31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 17: “The Poet and the Muse” by Tatyana Tolstaya (trans. by Jamey Gambrell)

May 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From White Walls: Collected Stories

White_WallsIf Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits” is a story about happy and enduring love, “The Poet and the Muse” is the antithesis: a hugely cynical, acerbic take on romantic love that also happens to be blazingly funny.

The story first appeared in English in The New Yorker in 1990, but it is set in the days of the USSR, before the Wall came down and the Soviet union began to collapse. The protagonist is Nina, a doctor who is described in the opening line as “a marvelous woman, an ordinary woman,” and someone who “had her right to personal happiness like everyone else” (a precept that, although appended with the words “it goes without saying,” was anything but a foregone conclusion under the Soviet regime).

It quickly becomes clear that Nina has very specific ideas about what her personal happiness entails. Approaching middle age with only a string of failed romantic relationships (including one ex-husband) in her past, Nina dreams of the kind of passionate love affair poets write odes about:

She needed a – you know – an animal passion, dark windy nights with streetlamps aglow. She needed to perform a heroine’s classical feat as if it were a mere trifle: to wear out seven pairs of iron boots, break seven iron staffs in two, devour seven loaves of iron bread, and receive in supreme reward not some golden rose or snow-white pedestal but a burned-out match or a crumpled ball of a bus ticket – a crumb from the banquet table where the radiant king, her heart’s desire, had feasted.

Here we are presented with one of Tolstaya’s chief literary tactics: the juxtaposition of fantasy and realism. The “heroine’s classical feat” – the notion of some grand, romantic gesture or achievement – abuts the very quotidian images of the burnt match and the crumpled bus ticket, lending the scene an almost otherworldly aspect, something that will be extended as the story progresses.

The image of Nina as an action figure in iron boots, “break[ing] seven iron staffs in two,” also places her in the role traditionally associated with men: the hero, the vanquisher. This idea, too, will get extended as the story unfolds, as Nina adopts the masculine position of power within the relationship she ultimately finds.

That relationship is with Grisha, a poet who works as a custodian, and who succumbs to a Japanese flu epidemic, the situation that facilitates his meeting Nina. She attends the ailing man’s house at the request of Agniya, a school friend of Grisha’s. Although Nina eventually determines that Agniya is nothing more than “an unsuccessful actress who sang a little to a guitar,” her first reaction is that the other woman poses a threat as a sexual rival for Grisha’s affections. Nina initially assesses Agniya as a “sickeningly beautiful woman with tragically undisciplined hair.” The poet, meanwhile, is “demonically handsome” in Nina’s eyes, and she wastes no time exerting control over the situation:

Nina kicked Agniya out, lifted her bag from her shoulder, and hung it on a nail, carefully took her heart from Grishunya’s hands and nailed it to the bedstead. Grishunya muttered deliriously, in rhyme.

The image of Nina nailing her heart to the beadstead provides another instance in which Tolstaya blurs the line between metaphor and reality, and she underlines the dynamic between the two with the seemingly casual adverb describing the poet.

Once Grisha recovers from his bout of flu, it becomes apparent that Agniya is the least of the impediments to the fulfillment of Nina’s romantic desires. Grisha likes to surround himself with a ragtag group of misfits and bohemians:

There were a few young people of indeterminate profession; an old man with a guitar; teenage poets; actors who turned out to be chauffeurs, and chauffeurs who turned out to be actors; a demobilized ballerina who was always crying, “Hey, I’ll call our gang over, too”; ladies in diamonds; unlicensed jewelers; unattached girls with spiritual aspirations in their eyes; philosphers with unfinished dissertations; a deacon from Novorossisk who always brought a suitcase full of salted fish; and a Tungus from eastern Siberia, who’d got stuck in Moscow.

The most worrisome of these visitors is the “raw-boned” Lizaveta, who “was considered an artist” as a result of the paintings she scratches out with her fingernails in a newly invented style known as “nailism.” Lizaveta quickly takes over from Agniya as the chief rival for Grisha’s affections in Nina’s mind, and Nina determines that she must take action to get rid of her.

The action that she takes involves alerting the state authorities to Lizaveta’s violation of her residency papers, but when the other woman proves too slippery, Nina becomes ever more determined to have the forces of government authority crack down on her. “Seven pairs of iron boots had Nina worn out tramping across passport desks and through police stations,” Tolstaya writes, “seven iron staffs had she broken on Lizaveta’s back.” The repetition of the heroic imagery from the opening of the story is given a deeply ironic spin here, as the valiant heroine becomes a government informant in the process of removing her rival from Grisha’s sphere.

This is not the only instance in which Nina insists on government intervention for her own ends. After marrying Grisha, she cajoles him to write poetry that will appeal to Comrade Makushkin, the Soviet official responsible for declaring work suitable for publication. But the more Nina insists he write respectable poetry that will pass muster with the state official, the more vigorously Grisha, bereft because his new wife has succeeded in driving off his group of friends and bon vivants, rebels. “He strayed from poetry into ponderous free verse as damp as pine kindling, or into rhythmic lugubrious prose, and instead of a pure flame a sort of white, suffocating smoke poured from his malignant lines.”

It is not a leap to see the poet’s rebellion as an assertion of power against Nina, who in the process of inserting herself into his life has seen to it that his entire world is reduced to a focus on her alone. Grisha finally decides that he will achieve a kind of immortality, not through his verse, but by selling his skeleton to the state for educational purposes after he is dead. There is a double irony here: Nina feels her love for Grisha slipping away when she realizes she no longer controls him, and Grisha finds a kind of companionship, albeit in death, as a result of the students who surround his bones and poke and prod at him in their classes.

Grisha, it appears, finds a kind of peace at the end of the story, while Nina is left on her own once again. “And if her love didn’t turn out quite the way she had dreamed,” Tolstaya writes, “well, Nina was hardly to blame. Life was to blame.” Yet another ironic turn of the screw in Tolstaya’s acidic, bitter anti-love story.

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