This book has been sitting unappreciated on my shelves since 2015 and I’m sorry to say that now I’ve read it, Muse remains largely unappreciated. I had high hopes. The plot sounded as if it would push my buttons: poetry, publishing and the literary history of the twentieth century. It wasn’t awful; it just failed to live up to my possibly/probably inflated expectations.
A brief plot synopsis without spoilers – Paul Dukach, a bookseller turned editor for a small but prestigious New York publishing house, is obsessed with the writing and life of poet Ida Perkins. Although Dukach works for the arch-rival of Perkins’ publisher, he dreams of luring his favourite writer onto his list. With patience, the story eventually gathers some momentum. Dukach stumbles over a literary mystery in the form of coded notebooks written by Perkins’ former husband. A mystery of sorts ensues. Who was the muse of Perkins’ last manuscript?
It’s at this point that I should mention that the author, Paul Galassi, is the president of the esteemed publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This goes some way to explain why this novel reads like a gossipy history of the golden era of New York publishing. Galassi has invented the poet at the heart of the story, Ida Perkins, but woven her into 20th century literary history.
The story, particularly the first half, is overflowing with insider references. Fictional literary figures (who are barely disguised real authors) and a roll call of legendary writers rub shoulders with flimsily fictionalised publishers to create a shadow history of the publishing world of the last century. It is amusing at first, although I was aware that many allusions were flying over my head, but I felt that the story was given secondary priority to the literary puzzle. Who is who? Who is invented? If you are not a player in literary New York, I fear the cleverness may be as lost on you as it was on me. I had to do a quite a bit of research before uncovering that the novel’s two feuding publishers, Homer Stern of Purcell & Stern and Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, were fictionalised versions of Roger Straus of FSG and James Laughlin of New Directions.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s clear that literature is Galassi’s life-blood. I did enjoy his insider perspective and vivid recreation of this idiosyncratic world. But what I relished most was his creation of the poet Ida Perkins and her insertion into the Galassi’s fictionalised Western literary canon. I absolutely loved the idea that a female poet could become the most esteemed literary figure of the 20th and early 21st century, her poetry collections outselling all other genres and garnering a royal flush of major literary prizes and honours. May life imitate art!
In other news, while dropping off some dry-cleaning in Stirling today (oh, the unrelenting glamour) I managed to resist popping into the Book Shed. The Book Shed is a hidden treasure, a beautifully curated charity bookshop tucked at the back of the car park behind the main stretch of shopping precinct in Stirling. Usually I can’t go in without leaving with an armload of ludicrously cheap classics, literary fiction and poetry. Avoiding it took quite an expenditure of inner mettle. *Sigh* It’s only Day 5.