Muses Explain Things to Me

The feminist muse is an artist, too. No silent sitter, she swaps the easel-facing chaise for a work space wholly hers, sloughing off the obligation to inspire ...

The feminist muse is an artist, too. No silent sitter, she swaps the easel-facing chaise for a work space wholly hers, sloughing off the obligation to inspire. Noemi Lefebvre’s novel Blue Self-Portrait—first published in French as L’autoportrait bleu (2009) and newly available to US readers in an exuberant English translation by Sophie Lewis—glances askance at the mythos of male genius and the mute, compliant notion of womanhood on which it relies. Through masterful formal play, Lefebvre’s novel delights in mussing over-simple distinctions between artist and subject, insisting instead on a mutual, two-way gaze.

Blue Self-Portrait unfolds during the 90-minute durée of a Berlin-to-Paris flight. En route, Lefebvre’s unnamed narrator teems with typical symptoms of excess: shakes, sweating, shame. Like the blear-eyed barfly who has tied one on, she takes morning-after inventory, not of substances swallowed but of syllables expelled. A volume of Mann–Adorno correspondence splayed half-forgotten on one knee, she stews over her affair with a German American composer known only as “the pianist.”

Its form—a narrator’s unebbing monologue—indebts Lefebvre’s novel to Thomas Bernhard’s book-long tirades, as does the kinship Lefebvre posits between physical unease and obscure, psychic malaise. “My insides were exploding noiselessly while meltwater flowed from my forehead and down my back,” she confides. Only by stifling an “interior bellowing” she likens to the lowing of a bereaved cow can the narrator project the “perfect serenity” her environs require. Implicit in this formal inheritance is a challenge Lefebvre’s novel takes up: can female muses—or female artists—rant?

Lefebvre’s narrator styles conversation as a fray in which two fencers trade phrases d’armes. She renders her own interpersonal mode in Bastille-storming bursts, trumpeting boorishness like a bugler blowing cavalry calls: “Misfit and arm-bomb are, right after carefree, the terms that best describe me.” In her lover’s presence, this “bulletproof girlhood” razes gender norms. “Boldly I attack, no quarter given,” she contends, blitzing the pianist with a “verbal invasion” and “inflicting on him the worst tortures of the Inquisition.”

Through masterful formal play, Lefebvre’s novel delights in mussing over-simple distinctions between artist and subject, insisting instead on a mutual, two-way gaze.

Yet regret shadows these eruptions as surely as recoil follows shot. Chagrined at the shamelessness, wracked by the nonchalance she perceives in herself, Lefebvre’s protagonist undergoes an unsparing internal scrutiny in which exasperation jostles pride. After each meeting with the pianist, she repents of having “talked too much, in my passionate and triumphal and candid, shameless fashion,” thus subjecting her politic, obliging companion to an interruption-fueled monologue. Abashed at her tendency to mansplain—or, rather, musesplain—piano technique to her lover, she declares herself “perfectly capable … of explaining the art of the well-tempered keyboard to a pianist as if I myself were a virtuoso.”

Despite this bent for self-censure, it’s precisely her logorrhea that ill suits Lefebvre’s protagonist for “collective happiness,” the novel’s pet term for public displays of Potemkin joy. She reviles gung-ho pageantry in every form—whether prompted by scouting, commerce, fascism, or patriotic fervor—and rues the socialization process she calls “my education” for its attempt to reconcile her to the role of blithe bystander. In lieu of the acquiescence or deflection expected of women, she delivers a no-holds-barred verbal barrage that power-sands the platitudes on which lockstep demonstrations of mass contentment depend. A double irony undergirds her narrative: by repurposing a Bernhardian torrent replete with obsessive, mantra-like repetitions, the protagonist marshals stereotypically male conversational—and narrative—tools in service of a feminist agenda, even as she frames her verbal opposition to militant nationalism in pugilistic terms.

Revulsion at “collective happiness” bonds protagonist and pianist, both of whom view humanity as a mass of “yea-sayers” and a few lone résistants. Faced with audiences impatient to “let themselves be moved by Beethoven’s music without knowing if Beethoven’s bust had ever been chiseled for Hitler and if Beethoven was played at Theresienstadt,” the pianist identifies, in the narrator’s “indecorum,” a possible tonic. Unlike the “usual accompaniment,” the narrator’s fidgety, half-feral manner suggests that she “understands, in that non-feminine or rather a-feminine even as it were counter-feminine way, everything that’s most disturbing.”

Arnold Schoenberg, Blaues Selbstportrait (1910). Wikimedia Commons

A 1910 self-portrait by Arnold Schoenberg, the avant-garde composer who pioneered 12-tone music, obsesses Lefebvre’s novel. In Schoenberg’s Blaues Selbstportrait, the artist gazes levelly toward the viewer, his expression somber, his skin tone steel blue against a cantaloupe-colored background. Lefebvre’s pianist first encounters the painting at an exhibition—“Music and the Third Reich”—housed in the Wannsee villa where Nazi leadership met, in 1942, to plan the mass murder of European Jews. With its solitary subject rendered in “negative,” melancholy blue, it offers an affront to the state-sponsored art of collective Aryan cheer as surely as Schoenberg’s musical experiments—labeled “decadent” by Nazi cultural ministers—upended the Romantic compositions appropriated by the Third Reich, or his 1933 reconversion to Judaism defied the anti-Semitic agenda that would give rise, less than a decade later, to genocide.

During scenes of musical composition, Lefebvre’s novel executes a neat narrative pivot toward the pianist’s point of view, conveying his thoughts without revealing whether they draw directly on the pianist’s perspective, or on the narrator’s speculative version of it. A chance, alchemical accord among Schoenberg’s painting, a raw winter afternoon, and his growing attraction to “the girl”—as he thinks of the protagonist—inspires him to pen a nay-saying artwork of his own, “an entirely original musical phrase … that had nothing in common with standard musical phrases but sounded more like the rupture of musical phrases.” Of his achievement, he reflects, “this is how one becomes a man alone”: high praise in a novel intimately concerned with neinsagung—no-saying, resistance, nonconformity—and the solitude it ensures.

Lefebvre’s protagonist, however, reacts to this self-assessment with characteristic cheek, complimenting her lover “solely in order to test the effect admiration might have on the pianist and as a kind of kamikaze operation,” when, in truth, “I’m not fit to admire great men, admiring Kant and Bergson and Schoenberg, same with Mann, Proust and even Papa is not something I can do.” In essence, her own brand of nay-saying entails refusal, not just of “collective happiness” per se, but of the pantheon of “great men” exalted as role-model résistants. To his credit, the pianist appears crestfallen at the wide-eyed veneration she shams: for her lover, as for the reader, it’s her iconoclastic refusal of such pieties that besots.

Lefebvre’s protagonist marshals stereotypically male conversational—and narrative—tools in service of a feminist agenda.

In its traversal of the terrain between museship and artistic expression, Blue Self-Portrait bears comparison with a spry, playful American novel, Barbara Browning’s 2011 The Correspondence Artist. Whereas Lefebvre’s protagonist professes “to trample barbarously upon the oh-so-French rules of conversation that I ought to have learned from Madame de Staël,” Vivian, who narrates The Correspondence Artist, presents herself as an altogether cooler customer, unerringly allegiant to social codes. In contrast to the immediacy of Self-Portrait’s spoken skirmishes, Browning’s protagonist operates at email’s remove, dispatching epistolary sorties across a broader geographic and temporal gap. Browning’s novel is the tactical contest to Lefebvre’s contact sport, the Go to Lefebvre’s rugby.

Vivian also employs an alias, “the paramour,” to refer to the well-known artist with whom she’s become involved. As concessions to her lover’s celebrity, she crafts several personae—an Israeli novelist, a Basque revolutionary, a Malian musician, a Vietnamese artist—to veil the paramour’s identity. Labeled, teasingly, a romancière sans intrigue—a “plotless novelist,” or, in her doubly, bilingually self-deprecating pun, “a really dull lover”—Vivian seeds her narrative with cultural and political critique, producing a “ficto-critical novel” that is, to co-opt a compliment she applies to her lover’s work, “theoretical and sensual, ironic and lyrical, bitter and sweet, all at the same time.”

Browning’s slyly self-effacing central character casts herself as a sort of Alice B. Toklas to her lover’s Gertrude Stein, or—as her own analogy has it—the Nelson Algren to their Simone de Beauvoir: attentive sexual partner and pen pal, gardener rather than rose, content to occupy standing room at the edge of the paramour’s spotlight. Ascribing “a certain Midwestern flatness” to her narrative voice, she sketches herself as a typical “guilt-ridden white liberal”—sex-positive solo parent, deft at knitting, public-radio woke—and leaves it to her reader to suss out the ruse in these demurs.

Eschewing the verbal and emotional glut of Lefebvre’s narrator, Vivian relies on the paramour’s avatars to valve emotion she deems “excessive,” channeling this overflow of romantic energy into autonomous—and, often as not, autoerotic—authorship. These shifting selves, as well as her reluctance to gender the real-life paramour, lend a mutable, polymorphous quality to their amour: “There were many of us,” she reflects, “or maybe we were just two.”

Fictionalizing the affair, Vivian accesses a realm of fantasy—the novel’s narrative space—in which she can yield fully to feelings she conceals from her lover. Recounting a rare emotional scene, she stresses that “I never lost it like this with the paramour.” Instead, Tzipi—the Israeli novelist—“was the one I fell in love with. She’s the one I thrashed over, sobbed at, howled for, in my own quiet way.” In her dealings with the paramour, on the other hand, “I’m always on my guard.” Rather than “feeling sad about the lack of contact” from her lover, she occupies herself with “marveling at my own canny manner of handling this situation.” “The strategic error,” she reflects of one exchange, “was saying I cried a little in Gatwick Airport.”


Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth

By Lee Konstantinou

In its insistence on self-fashioning through self-restraint—and its coy formal play with digital-age epistolarity—The Correspondence Artist recalls Les Liaisons dangereuses, an 18th-century novel-in-letters and classic of sexual gamesmanship. “When I entered society I was still a young girl, condemned by my status to silence and inaction,” the sublime Marquise de Merteuil writes. “I learned then to control the various expressions on my face. If I was feeling unhappy, I practiced adopting a look of serenity or even joy.” “From that time on,” she informs an old flame, “I managed to put on at will the air of detachment you have so often admired.”1 Plus ça change. Merteuil’s words call forth Vivian’s cultured, globe-trotting Cool Girl riff; they evoke Lefebvre’s narrator, pretzeled into her plane seat, suppressing—perhaps less elegantly—a bovine bellow.

Each book threatens to induce its own strain of ekphrastic vertigo: Browning’s incorporates art ostensibly created by the paramour, only to claim it, later, as Vivian’s own, while Lefebvre’s nests layers of allusion across media to reveal a novel about a musical score, itself inspired by a composer’s self-portrait. In each case, it’s a charismatic, sui generis narrative voice that rights these topsy-turvy artistic inversions. Their protagonists claim sovereign rights over differently virtuosic stylistic demesnes, slipping the strictures that contort women’s behavior and, in turn, circumscribe their authorship. Browning’s narrator is a spy in the house of love, Lefebvre’s a bombardier. “You’ll have to change that way you talk, my girl,” Lefebvre’s narrator chides—but what reader would concur?


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons, translated from the French by Helen Constantine (Penguin, 2007), p. 181.
Featured image: Detail from Arnold Schoenberg, Blaues Selbstportrait (1910). Wikimedia Commons