- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

By Francine Prose
HarperCollins, $25.95, 416 pages, illus.

The classical world celebrated nine "Muses" Clio, Thalia, Terpsichore, Calliope, Euterpe, Melpomene, Erato, Polymnia and Urania mythic creatures, goddesses of the arts and sciences, inspirers of men. History, comedy, dance, epic verse, lyric poetry, tragedy, love songs, sacred verse and astronomy were the human results of their divine touch. Visitations were notoriously unpredictable and the Muses could be jealous, capricious and cruel. But without the insights afforded by the art and history they inspired, "men are, essentially, bellies."
At least this is what the Muses tell Hesiod in his poem "Theogeny" as quoted by novelist and essayist Francine Prose in introducing her new book, "The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired."
The muses Ms. Prose writes about are most certainly not divine. From the beautiful nine-year-old Alice Liddell, who begged her parents' slightly odd friend Mr. Dodgson to write down the stories he told her and thus inspired "Alice in Wonderland," to the fiercely ambitious Gala Dali, these muses are anchored firmly in the human world.
Alice, portrayed by Charles Dodgson at seven as a beggar child in what Alfred, Lord Tennyson said was the most beautiful photograph he had ever seen, went on to lead a rather conventional life. She married a rich landowner, managed the estate and had three sons, two of whom died in World War I. When family finances suffered, she helped by selling her manuscript copy of "Alice in Wonderland" for $75,000.
Gala, on the other hand, was unusual in the extreme. Shortly after meeting Salvador Dali, who at 25, was 10 years her junior, she deserted her young daughter and husband, poet Paul Eluard, telling the bizarre young painter, "My boy, we shall never leave each other!" Gala sustained Dali with what he described as "the petrifying saliva of her fanatical devotion"; he began to sign canvases "Gala-Dali." She sometimes locked him in a room until he had completed a painting and had him sign piles of blank paper which could be printed by someone else but sold as his. Towards the end of their lives (she was close to 90) an argument in a Paris hotel room left Dali with a black eye and Gala with two broken ribs.
The other muses Ms. Prose profiles are Hester Thrale, in whose London home Dr. Johnson spent 18 years as a houseguest, her "wicked high energy" providing "a blessed distraction for the depressive writer who, in turn, diverted and consoled her as she lost, one after another, eight of her twelve children;" and Lou Andreas-Salome, who inspired passionate devotion in Friedrich Nietzsche, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud.
Seen here too are Lizzie Siddal, the red-haired beauty painted often by Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and who died at 30 of a laudanum overdose); Lee Miller, Man Ray's model and lover in Paris who went on to a significant photographic career of her own; photographer Edward Weston's wife, Charis, who posed for him, kept track of his negatives, planned his organic meals, chauffeured his students, and wrote proposals for the grants that largely supported them; Yoko Ono, who John Lennon credited with inspiring not just his music but his very life; and ballerina Suzanne Farrell.
The chapter about Ms. Farrell and her relationship with choreographer George Balanchine is particularly interesting. She was a teenager from Cincinnati auditioning for the School of American Ballet when they met; he was the its 50-something director, married to his fifth wife, who, like her predecessors, had been a dancer. The newcomer rapidly advanced in the company; she and Balanchine clicked artistically and shared an intense three years of creative work together.
But Ms. Farrell resisted Balanchine's pressure to become more deeply involved; she balked at becoming another in "Mr. B's" string of ballerina wives. When she married Paul Mejia, a young dancer in the company, Balanchine made things so difficult for them both that they moved to Paris and danced there for several years.
"The Lives of the Muses" contains much interesting material (though the chapters on Elizabeth Siddal and Yoko Ono are frankly tedious and the Dalis are downright disgusting). But some weaknesses are common to all nine of Ms. Prose's sketches.
Chronology is jumbled in ways that make some stories hard to follow; the author assumes knowledge of people or events the reader may not have (Dodgson marks important events in his diary "with a white stone" but the reader never knows what this means; when Rossetti paints Lizzie as Ophelia "the details of the disastrous 1852 session … are well known" and so on); and all the chapters are weighed down by the author's heavy analysis of the relationships and speculation about their sexual aspects.
Thus, the friendship of Hester Thrale and Dr. Johnson was "in theory platonic, though there exists one fervid note from Samuel Johnson to Mrs. Thrale in florid French and in the language of bondage and restraint. And then there was the business of 'Dr. Johnson's padlock,' which turned up after her death, among Hester's effects."
Lou Andreas-Salome's 40-year marriage was platonic. "Lou fought valiantly against her husband's beastly nature, which she associated with his affinity for 'the world of animals.'" And Suzanne Farrell's "refusal to be either a mistress or, ultimately, an art wife, may have reflected her religious scruples, her own reservations about adult sexuality and certainly had a great deal to do with the guilt she and Balanchine suffered over their betrayal of Tanny [his wife] … "
Much more compelling than what Ms. Prose writes about the Balanchine-Farrell relationship are the extensive quotes from Ms. Farrell's own book, "Holding On To the Air," and from "Elusive Muse," a documentary film about her. In the film, telling about her first collaboration with Balanchine, Ms. Farrell remembers questioning her readiness for a certain part.
"Then a wonderful thing happened," she says. "He clasped his hands as if in prayer, made a small bowing gesture, and said simply, 'Oh, dear, you let me be the judge.' And so I did, forever more. This brief exchange was a turning point in a silent understanding, and our trust was sealed … I trusted him not to let me be a fool, but rather a tool, an instrument in his hands. In short, I trusted him with my life."
Of her refusal to succumb to Balanchine's desire to possess her more fully (and which her own mother encouraged), Farrell says, "Our interaction was physical, but its expression was dance. We both had histories suggesting that marriage might not be the answer George had had numerous marriages, and my family had barely survived the one that produced me. I didn't want to go home with George and be married …"
What Ms. Prose finds "most obvious" about this and about Balanchine's later acceptance of Ms. Farrell back into the company when she returned from Paris is "the painfully civilized repression of feeling."
She says that Ms. Farrell and Balanchine respect each other's dignity, that being, she says, "an important element in even the most free and least formal Balanchine ballet. Perhaps this also helps explain Farrell's reluctance to sleep with Mr. B., since sex is an activity in which it is ultimately counter-productive to maintain one's reserve and composure."
Yes, Ms. Farrell and Balanchine do indeed appear to have, finally, respected each other's dignity. They seem to be a rare example of a partnership where each person is both artist and muse, inspirer and inspired.
And Suzanne Farrell's voice describing that experience has an authenticity, an urgency and a beauty that, for all her heated questions about these women, about why "artists were permitted and encouraged to be artists, while they themselves were relegated to the less enviable position of muse," Francine Prose lacks.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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