The Muse: Burton and Barthes

the muse 3Jessie Burton again turns to the past to harness inspiration for her second book, The Muse. This time the plot moves back and forth between the 1930s civil-war-ravaged Spain and the 1960s London, yet the issue at hand is not merely another historical novel, but a much more universal topic that hits quite close to home. In addition to the common social issues such as racism, sexism, fascism, and anti-Semitism that are interspersed throughout the novel, The Muse tackles the ideas of art, creative process, legacy, female empowerment, authorship, and identity, through parallel stories of two young women, three decades apart. The narrator of the 1967 storyline is Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian immigrant and aspiring writer, who ends up working as a typist at the Skelton Institute, an upmarket gallery near Piccadily, where the curious co-director, Marjory Quick decides to take her under her wing. This plotline is intertwined with the 1937 story of Olive Schloss, a 19-year-old daughter of a wealthy Viennese art dealer, who falls in love with Andalusian artist Isaac Robles, whose sister Teresa works for the Schlosses as a housekeeper during their stay in Malaga. The link between the two stories and the two women comes in the form of a mysterious painting signed with the initials I.R. brought to the institute for evaluation.


Probably one of the most interesting elements in this book is the Barthesian commentary on the creative process and the role of the creator/author. Marjory Quick’s attitude toward authorship might as well have been taken from ‘The Death of the Author’, the 1967 essay by French literary theorist Roland Barthes where he argues against the incorporation of the author’s intentions and biographical context into the interpretation of a text claiming that the work and the creator are unrelated:

‘You’re not walking around with a golden halo beaming out of you depending on the power of your paragraph. You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.’ She lit another cigarette.
‘When something is considered “good”, it draws people in, often resulting with the eventual destruction of the creator. I’ve seen it happen. So whether you think it’s “good” or not should be entirely irrelevant if you want to carry on. It’s tough, but there it is’ (Burton 148).

the muse 2These events take place in 1967, providing a perfect setting for the exercise of Barthes’ theories. Quick’s speech sets Odelle free to pursue her writing and publish her work without the paralysing effect of fear associated with authorship and reception, which is something that her parallel, Olive, 30 years earlier could not do:

‘She had told me that the approval of other people should never be my goal; she had released me in a way I hadn’t been able to myself. She trusted me. Quick had encouraged me to lay myself bare, and it had not been that difficult at all’ (156).

The two stories unfold and both Odelle and Olive are soon on their path of ‘pure’ creativity, a space where they can express themselves completely without the burden of self-consciousness, however, their paths diverge in one significant way: Odelle has embraced the death of the author and separated herself from the effect that her work creates without denying her authorship. Olive, on the other hand, creates freely only when she is sure that she is well hidden in the shadow of a man who will take credit for her work. This can be related to the timeframes of the two storylines: in the 30s art dealers refuse to take seriously the idea that a woman might be a great artist, whereas in the 60s, the turbulent time of activism and civil rights movements, women are making themselves heard and taking credit for their work. It is the period when the great works of art offer themselves up for reinterpretation and the question arises whose voices have reached us from the past – the voices of the ‘protected gentlemen (…) rich gentlemen, white gentlemen, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read.’ Burton, like many of her predecessors, aims the spotlight at the others, the voices that had been silenced and that had remained in the margins, the female voices that seek to ripple the seemingly still surface.

© 2017 Erna G.

Tagged with: