‘The only people for me,’ Jack Kerouac wrote in his autobiographical novel On the Road, ‘are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…’ I read this, now legendary, sentence some years ago and was struck by how precisely Kerouac summed up my own writerly obsessions.
Many writers, particularly the confessional ones to whose clan I belong, depend on people in their lives to inspire their work. But what makes a good muse? ‘Nice’ people rarely qualify. At least for modern-day writers – Dante’s demure, chaste Beatrice wouldn’t do. Unrequited loves for ethereal creatures are no longer the hot topic in a post-Freudian world bent on sex. Inspiration is best ignited by complex characters, and often such complexity has something to do with intense, risky living. In short, Kerouac nailed it – muses have to burn. On the Road is essentially a love poem to his friend, the adventurer Neal Cassady.
Cassady – the petty thief, the speed-driver, the lover of Allan Ginsberg, the bigamist and father of at least four children; a man always on the run from something and towards something else, whom a former wife Carolyn Robinson described as ‘the archetype of the American man’ – was perfect for Kerouac. He became the model for the unforgettable Dean Moriarty that Kerouac’s stand-in character, Sal Paradise, trails around America.
Cassady appeared in other Kerouac books too. He had enough fire in him to inflame several writers. Another beatnik author, John Clellan Holmes, wrote him into his novel Go, which recounts some of the events from On the Road, but does so more insightfully. Tom Wolfe, in his work of investigative journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, characterised Cassady’s later reincarnation, when the criminal-turned-beatnik became a psychedelic drug enthusiast and bus driver for the Merry Pranksters.
But while ‘burning people’ have the gift for making those around them feel fully alive by rendering the everyday into a glittering fairytale, in the process they often burn themselves out. At forty-one Cassady remarked to a friend that after ‘twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left’. Indeed, a year later, drunk and drugged, he fell into a deadly coma. Predictably, Cassady’s untimely death sparked even more creative accomplishments, with Ken Kesey writing a fictional account in his short story ‘The Day After Superman Died’.
Another self-destructive firecracker muse was June Miller, the American writer Henry Miller’s splendid wife. Though a failed actress, in her real life she was gloriously dramatic. June liked opium, adultery, gangsters, obscenity. Her charm was tough, made of black lipstick, plucked eyebrows and stained gowns slit up the side. ‘She wears the mask of death and her ghastly beauty makes them stare…When she talks to you, the ground slips under your feet’, was how Wambly Bald, a gossip columnist, described June upon her arrival in Paris. He doesn’t seem to have exaggerated – even Picasso felt the ground shift at the sight of her, while a less-resilient admirer killed himself over June.
When the Millers moved to Paris in the early 1930s, they soon became involved with the wealthy writer Anaïs Nin. Anaïs, infatuated with the couple, fed and entertained them. She slept with Henry, and flirted with June incessantly, showering her with affection and gifts. She took to imitating June’s extravagant dressing style and her husky, seductive voice. More significantly, she appropriated June as her muse. In that she wasn’t alone.
For years before meeting Anaïs, Henry had been writing about his wife, but without much success. When Anaïs, his literary match, presented Henry with an astute analysis of June’s role in his life, Miller used Anaïs’s ideas in his first major work, Tropic of Cancer, without asking her permission. But it wasn’t just Anaïs he robbed in that book. After years of trial and error at forging his writing voice, Miller finally found it, or rather – pulled it out of June’s throat, by bestowing the volcanic quality of her monologues on his protagonist, thus finally bringing him to life.
Although Henry’s theft upset Anaïs, it didn’t damage her writing output. June was fascinating enough to inspire many more works. For the entirety of their ten-year-long affair, Henry and Anaïs dwelt jointly on June’s every gesture, frock and scheme. When Anaïs left Henry, her obsession with June lived for another decade. June appeared in Anaïs’s House of Incest, A Spy in the House of Love and her published journals. Miller, too, produced more June-inspired novels: Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. But while the books kept coming, the muse’s fire was extinguishing.
Despite June’s many extramarital affairs Henry remained her great love. Never mind her bravado, June carried in her marrow a pious, migrant childhood which, combined with her doubt in her acting, gnawed at her for life. She saw Henry as her anchor, her meaning and her ‘genius’, as she called him. June recognised his talent long before anyone else did and supported him for years so that he could write, often by sponging off her wealthy lovers, even though this gold-digging strained her already edgy nerves. But when her genius finally produced his first masterpiece, June found herself depicted there as a heartless liar, the tormentor of Henry’s prototype. ‘He has to whip himself by hatred in order to create,’ June told Anaïs, begging her to convince Henry to revise the book. ‘He stole my soul.’ But Anaïs wouldn’t interfere. After all, she, too, wanted June’s soul.
The completion of Tropic of Cancer generated another ending. The book was one of the reasons why June left Henry, and Paris. She retreated in defeat, penniless, while Henry stayed on, enjoying a comfortable life sponsored by Anaïs. The next, and last, time June was to meet Henry was almost three decades later, in 1961, when most of the books she had inspired had been published, turning Henry and Anaïs into celebrities. On that day a mortified Henry tried to absorb his splendid muse’s transformation into a poor, lonely, hunchbacked woman with a shortened leg and a sick heart. An expert in the art of cunning, at the end June proved not to be as practical and calculating as the couple, who for years had picked her flaws apart. ‘However bad things are for me,’ June once told Anaïs, ‘I always find someone to buy me champagne.’ But in 1961 she appeared champagne-less.
I, too, have had my share of seductive, and self-destructive, muses. Like comets, they have swept through leaving scorched tracks in my life. My friend Miriam, the ultimate ‘bad girl’ whom I once described as ‘the queen of hashish and orgies, the professional teenage runaway and con artist’, was one of the most powerful influences on my work. She was the toughest girl in our tough neighbourhood in Ashdod, an industrial Israeli port city populated with lifeguards, footballers, drug dealers, yeshiva students and the chronically unemployed. At seventeen Miriam carried a pocketknife everywhere and fucked men who possessed the kind of masculinity made unfashionable by feminism – unshaven faces, heavy belt buckles, crooked teeth and calloused hands. Sometimes she and her lovers shared the details of their sex with me in a way that felt more comradely than sordid. ‘She’s a writer,’ Miriam would tell her men. ‘She needs to know this stuff.’
Kerouac wrote that around Moriarty–Cassady,‘I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me’. Once I – the then-recent Russian arrival, shy and uselessly versed in the classics – met Miriam I, too, felt a life worth living lay where she was. Whenever Miriam allowed, I shadowed her in her adventures. We hitchhiked around Israel, meeting eccentric characters and sleeping in strange places. I felt secure with Miriam, trusting in her to protect me. And she always did. I only wish she’d have protected herself as well.
Despite Miriam’s abundant bravado, I knew her life often spiralled in vicious directions: sexual adventures and drug deals gone wrong, the many times when she found herself struggling for money, homeless and hungry. Miriam’s traditional family had never been a reliable shelter for her, particularly not when her father – a tough sailor – came home from his sea expeditions to check on his wayward daughter who never pleased him. Well into our twenties I’d watch – usually powerless – as Miriam burned herself by taking drugs or lovers who didn’t do her any good, made her continuous returns to, and departures from, her disapproving parents and siblings, and when she had a year-long stint as a call girl.
Over the years, her self-destructive ways eventually lost their romantic aura and she turned all holy. The last time I saw Miriam, when we were already in our thirties, her curls were covered piously with a headscarf and her post-pregnancies body had grown large. But she still displayed my published stories – many of them about her, and crammed with sex and other ungodliness, on the shelves at her home alongside her husband’s prayer books. ‘Forget writing, sister. Have a child,’ she said then, with her usual conviction.
Despite this last metamorphosis, my memories of Miriam still occasionally fuel my writing. After all, those adventures we had shaped my lifelong desire for freedom and adventure. Miriam gave me the gift of living fiercely. Those of my stories that are inspired by her are stories of wild places and youthful discoveries about how cruel and beautiful life can be. Above all, they are stories of friendship.
However, it is not imperative for muses to self-destruct in order to inspire. Instead, sometimes their fires scorch the troubadours singing their praises. Such is the story of Lilya Brik, the secret wife, yet public muse, of one of the greatest Russian poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Mayakovsky belonged to the Russian branch of the Futurists, an artistic movement that rejected traditional forms and embraced modern technology and industry, but was also an ardent supporter of the Russian revolution. He first became famous for the elegy he wrote for Lenin and for which Futurists criticised him. Ironically, later Stalin declared the Futurists to be the enemies of communism and Mayakovsky was rejected both by the regime and its opponents. Attacked in the press and disappointed with the State in which he once believed, in 1930, at the age of thirty-seven, Mayakovsky shot himself.
Still, even the most idealistic people don’t kill themselves solely for lofty reasons. Usually, personal unhappiness combines with political despair to create a lethal cocktail. Once Mayakovsky had shot himself ex-lovers lined up to lay claim to the heartbreak that caused his death. There was the beautiful Parisian émigré Tatiana Yakovleva who had recently ditched him. Then the actress Veronica Polonskaya claimed Mayakovsky had killed himself over her refusal to marry him. Yet the most enduring hypothesis to this day is that those involvements were just more identical pearls in the string of affairs that decorated Mayakovsky’s fifteen-year-long love for Lilya, a red-haired beauty who, in turn, decorated their love with her own affairs. In the poet’s now-famous suicide note, as in his life, Lilya held centre stage:
Mother, sisters, friends, forgive me. This is not the way (I do not recommend it to others), but there is no other way out for me. Lilya – love me!
So what kind of a muse was Lilya? From a Russian perspective, she defeated every idea of what an artist’s wife should be. For a start, she was wife to two artists, living openly with Mayakovsky and her husband Osip Brik, the essayist and literary critic, in the same apartment. Then, rather than unconditionally adoring her man (or men) and self-effacingly forgiving him (them) the selfishness and promiscuity expected of male artists, Lilya behaved like their peer. She was both a muse and creator. She sculpted, wrote screenplays, acted. Unusually for her time Lilya was confident and she was ravenous for life. She stayed up all night to dance and read poetry. She traversed Uzbekistan (including its brothels), played tennis naked, wore large hats with feathers. She was witty. No wonder no one knew how to stomach her. No wonder she was irresistible. Throughout Lilya’s life men left much younger, sometimes more beautiful, women to throw themselves at her feet. Hers was an appeal that combined inner and physical beauty, and didn’t expire with age.
That summer day in 1915 when Lilya met the great-Russian-poet-to-be she was only twenty-three. Mayakovsky, a year younger, later described that day as the most joyful in his life. For him, it was love at the first sight. But Lilya wasn’t impressed by the intensity of the tall, fierce-eyed, awkward youth. Neither did she like the claims to genius with which he dressed his self-doubts. The poet’s persistent adoration irritated Lilya as much as his bad teeth and the general neglect in his appearance. She later wrote in her memoir that he ‘didn’t just fall in love with me, but laced into me’.
Lilya’s initial ambivalence was unrelated to the fact that she was married. Inspired by the Russian radical philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the Briks believed in so-called free love. Besides, Osip himself also fell in love (albeit platonically) with Mayakovsky after reading his poetry. With a Russian extravagance of character, Osip dedicated himself to editing and promoting Mayakovsky’s work.
In his own display of dedication to Lilya, Mayakovsky visited a dentist, and purchased a bowtie and a walking stick. Equipped with new teeth and fashion accessories, he resumed the courtship.
Upon hearing from his wife that she and Mayakovsky had become lovers, Osip was disappointed. That it had taken so long. ‘How could you refuse anything to that man?!’ he exclaimed. Shortly after, Mayakovsky moved in with the Briks, and from then until his death lived with them for extended periods. Lilya and Osip had most likely stopped being lovers even before Mayakovsky came onto the scene, yet remained bound to each other by deep, non-sexual love. They divorced but continued sharing a household and running a subversive artistic salon together for years.
Mayakovsky was the second of Lilya’s eventual four husbands.
While Lilya’s second marriage was far more passionate, it wasn’t peaceful. Mayakovsky’s possessiveness and high demands on Lilya’s time went against her grain. Lilya was more free-spirited than Mayakovsky could bear. It was she who insisted their marriage would be non-monogamous even though, judging by her letters to him, Mayakovsky’s affairs definitely caused Lilya some pain. As time passed Lilya needed longer breaks from Mayakovsky and became more tolerant of his women, which only tormented him more. Mayakovsky’s longing for Lilya ignited his poetic imagination. A dominant theme in his work is his pining for Lilya. Mayakovsky wrote from experience when warning young women against love:
I said to her
like a good father:
‘Passion is steep as a precipice –
please, I beg you,
stand back further.
I beg you, please.’
But Mayakovsky never managed to stand back from Lilya. While his inability to possess her utterly may have been partly what made her so irresistible, it also helped drive him to his death. And to produce some of the best Russian lyrical poetry.
My most longstanding muse obviously wasn’t as lethal, yet her fire has scorched me many times. Freud would be happy to know I am talking here about my mother, a wondrous and difficult woman who – to paraphrase Sartre – is lodged like a knife in the writing part of my brain. Whatever I write about always ends up being about her.
Unlike many known muses, my mother doesn’t fit the profile of a sultry adventuress. A heavy-set ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman in her sixties, she sports a wig and opaque stockings even in summer and always carries a prayer book in her large, tattered handbag. However, it is only the ‘sultry’ part of the muse package that doesn’t fit her. My mother is a woman of many metamorphoses. Like any muse, she is larger than life.
Burning people fascinate writers also because they are usually seekers of sorts, sampling a variety of lives. Cassady and my neighbour Miriam searched for altered states of consciousness and other thrills through drugs, sex and divinities. June looked for artistic greatness in her creative lovers until in older age she, puzzlingly, turned into a social worker. Lilya, an artist herself, practiced several art mediums and ideologies. My mother, too, reinvented herself several times and, like Miriam, ended up in God’s arms. Yet in my mother’s case, God didn’t stop her picaresque life, but quite the opposite – set her for many more (mis)adventures.
Born in the former Soviet Union, before she donned her wig and began breeding children, my mother was better known for waving red flags, dancing the night away and, being a scholar of English, reading untranslated Shakespeare. In her early thirties, though, she fell in love with God and began a career in battling the KGB for the right to practise her religion and immigrate to Israel. The state retaliated and she lost her job and became a street cleaner. This development, though, far from discouraging my mother, fuelled her rebelliousness and she became one of the leading dissidents in Odessa, eventually defying authorities, and after six years of struggle getting the then-impossible: a permit for her family to leave the country. In Israel, my mother reinvented herself again as a teacher of Hebrew, only later to move to a Hassidic neighbourhood in New York where she now gives classes on the bible – in Russian.
Of course being raised by an aspiring, if conflicted, saint has equipped me with a lifelong source of writing material. My mother’s difficult life, her resulting melancholy, and her ideas about how a woman should live her life – which are incompatible with my own – both burn me and inflame my work. Besides, like Mayakovsky, I’m afflicted by a longing for an unattainable woman – that secular mother from the first years of my life who drank vodka straight from the bottle and read Chekhov with the same enthusiasm she now reserves for the Book of Psalms. This sense of loss, a wound that will probably never seal, makes me write, write, write. Only in this way can I restore that vanished version of my mother. And whenever any of my other muses spread their blazing wings above me as I sit in front of my computer, they too trigger longing in me – whether for my youth or for any other intense experiences I have had in my life. Such a way of writing – driven by the Proustian desire for things past – is organic for me. So I suspect, in whatever I write, someone will always be burning.