If Muse, the story of an erudite yet timid editor enraptured by America’s aging doyenne of poetry, sounds like something penned by an editor or poet, that’s because author Jonathan Galassi is both. Here, the head of publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux tries his hand at a novel set in a New York literary milieu with which he’s intimately familiar. Muse takes too long to congeal and features an underwritten — albeit endearing — protagonist: Paul Dukach. Yet when Galassi brings Paul into contact with illustrious bard Ida Perkins, the story assumes an unusual and beguiling shape.
Hardworking and self-effacing, Paul is editor-in-chief at independent publishing house Purcell & Stern. Homer Stern, Paul’s self-made Jewish boss, and blue-blooded WASP Sterling Wainwright, who helms rival firm Impetus Editions, dominate his life, and they couldn’t differ more. “Homer, outlandish, imposing, larger than life, was the immutable sun around which everything in his universe revolved,” observes the omniscient narrator. “Sterling was cooler; he had the nonchalance, the charm and modesty and arrogance, of the privileged man nothing had ever stood in the way of.”
Impetus is the longtime publisher of legendary Ida Perkins, Paul’s idol, and the first few chapters of Muse tax the reader’s patience with an account, at once literate and gossipy, of the fictional poet’s encounters with real-life belletrists.
The story grows more focused when Sterling grants Paul access to the cryptic notebooks of the late Arnold Outerbridge, one of Ida’s lovers. This sets in motion a chain of events leading to Paul’s audience with the reclusive grande dame of American poetry, who now lives in Venice, Italy. Ida hands an overwhelmed Paul the manuscript of her final book of poems, with instructions not to publish it before she dies.
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Mnemosyne, at once beseeching love letter and searing lament, marks a departure from Ida’s self-assured, even triumphalist work. And it’s addressed not to Outerbridge or any other known former companion, but a mystery flame.
The snatches of Ida’s poetry interspersed throughout Muse are clever, playful, and unpretentious, though when Galassi presents them as profound, as with excerpts from Mnemosyne, this proves somewhat discomfiting, given his authorship of the material.
There is no question, however, as to the arresting nature of Ida’s last book. “[I]nstead of being the longed-for object, the pursued, the responder or rejecter, as was inevitably the case with Ida, her persona here, Mnemosyne, was the initiator, the pursuer, the supplicant — struggling, often without hope, it seemed, for recognition and acceptance, desperate to be taken in by an elusive, reluctant, fugitive, disappointing other.”
Moreover, the love saga behind Mnemosyne lends Muse some much-needed dramatic heft. When Ida entrusts Paul with her literary swansong, the story deepens and begins to aspire to significance. In depicting Paul’s lionization of the ostensibly formidable Ida, and then portraying her as an anguished soul pining for a long-gone paramour, Galassi imbues his offbeat tale with emotional intensity and a lingering resonance.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.