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Family Secrets

Claire Messud’s second novel centers on the year its heroine turns fifteen. Her name is Sagesse LaBasse and she lives on the Côte d’Azur, where her grandfather, a pied noir from Algeria, owns a hotel and runs it with the help of her father. Sagesse has a younger brother called Etienne, a slobbering, speechless, sweet-tempered creature strapped into a wheelchair. He was brain-damaged at birth, and Sagesse loves him. One day, she notices he has grown up: he has an erection. So she masturbates him and he comes. Afterward she feels she has done wrong. Not because of the incest:

The wrong…lay in the very awakening of Etienne to possibilities beyond his grasp, in the bitter and futile assertion of his humanness…. As a man, he would be consigned to conflict and despair far more profound than any I could know, and alone in a place where no one could hear.

Words, meaningless though they might ring, as wrongly as we may interpret them, are the only missiles with which we are equipped, which we can lob across the uncharted terrain between our souls…. My brother…lived like Friday before Crusoe, alone in his paradise, or in his hell, but not knowing it to be either—and now, with this sigh, with this relief, his body had communicated desire and been heard, and however my brother registered knowledge, he must know that it had, and, most terribly, would know when it remained, henceforth, unattended. Having been, beneath his sheet, unalone for even a moment, he would know forever more what it meant to be alone…. The wrong I had done, I realized, was to make my brother aware of his prison….

This is just one of the many unpredictable, shocking passages in Messud’s book; shocking, not because of the incest, but because of the irreversible tragedy it discloses in language that appears to have no regard for anything except getting its meaning across, getting to its destination by however convoluted and jolting a path.

Messud does not always write like that. Her style changes from one page to the next, and each new paragraph can be a surprise—regardless of the fact that the first-person narrator is always the twenty-five-year-old self writing from the present on the Upper West Side. “I am American now,” she begins the book, “but this wasn’t always so. I have been here a long time—six years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before that. But in truth, until now I’ve lived, largely, inside.”

Sometimes she takes on her fifteen-year-old voice, talking the dismissive argot of a witty, observant, cynical adolescent who knows that “cool” is the most important word and the most important thing to be. Then there are lush—too lush—descriptions. For instance when Sagesse accompanies her mother to the market:

blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants, exuberant fronded skirts of frisée salads cozying next to succulent crimson cherries, pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates.

Too much elaborate travel writing (mostly about Bali) clogged Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady. Perhaps it is unfair to cite the martyred fennel, especially since baroque word painting has almost died out in her latest work, and she has learned to set a scene and create an atmosphere with an economical choice of properties. Here, for instance, is the backdrop to Sagesse’s first date: “We dawdled in the concrete cavern of the parking lot, beneath the flickering bleach of the fluorescent light, serenaded by the trickle of a forgotten garden hose and the occasional scurry of a lizard along the wall.”

Messud’s verbal versatility is remarkable, and the excuse for one more quotation—her Sargent portrait of the scion (St. Paul’s and Princeton) of an old East Coast banking family.

Chad, at seventeen, was wholly without anxiety, his sleepy movements so ripe with entitlement that he could afford to be generous, and patient, with everyone around him, from his father…to the Robertsons [Sagesse’s embarrassing American aunt and her family] and me.

Chad lounges briefly in and out of Sagesse’s life during an enforced holiday she spends with the Robertsons in Massachusetts. Her mother, Carol LaBasse, is American, and even more of an outsider in France than the family she has naively married into. The Last Life is both a rites of passage novel and a family saga over three generations. Sagesse’s paternal grandfather, Jacques LaBasse, was of humble peasant stock. He made it to the lycée, then to college, got a job at the prestigious Hotel St. Joseph in Algiers, and married into the colonial bourgeoisie. Everything was going well for him in the 1950s, until the FLN moved into its serious phase of bombing and burning. He decided then to flee to France with his family—a terrible wrench, because they all loved Algeria with a passion that turns into inextinguishable nostalgia when they settle on the Riviera. Nostalgia hangs over the novel, reflected in its mournful title.

Sagesse’s father, Alexandre, is in his penultimate year at the lycée when his parents and sister emigrate. He refuses to accompany them, and chooses instead to remain with his beloved maternal grandmother, who is dying of cancer. He manages to get himself and her coffin—her corpse literally still warm inside it—onto one of the last refugee boats out of Algiers; but the coffin won’t make the turn from the gangway into the cabin he shares with another family, so she has to be buried at sea. Alexandre’s departure is a brilliantly paced cliffhanger, and very moving besides. Coming halfway through the flash-back and -forward narrative, it plants a cleverly delayed grain of admiration and sympathy for him in the reader, who has been led to despise him for being a deplorable husband and father—a weak bully, as well as a serial adulterer on a scale, his impeccable mother explains to her American daughter-in-law, that is perfectly normal and acceptable.

Alexandre and Carol met when he was a handsome young hotel management trainee, and she an American college girl in a cashmere twin set, improving her French in Aix. She married him against her family’s wishes. With his infidelity, her father-in-law’s tyranny, her mother-in-law’s unassailable perfection of housekeeping and grooming, and the arrival of poor Etienne, it was not a happy time for her. Sagesse becomes her mother’s ally and confidante, always on her side, though she can be as critical, harsh, and disobedient as any teenage daughter.

Carol is a devout cradle Catholic, but it doesn’t stop her from being an outsider in France. So are the LaBasses. As pieds noirs they are not fully accepted, even though they consider themselves—and are—more loyally patriotic as well as more devout than the metropolitan French. When Sagesse makes friends with young Arabs at the lycée, her family is unenthusiastic. Her grandfather sympathizes with Le Pen, though he doesn’t go so far as to vote for him. He and his son are ambitious: upwardly mobile not for snobbish reasons, but to prove the family’s worth and stability, which to them is embodied in their hotel, the Bellevue (three stars, though Alexandre wants to up it to four). When Sagesse brings home a good report from school, Alexandre takes it to his father “like a small trophy, as if it were proof of my father’s diligence, rather than my own.” “You can do better,” her grandfather tells her. “Each generation should do better.”

But the family’s respectability and its cohesion are lies. That is what Sagesse discovers in her fifteenth year—partly by catching sight of old secrets as they crawl out of their hiding places, and partly by witnessing terrible new events, which her parents and grandparents translate—not into secrets, for that is impossible, but into more or less acceptable, surmountable glitches. At fifteen, Sagesse is pleased to be a party to concealment: “How adult I felt, to be entered into the family’s rolling conspiracy of silence.”

Etienne’s existence, of course, is a disgrace that cannot be concealed. Among the hidden ones Sagesse discovers her father’s nervous break-down and suicide attempt immediately after he rejoined his family in France. Then she realizes he is having an affair with Etienne’s nurse—echoing her grandfather’s affair, back in Algiers, with the family’s Berber maid. The maid got pregnant, was dismissed, and gave birth to a boy she called Hamed. None of the LaBasses has ever seen him, but Sagesse imagines him with her father’s and grandfather’s green eyes, and fantasizes that he was brought up by an uncle in France. In the very last paragraph of the book she describes herself trying to scrape up an acquaintance with a green-eyed, dark-skinned student she has spotted at Columbia.

Not long in America, he has washed up here like Phlebas the Phoenician, but alive, from the wars of his homeland—and of mine—of a home that exists only in the imaginary. His name is Hamed. How to tell him, who might have been my cousin, the stories I know? How to avoid it?

So the novel ends with her search for someone to share her nostalgia.

Sagesse witnesses two more, and more tragic, disgraces. One night a gang of her friends holds a noisy party in the hotel swimming pool. Her grandfather chases the kids away and forbids them to do it again. But they do. The old man loses his cool and fires at the bathers with his rifle. No one is seriously hurt, but he is given seven months in a minimum security jail, which Sagesse’s grandmother insists is just like a rest home. All the same, the family reputation is seriously damaged. When old LaBasse is released, his wife celebrates with a party for him. It is a sedate affair consisting mainly of old ladies, and he refuses to make more than a token appearance. One of the old ladies brings a special cake. It is almost inedible and at the end of the afternoon its remains are given to the maid to take home—a wonderful finale. Altogether, the welcome home party is Dickensian in its gruesome, comic pathos.

After the shooting, Sagesse’s gang drops her. The loss of her best girlfriend is an agony, but the agony passes. She drifts into another gang, made up mostly of working-class Arab kids. They too drop her. She doesn’t really mind. They were only “as if” friends. She stops going to the beach because, in addition to her other humiliations, horrible boils sprout on her back. Her grandfather tells her to study, and she does, “but I was aware that I studied not because it was important, but rather as if it were important.” Everything is only “as if.” And she has become a loner. As a surprise her father takes her out one night to a grand restaurant, sending her expensive flowers in advance, treating her like a date. Shortly after that he commits suicide, and her mother sends her to finish her education in the States, where she remains.

The Last Life is different from other American novels about growing up, partly, of course, because of its setting and background. Messud changes one’s idea of the Riviera forever, evoking the life tourists and rich villa owners don’t get to know: hardware shops, small street markets, schools with stony playgrounds, immigrant slums crammed with Arabs and Africans, stuffy flats sheltering careful widows, dowdy cafés where housewives hang out and grotty ones where schoolchildren gather. She casts her own sad light on France’s retreat from Algeria, which she sees neither as a triumph for the Algerian people nor as a humiliation for France but as a loss: a grief, not a rage. She regrets that Camus’s dream of a multiracial, multicultural society in the beautiful country of his birth was never realized. His spirit, and even the title of his most famous book, L’Etranger (The Stranger), hang over hers. It is all about outsiders: exiles, suicides, adolescents with skin problems, brain-damaged cripples; and in this it reminds one of W.C. Sebald’s recent haunting collection of stories, The Emigrants. He too writes about exiles, misfits, and suicides. Both books have a melancholy tone—but Messud can evoke exhilaration as well as depression, and comedy as well as Weltschmerz, especially in Sagesse’s account of her politically correct, anxiously broad-minded American aunt with her timid house-husband and hostile teenage daughters.

Algeria has two famous sons, Camus and Saint Augustine. Both were of mixed ancestry, which seems important to Messud. Camus was of French and Spanish descent, and Augustine half Roman and half Berber. Augustine invented Original Sin, and Sagesse thinks about it a lot. “Ours, as a personal heritage,” she reflects, “a gift indeed, most particularly for us, the Europeans of North Africa, was the doctrine of Original Sin.” It also occurs to her that the saint would not have brooded so much about suicide if it had not tempted him.

But the most striking difference between The Last Life and most other coming-of-age novels, from The Catcher in the Rye and The Member of the Wedding to All the Pretty Horses, is that Messud’s novel draws not on psychoanalysis but on philosophy. Sagesse is an introvert all right (“I have lived, largely, inside”), but she doesn’t psychoanalyze herself, her parents, or her grandparents. Instead, she philosophizes about their condition, and especially about her brother’s. She broods—broods fervently—about Original Sin, guilt, choice, necessity, fate, freedom, and, over and over again, about “as if”:

We live “as if,” as if we knew why, as if it made sense, as if in living this way we could banish the question and the “as if”ness itself, the way we speak and act as if our words could be comprehended; and such a moment as my father’s death exposes again the thinness of that curtain, the unreality—although surely sweat and blood and sex are real, as real as death—of the quotidian.

Not a smooth bit of prose but it deals urgently with a serious question. Messud has written a very serious book—bits of it lumpy, others overwritten, but always original, intense, and gripping. I admired it even more the second time I read it.

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