Memoirs of a Muse

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Lara Vapnyar’s first novel, Memoirs of a Muse, is an unusual initiation story. Although in the course of the novel the narrator, Tatiana Rumer, or Tanya, does become disillusioned, she admits in the final chapter that the illusions on which she had based her early life were blocking her progress toward self-realization. Her disillusionment has made her later happiness possible.

Tanya’s account of her childhood in the Soviet Union does much to explain why she took refuge in an illusory world. She grows up without a father; when she is three, he leaves her mother for another woman and then dies soon afterward. Living with her mother, a professor, in a drab Moscow apartment, Tanya often looks at the faces of the Russian writers whose portraits had replaced those of her father. Tanya becomes especially attached to Fyodor Dostoevski. In answer to her questions, Tanya’s mother informs her that the writer died long ago and that the great man’s wife, Anna Grigorievna, was a nice woman who took good care of her husband.

When Tanya is ten, her grandmother has a stroke and has to move in with Tanya and her mother. For the next five years Tanya spends six hours a day caring for her grandmother, thus discovering her talent as a caregiver. As she grows into adolescence, Tanya starts thinking about her own future. A history teacher tells Tanya that she should become a muse, someone responsible for the success of some great man. Tanya is fascinated by the idea.

Even when her grandmother tells her that Dostoevski was a bad man, that he made his wife a virtual slavemuch as she herself had been to her own drunken husbandTanya believes that it would be exciting to be like Anna Grigorievna. At that point, she is certain that it was Anna who inspired Dostoevski’s writing. After her grandmother dies, in her belongings Tanya finds a copy of Anna Grigorievna’s diary. The more she reads of it, the more jealous of her Tanya becomes. She cannot understand how a woman so ordinary, so docile, so unintelligent, could inspire a genius like Dostoevski. However, after reading his novel Igrok (1866; The Gambler, 1887), Tanya becomes convinced that it was not Anna who was his muse but a woman the writer met before he married Anna. In all of Dostoevski’s other works, Tanya now sees, there is a woman like Polina, a woman much more like Tanya herself. Tanya’s mind is made up: She will be a muse like Polina. Never, she resolves, will she be a domestic servant like Anna Grigorievna.

In the previous chapter, Vapnyar introduced the real Polina, Apollinania Suslova, who was indeed Dostoevski’s mistress in the early 1860’s. Their affair began while he was still married to his first wife but was over by the time of his second marriage. A writer herself, Polina recognized Dostoevski’s mastery of his craft; however, when she attended one of his lectures, she became aware of the fact that he was personally unimpressive and that to her, at least, he projected both overwhelming power and an appealing vulnerability. Polina followed him and introduced herself. Some days later, she let him take her virginity, but as soon as he had completed the sex act, he started talking about his magazine. Polina was profoundly disappointed.

Presumably the narrator has based this imagined scene, as well as several later scenes in which Polina’s feelings about her affair with Dostoevski are revealed, on an old edition of Apollinania Suslova’s diary, which Tanya found at a secondhand book stall. Reading the account of Polina’s experiences, however, which concludes when she ends her affair with Dostoevski, does not stop Tanya from proceeding with her own plans.

After graduating from a Moscow college with a degree in history, Tanya emigrates to New York, where her uncle, her aunt Maya, and her cousin now live. At first she lives with her uncle and aunt in a cluttered Brighton Beach apartment that is not very different from the one where Tanya grew up. Her relatives begin looking for a husband for Tanya, so that, like her married cousin Dena, she can settle down in a suburban house filled with new furniture from Ikea, eat sushi, take tennis lessons, and thus progress toward living out the American Dream.

Dena’s lifestyle does not appeal to Tanya, who has her own goal. Perhaps, she thinks, one of the men she sees in her favorite...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 42.

The Boston Globe, May 7, 2006, p. E5.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 871 (April 7, 2006): 65.

Library Journal 131, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 79-80.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 9, 2006): 27.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (February 27, 2006): 31.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 105 (May 5, 2006): W8.