apparently pure fiction. I had an impression that even in the diary, Suslova wasn't completely truthful, although there are some very candid scenes. And I became obsessed with an idea to imagine what really happened during that journey.
Tanya eventually does meet her own "Dostoevsky" of sorts, a writer named Mark. Your descriptions of Mark's constrained bachelor life and attempts at posing as a Great Writer are absolutely hilarious as well as right on the money. Can you talk a little bit about how his character came about?
One of the first "Americans" I'd met was a boyfriend of my cousin's former girlfriend. He was a writer (unlike Mark in my novel, an obscure but very talented one) who lived in a tiny apartment overlooking Central Park. My cousin's former girlfriend liked to take me there with her to show the guy off. I'd lived in the US for a few years, but since I lived and worked in a closed Russian community, I hardly encountered any other Americans. I thought that he, his lifestyle, and his apartment were absolutely unique and fascinating. I loved to visit him because he represented a perfectly exotic world. But then he broke up with my cousin's former girlfriend and it became awkward to visit. As my writing career began to happen I met many more Americans, and to my great surprise, I found out that the first guy wasn't unique or exotic at all, just a variation on a type, as was his lifestyle, and his beautiful apartment.
Mark's social status more than anything else allows him to enjoy the delusion of being a Great Writer.
Throughout the novel, Tanya tries to discover exactly how artists make art and what role a muse should play in an artist's life in order to ensure that the bestt art gets made. You make great use of humor as well as pathos in portraying Tanya's effortsshe applies every remedy she can think of to Mark's writer's block, from perfectly brewed coffee to submitting to sex that makes her cringe. And indeed he does start writing, but what he eventually creates is far from art. Does Tanya's and Mark's "collaboration" and its product say anything about how you
I don't think that the role of a muse is a great as Tanya believes. An artist has all the resources within herself. Sometimes outside influences can create an impulse, something clicks with something that the artist feels, but it is perfectly accidental. You can't plan a career of being a muse, and you can't push a creative impulse on anybody. Even if Mark were a true artist, Tanya's persistent muse activities wouldn't have helped.
Tanya discovers quite accidentally that all the while she was living with Mark and, in her opinion, failing as a muse, she was inspiring a different, far greater, artist. How does this discovery change Tanya's perception of her years with Mark?
Before this "discovery" Tanya saw her years with Mark as the lowest point of her life, as something so humiliating that the only way to come to terms with her life was to forget it, to pretend that it didn't happen. The discovery made her see everything in a different light. Her shame and humiliation appeared to her in a new, meaningful, perhaps even inspiring way. She saw that no matter how painful and embarrassing her past life was, it was still her life, it belonged to her, it helped to shape her personality and to determine her real needs. Or perhaps she simply grew up, and her perception of life changed, and she was able to view her past in a different, constructive way.
You do a great service to the reader at the close of the novelyou let us know how Tanya's life after Mark has turned out. Without giving away any of the story, I will say that things have certainly improved for her. How did Apollinaria Suslova fare after her years with Dostoevsky? Why did you choose to make Tanya's "ever after" so very different?
Suslova didn't achieve anything in her life. She ended up alone and very bitter. Her contemporaries and even later historians and biographers of Dostoevsky thought that was because she was a "spiteful bitch." I've always thought of her fate as tragic, she loathed the 19th century conventions, but lacked abilities (or talent) to oppose them in a meaningful way.
I think if Tanya was born in 19th century, her fate would have been the same as Suslova's.
As an immigrant yourself from Russia, what do you think is the hardest part about starting over here?
It's different for different people. For many, it's the loss of social status, and inability to find a new place in the society, where a person would feel comfortable. For me, it was also inability to find a job that I could do well. Not even prestigious, or lucrative, or even interesting, but something that would give satisfaction.
What are you working on next another collection of short stories, or a second novel?
I'm almost finished with the collection of stories about food, where people grapple with love and loss through different dishes that don't necessarily taste good.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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