Dostoyevski on the wall

Lara Vapnyar writes about a young woman's desire to submerge herself into the shadow of someone greater.

dostoyevski (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Memoirs of a Muse By Lara Vapnyar Pantheon 224pp., $22.95 Tatiana Rumer, a young and insecure Russian migr , came to New York in the mid-1990s, still determined to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a muse to an important writer. She had always believed this to be her destiny: that she would someday become the divine inspiration of a great and famous man. Tatiana is the cleverly crafted creation of author Lara Vapnyar's imagination, but it seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Like her character, Vapnyar arrived in New York from Moscow in 1994 and began writing short stories as she struggled to master the English language. Her first short story collection, There are Jews in My House, was met with great acclaim. Now, in her debut novel, Memoirs of a Muse, she writes with an exquisite raw intensity and authenticity about a young woman's desire to submerge herself into the shadow of someone greater, and it is tempting to believe that Vapnyar has walked down this road herself. Why would anyone choose to become a muse? Even the term "muse" sounds antiquated, overly romantic and even a shade pretentious. Yet Vapnyar is able to describe for us with unforgettable eloquence the genesis of Tatiana's dreamy longings. Her father left her mother before Tatiana was three to live with another woman, and soon afterward died, leaving her mother alone and ashamed. She remembers watching her mother remove the photographs of her father from the walls of their flat and replace them with pictures of other men - Dostoyevski, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev - all the Russian writers her mother revered. While her mother was at work, she was left to care for her grandmother, who was falling into the last stages of dementia. Desperately lonely, the young Tatiana would stare at, and even talk to, the pictures on the wall, convinced they were always watching her, catching her in her most private moments. She drew comfort from the way their expressions never changed, and relished being the focal point of their attention. She was the star in her own imaginary drama. Dostoyevski won her heart. She recalls how "Dostoyevski was the one whom I loved. He had strong hands and a large forehead, so large that it seemed to burst through his skin. He had serious eyes, and he looked straight at me, without the fake playful expression of other adults." She began to read about Dostoyevski's life and was mesmerized by stories about his mistress Polina, who was said to have inspired many of his greatest works. She would make up scenarios in her mind about Dostoyevski and Polina, scenes of seduction, that always allowed Polina the "power to ignite him with the imprint of her foot, torture him, drive him mad, who had the power to make him want to grab the quill and write about her." That is what Tatiana wanted, what she needed to find; her escape valve from her grandmother's shrieks and her mother's loneliness. Her longings were not for the pimply boys at school, but only for the men on the wall. At a book reading in New York City, Tatiana meets and begins seeing writer Mark Schneider. She becomes convinced that their relationship will will allow her to realize her deepest desires. Still very insecure about her grasp of the English language, she struggles to read social cues, and often feels ashamed and awkward among his friends. Persistent, she tries to learn how to hold his attention, always afraid of displeasing him. After they move in together, Tatiana begins to realize the man she is living with is not the idealized version of the "Great Writer" who has been swimming around in her mind for years. Not only is he suffering from intense writer's block, but he also has an alarming array of disturbing traits. Schneider spends most of his days going to various doctors for mysterious ailments and foraging for special foods in the supermarket. Between visits to his psychiatrist, he jogs and goes for massages, and teaches occasionally at the local college. When he bothers to pick up a book, it is usually a trashy novel. Their sex life has degenerated into a series of quick and frustrating encounters. He asks Tatiana nothing about her past or her parents or her life in Russia, forgetting once that her father is dead. Tatiana knows something is very wrong, but still is clinging to her own delusions about him, thinking: "I longed for the sharp morning light to break through the one missing slat in the blinds, signaling the beginning of our new life: writing life, exciting, meaningful life. This would be the true beginning that would dispel all the doubts, and redeem everything that had gone wrong. The lack of intimacy wouldn't be a flaw but a requisite attribute of living with a writer. A writer could be truly intimate only with his work. If he wasted his innermost thoughts on his partner, what would be left for his novels?" Vapnyar's compelling first-person narrative voice channeled by Tatiana is tender and pleading; full of youthful angst and insecurity and all of the horrific roller-coaster emotions that accompany growing up. Vapnyar's Tatiana is trapped by her own twisted notions of love, sex, power and identity. The reader watches her slow burning eruption into selfhood with an uneasy remembrance of our own difficult passage.