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The intimidator

Francine Prose, author of 'Lives of the Muses' has turned some people off with her fierceness. But she says: 'I know at least three people who think I'm a very nice person.'

October 14, 2002|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Virginia Woolf begat Susan Sontag, who begat Francine Prose. It's not just about the writing; it's about the uncompromising ferocity. Prose's books -- 11 works of fiction, three of nonfiction -- strike, sometimes fatally, at the heart of modern life in a politically charged way. "Blue Angel," her novel of two years ago, for example, took on the issue of sex between professors and their students.

Her new nonfiction work, "Lives of the Muses," looks at the lives of nine women who are credited (not always by the artist himself) with inspiring such luminaries as Edward Weston, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Balanchine, John Lennon, Man Ray, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll). They are, with few exceptions, extremely colorful, tragic lives -- musedom, it seems, is fraught with soul-threatening dangers.

Prose, 55, looks like a cross between Woolf and Frida Kahlo, which perhaps adds to the impression of intellectual ferocity. She is tall and very thin, with dark eyes and eyebrows and long fingers that run nervously through her hair. She almost always wears black.

But here's the conundrum: She is deferential, careful in her manners. She is a considerate listener. She laughs easily and goes out of her way to make her guest more comfortable. She is not mean about other writers, with a few off-the-record exceptions. At a recent literary event in New York, she joined two men deep in conversation. The minute she joined, one walked away and wandered over to a group that, unbeknownst to him, included Prose's husband. "I just had to get away from that terrible woman," he said to Prose's husband.

"Withering," "scathing": These are words often used to describe her. "I know at least three people who think I'm a very nice person," Prose says. "Women with strong opinions are extremely unpopular these days, with other women as well as men. There's something threatening about female intelligence, something dangerous and volatile. I don't want to sound smarmy, but women are still expected to look good and keep quiet."

All of the women Prose wrote about were beautiful, from 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the inspiration for "Alice in Wonderland," to Hester Thrale, muse to Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, to Charis Weston, much-abused muse to Edward Weston. Even Yoko Ono and Lou Andreas-Salome, serial muse to Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud. They were not traditional beauties but somehow seductive and compelling. "Beauty seems to work," Prose says.

In "Lives of the Muses," Prose warns about several of the mistakes a muse can make, particularly the transformation into "art wife." "Tenure is not an option in the lives of the muses," she writes. They should not allow themselves to be domesticated and they should not demand credit. So what did they get? "These women were able to make exciting lives for themselves in times when women were hardly influential."

Much of the book is driven by images: Dodgson's photograph of a young Alice Liddell as a beggar child, in which she looks seductively at the camera with her dress falling from a cocked shoulder; Weston's creepy 1943 photograph of wife Charis, in which she stands naked outside his studio holding a sign that says "Edward Weston, Carmel, Ca." These images speak volumes of the varying roles of the muse. Young Alice is confident, looking for all the world like the puppeteer who pulls the artist's strings, while Charis Weston is fully humiliated.

Prose is frequently criticized for her opinions. She raised some hackles with her negative review of a book by Helen Bransford, Jay McInerney's then-wife, about face lifts. For "Muses," she has been criticized for her low opinion of Rossetti, which one reviewer claimed was proof of her secret feminist leanings. "What really bugged me about him," says Prose, "was that his paintings were not that great and Lizzie Siddal, who ended up an opium addict while he moved on to the next muse, was completely sacrificed to his mediocre talent.

"Everyone wants to be the famous artist," she says. "No one wants to be the muse."

On the other hand, Prose does not believe that Charles Dodgson was a pedophile, as so many feminists have alleged. " 'Alice in Wonderland' is a stunningly sharp and beautiful book," she says.

Her rabble-rousing pieces for Harper's magazine, including a recent piece questioning the importance of Maya Angelou's poetry, have also earned her a bit of acrimony among the literati.

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