Wanted: a muse, alight

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

“The only people for me,” Jack Kerouac wrote in his autobiographical novel On the Road, which was really his love poem to his friend, adventurer Neal Cassady, “are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…” I read this, now legendary, sentence some years ago and was struck by how precisely Kerouac summed up my own writerly obsessions.

Many writers, particularly the confessional ones to whose clan I belong, depend on people in their lives to inspire their work. But what makes a good muse? “Nice” people would rarely stimulate art. Art demands a complex character and often such complexity has something to do with force, intensity. In short, Kerouac nailed it. Muses have to burn. This is why Neal Cassady – the petty thief, the speed-driver, the lover of Allan Ginsberg, the bigamist and father of at least four children, the man always on the run from something and towards something else, whom a former wife and writer Carolyn Robinson described as “the archetype of the American man” – was perfect for Kerouac. Cassady became the model for the unforgettable Dean Moriarty from On the Road whom Kerouac’s stand-in character trails around America.

But Cassady had enough fire to inflame more than one writer. Another beatnik, John Clellan Holmes, wrote him into his novel Go. Tom Wolfe in his work of investigative journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, described Cassady’s later reincarnation, when the criminal-turned-beatnik became a psychedelic drug enthusiast and the bus driver for Merry Pranksters. But while burning people have the gift to make those around them feel fully alive by rendering the everyday into a glittering fairytale, in the process they often burn themselves down. At 41 Cassady prophetically remarked to a friend that after “20 years of fast living – there’s just not much left”. Indeed, a year later, drunk and drugged, he fell into a deadly coma.

Another splendid firecracker muse was June Miller, Henry Miller’s wife. “She wears the mask of death and her ghastly beauty makes them stare … When she talks to you, the ground slips under your feet,” was how Wambly Bald described June upon her arrival in Paris. I don’t think he exaggerated – even Picasso felt the ground shift at the sight of her, while a less resilient admirer killed himself over June. Her charm was tough, made of black lipstick, plucked eyebrows and stained gowns slit up the side. She liked opium, gangsters, obscenity. Her complex character inspired not only some of the masterpieces of her husband, but also those of Henry’s longtime lover, the writer Anais Nin. And while June kept burning herself down, getting progressively sicker and poorer, losing her looks and aplomb, Miller and Nin became successful writers, in large part on her account.

Muses have always been essential to my work too. The three people who have over the years inspired my work the most have all been alight. Like comets they swooped through my life leaving scorching tracks in it and it is in such spaces that my inspiration dwells. I am talking here about my childhood friend “Miriam”; “A”, a former lover from my early days in Australia; and my mother.

Miriam was the ultimate “bad girl”, whom I described in a recent essay Passion at the Time of War as “the queen of hashish and orgies, the professional teenage runaway and con artist”. Kerouac wrote that around Moriarty/Cassady, “I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me”. I, too, had the sense that a life worth living lay where Miriam was. My greatest wish during the adolescence years was to shadow her, which sometimes she let me do. Even today I still write about our adventures from those days and how they shaped my lifelong desire for freedom, romance and independence.

Curiously, A, another “ultimate bad” character, a man who could never relax unless he was in trouble, and my ultra-orthodox Jewish mother have had quite a similar effect on my work. Their restlessness and many paradoxes at once fascinated and drove me mad. My mother is a woman of metamorphoses. Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, before she piously donned her wig she’d been known for waving red flags, dancing the night away and reading untranslated Shakespeare. And even after she fell in love with God and began battling the KGB for the right to practice her religion, she continued to listen to opera and occasionally drink vodka. A, similarly torn between contradictory passions, “desirous of everything at the same time”, was at once a hilarious and brooding man. He spent his life constantly planning and executing complex machinations he didn’t really need to do. During our years together I often planned an escape, but was never sorry to have met him – he was too great a character. It wasn’t just his tormented personality, but also his past from before we met, that I yearned to transform into art. I’ve been particularly haunted by the story of how he, a migrant, lost his girlfriend in a car accident during their first months in Australia. That young woman, at least in A’s tales, was also on fire and her heat got to me.

The ghosts from my mother’s and A’s pasts have been haunting me for years; I had to write them down. But just as Miriam’s presence has been essential to my inspiration, so were A’s and my mother’s absences conducive to my work. I moved to Australia in part to get some distance from my mother and then here I spent some years disentangling myself from A. Henry and Anais, too, preferred June to be far away, since in the flesh she wreaked havoc incompatible with the discipline their writing required.

In the memoir I recently completed all my three muses finally came together, but five years of work on the manuscript were not enough to extinguish the flame of these people. The next two books I’m planning to write will in some ways feed on them too. And I suspect in anything else I’ll ever write, someone – possibly a new muse – will be burning.

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books in Hebrew. Her publications in English have appeared in Australia, the UK, Scotland, Canada and the US. She is the recipient of an Australia Council literary grant, numerous writing residencies and an Australian Society of Authors mentorship. Lee teaches and mentors writers in a variety of genres through Writers Victoria. Her yet-unpublished memoir, The Dangerous Bride, was shortlisted for a HarperCollins Varuna Award in 2012.

Passion at the time of war is available at griffithreview.com

The Age recently wrote about Lee’s columns for us: Write frame of mind, The Age, 9 March 2013

On this website, you can also read Lee's last post about writing from the body.