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Oct 2003 Journal

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Jews as muse

I think there is huge symbolism in the fact - first revealed by AL Rowse - that Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets was an Italian Jewess by the name of Emilia Bassano. In fact, Jewish women of talent have acted as the muse to an amazingly large number of Europe's most creative spirits for centuries. Though the sphere in which this has been most pronounced is literature, it is in music that it has had the best-known effect. Leos Janacek, who lived in a loveless marriage, had declined into fallow middle age when the encounter with Kamila Stösslava re-energised him, and spurred him on to compose his outstanding operas Jenufa and Katya Kabanova. (In passing, one might also mention the dedication - and political manipulation - with which Prokofiev's second wife, Mira Mendelson, helped him to turn Tolstoy's War and Peace into an opera.)

The story of Jewish muse-inspired European literati began over 200 years ago with Friedrich Schlegel (brother of the famous Shakespeare translator). Schlegel's ecstatic and sexually outspoken novel Lucinda resulted from his infatuation with Dorothea Veit, married daughter of Moses Mendelssohn and herself an author. It caused a scandal, only partly assuaged by Dorothea's divorce and subsequent marriage to Schlegel.

About a century later Richard Dehmel's poetic imagination was fired by a married Jewish lady he tactfully referred to as 'Frau Ida'. The first decades of the twentieth century witnessed three prominent German-Jewish literary marriages. The least productive and long-lasting was Heinrich Mann's. His brother Thomas's lifelong union with Katja Pringsheim created the stable haute bourgeois environment conducive to his unremitting literary labours. Bertolt Brecht's marriage to Helene Weigel was both similar and totally different - similar because the actress Weigel was Brecht's co-director of the Berliner Ensemble, and different because she publicly connived at his serial adultery.

In France, a writer at the opposite extreme to Brecht, the Fascist Drieu La Rochelle, had an even more bizarre relationship with his Jewish muse Jeanette Jeremac. They had lived together in the early thirties, and after the Liberation the ex-collaborator La Rochelle hid out in her apartment. However, fearing discovery and a death sentence for treason, he killed himself in early 1945.

André Malraux married the banker's daughter Claire Goldschmidt when young. They travelled together to South-East Asia, whence Malraux returned with the subject matter for La Condition Humaine. The book made him world-famous - but the marriage collapsed.

In total contrast, the poet Louis Aragon showed lifelong fidelity to his Russian-born Jewish wife Elsa Troilet. Separated from her during the war, he penned Les Yeux d'Elsa, a famous poem wherein the résistant Aragon discerns the lineaments of eternal France in the features of Troilet's face.

Elsa's equally noteworthy sister, Lily Brik, had stayed in Russia, where she played a fickle muse to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Lily's final refusal to leave her husband for Mayakovsky - after they had long formed a 'threesome' - plunged the poet into a lengthy depression ending in suicide.

In postwar Britain it was the suicide of a famous poet's Jewish muse that ended an unhappy relationship. Sylvia Plath's felo de se, while married to Ted Hughes, is part of folklore - but a few years later the poet's second wife, Assia Weevil, followed in Plath's footsteps (and took their baby daughter with her).

In talking of British poetry one must not forget the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. Of WH Auden's many homosexual partners none was more of an inspiration - and a cause of heartbreak - than Chester Kallman. But the volatile blonde American Jew also turned out to be the poet's most enduring partner and collaborator - as proven by their co-authorship of the libretto for Stravinsky's Hogarth-inspired opera The Rake's Progress.
Richard Grunberger

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