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

The Barnes & Noble Review
In the classical world, the muses -- all nine of them -- were daughters of Zeus who inspired poets, musicians, and other creative types to produce works of genius. Today, says Francine Prose, the word has been weakened and is used almost exclusively to refer to the chic women who help fashion designers inform their latest lines. But in her scholarly account, Prose (a National Book Award finalist for her novel Blue Angel ) presents nine real women who moved men to greatness and who were not mere catalysts but worthy of note on their own, in many cases deserving a share of the credit for the work they helped create.

Each chapter is a mini-biography of a woman's life and the way a male artist figured into it. We see the muse as prompter and creator in her own regard, like memoirist Hester Thrale, whose letters to Samuel Johnson helped form his later works. In Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the muse is at her most passive, asserting her independence of the child-loving author only by failing to remain seven years old forever. And with Yoko Ono, there is the muse as artist in her own right, who claimed not to have heard of the Beatles before meeting John Lennon, and whose avant-garde tendencies some blamed for his musical downfall.

To hit the mystical nine, Prose stretches a bit. For every Suzanne Farrell collaborating on ballets with George Balanchine, or every Gala Dal� cosigning canvases with spouse Salvador, there are personae only a graduate student would be likely to know. We learn of "serial muse" Lou Andreas-Salom�'s involvement with Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud, and of how Charis Weston had to vie with a toilet for the attentions of her photographer husband, Edward. But these lesser-knowns help make the book a complete analysis of notable women who motivated men of achievement -- usually at the expense of their own -- and lived with the consequences. iKatherine Hottinger/i

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