Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in The Emperor’s Children
Nietzsche tells us: “Poets behave shamelessly toward their experiences: they exploit them.” But is this so, invariably? In prose fiction, as in poetry? It has become a commonplace assumption that even writers of ambition are inspired primarily by their own lives, and by the experiences of their generations, fed by the influence of the great, self-absorbed and -obsessed Modernists (Joyce, Proust, Lawrence) and by mid-twentieth-century American “confessional” poets (Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, Plath); as if the autobiographical pulse is ubiquitous, beating visibly, or invisibly, fueling the very act of creation. Who needs a muse, where there is a mirror? What need for any effort of the imagination, in the creation of poetry or prose in the mode of Robert Lowell: “Yet why not say what happened?”
Yet there is an equally powerful instinct to resist autobiography/confession, to create purely imagined, or assimilated, literary works; for some writers, even those for whom the stylistic experimentations of Modernism are extremely attractive, the very act of “identification” must involve distance, difference. “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally,” as George Eliot once remarked. That art should be guided by, or even suggest, a moral compass seems, in the post-Modernist era, quaintly remote, quixotic; yet there are numerous notable writers for whom the nineteenth-century ideal of “enlarging sympathy” is predominant. Among contemporary writers whose inspiration seems, at times magically, to be the very antithesis of self, Claire Messud has demonstrated a remarkable imaginative capacity.
Born in 1966 in the United States, educated at Yale and Cambridge, Messud has set her several novels in such widely disparate places as the remote, punishing islands of Bali and Skye (When the World Was Steady, 1994); in a meticulously realized south of France and in Algeria under French colonization (The Last Life, 1999); in Ukraine, wartime (World War II) Europe, and Toronto (“A Simple Tale,” in The Hunters, 2001). Messud’s debut novel, When the World Was Steady, is a tenderly ironic double portrait of two hapless middle-aged English sisters who travel to very different islands. Emmy, abruptly divorced by her Australian husband, leaves her affluent residence in Sydney to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the exotic island of Bali, for no reason other than a wish to escape the place of her humiliation; Virginia, the older and more naive sister, a spinster caretaker of an aging, difficult mother, agrees to accompany her mother on a misguided sentimental journey to the mother’s birthplace in a remote part of the Scottish island of Skye.
Each of the Simpson sisters has adventures on her island, of a kind that might be called romantic, or mystical; each leaves her island a changed woman, but not very changed. Emmy leaves Bali and almost immediately reverts to her former, superficial self, in a flurry of planning her daughter’s wedding: “This was her way of being, she recognized, and her way of not suffering too much, which was why she had come home to the mantles—however tattered—that she knew how to wear.” Virginia, the more thoughtful of the sisters, as she is the lonelier and more poignant, seems to have lost even her wan, anemic Christian faith when she returns from her island adventure:
…Virginia had concurred, falsely, that God might Himself be in the wrong, or at least, might be cruel. But for herself, she attributed fault to human inadequacy and she continued to try to believe that He Himself could not disappoint…. But out in the world, in the London that looked ruthlessly and exactly the same since her return from Skye…, she could discern only emptiness and terror, a morass of humanity’s failure masked only by its transparent illusions of meaning.
As if the “good women” so attentively observed by Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner were taken out of their routine, domestic lives, given a shake, and made to experience a metaphysical chill, before being brought back safely home again.
Messud’s most ambitious novel is the very long, very detailed, and coolly impassioned The Last Life, a sustained feat of ventriloquism narrated by an expatriated young Frenchwoman named Sagesse LaBasse, living now in New York City (“with my burden of Original Sin”) and studying at Columbia University, who looks back upon her turbulent early adolescence in a resort town on the Mediterranean, amid a family of French Algerian emigrants. Sagesse’s mother is an American in exile who is never allowed to imagine that she really belongs in France, or in the stultifyingly close-knit and self-regarding bourgeois LaBasse family; Sagesse’s paternal grandfather is a well-to-do hotelier with French nationalist leanings, whose single, impulsive act of violence, discharging a firearm at teenaged trespassers on his property, precipitates the disintegration of the family, including the suicide of Sagesse’s father. The novel is recounted in a tone of obsessive memoir, in which each recalled detail is equivalent to all others as in an inviolable incantation, an expression of a doomed yet prideful lineage:
…We knew ourselves to be bound to our faith, cement-bound, blood-bound, in a proximity shared only by a few hundred thousand, those who were, like us, exiles of French Algeria…. The logic of my upbringing was indisputable: we were Catholics, we were French, we were Algerian. Ours, as a personal heritage, a gift indeed, most particularly for us, the Europeans of North Africa, was the doctrine of Original Sin.
There is a curious, largely unexamined rift between the highly sophisticated inner language of Sagesse and Sagesse’s outer life, in which she behaves like a spoiled, somewhat dyspeptic fifteen-year-old, a moody child of privilege with (somehow) the power of an artist to recreate LaBasse family histories in France and in Algeria at second hand; as if the precocious young narrator of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse were gifted with the political/cultural insight of a Camus, or the young Thomas Mann of Buddenbrooks. So deeply immersed is Sagesse in her subject, so persuasive in her interior voice, that the LaBasse clan, somewhat petty, self-destructive, and exasperating individuals, emerge as figures of significance, and sympathy. Sagesse’s lengthy homage to her past is a homage to the mystique of French Algeria, where Sagesse herself never lived; and to the imperial France that colonized Algeria, only to fall fatally in love with its creation. Both Augustine and Camus are quoted liberally in The Last Life, but it is Augustine whose melancholy fatalism, disguised as religious piety, speaks to the LaBasse sensibility: “From the evidence of this life itself, a life so full of so many and such various evils that it can hardly be called living, we must conclude that the whole human race is being punished.”
How necessary, then, that the exiled Sagesse reinvent herself as an American, which is to say as anonymous:
And in time, America becomes a home of a kind, without the crippling, warming embrace of history…. In a gesture of perversity, I studied history, as an undergraduate, the wild idealism of the Founding Fathers, the piling, stone upon recent stone, of a culture notable for its interest not in the past but in the future: a different, an American, way of thinking.
At the novel’s end, in an eloquent coda, the solitary Sagesse hints at a future involving a fellow graduate student at the university, whom, so far, she has only observed from a distance:
Not long in America, he has washed up here like Phlebas the Phoenician, but alive, from the wars of his homeland—and of mine—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?
The oddly paired novellas of Messud’s The Hunters would seem to proffer variants on themes of alienation and urban dislocation: “A Simple Tale” is the radically compressed life story of an aging Ukrainian woman, a kind of European immigrant Everywoman, who has worked for an eccentric Canadian woman named Mrs. Ellington for nearly fifty years, in the vein of Flaubert’s self-effacing homage to “ordinary” life, “A Simple Heart”; “The Hunters,” set in a grubby district of London, is narrated by an eccentric person of no evident sex, age, or ethnic background (“This was…a time in which I had no life. Or rather, in which I had no life that could be seen”), given to arch Nabokovian observations and fantastical speculations about his, or her, neighbors, in the vein of that most riddlesome of Henry James’s late voyeuristic novels, The Sacred Fount.
What links these seemingly antithetical works of fiction is the singular author who would seem to exhibit, perhaps more convincingly than James Joyce himself did, those ideal attributes of the artist set forth in Stephen Dedalus’s credo in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak…. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
Curiously titled, The Emperor’s Children suggests a gloss on the cliché of the emperor’s “new clothes”; shared delusion, communal madness, nullity. One of the characters in the novel has a work-in-progress titled The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, described in the hyperventilated terms of contemporary publishing jargon:
Marina Thwaite’s groundbreaking debut book demystifies [parental neuroses], unraveling them through the threads of our clothing, and more particularly of our children’s clothes. In this brilliant analysis of who we are and the way it determines how our kids dress, Marina Thwaite reveals the forms and patterns that both are and lie beneath the fabric of our society. In so doing, she bares children, their parents, and our culture at large to an unprecedented and frank scrutiny, and in her truth-telling, shows us incontrovertibly that the emperor’s children have no clothes.
(How skillful, and how funny, Claire Messud is as a satirist! An entire chapter of The Emperor’s Children, titled “Vows by Lisa Solomon, Special to The New York Times,” is virtually indistinguishable from the “real thing.”) The speaker here is a self-styled “revolutionary” named Ludovic Seeley with a “pale, oval, Nabokovian, [and] predatory” face and the young woman to whom he is speaking is Marina Thwaite, daughter of the prominent public intellectual Murray Thwaite, who has been working halfheartedly for years on a pseudo-cultural exposé of children’s fashions. All that the oddly named Ludovic Seeley does, or says, is seductive, or manipulative, for Seeley is both a stock figure of women’s romance (“His face, so distinctive, struck her as that of a nineteenth-century portrait, a Sargent perhaps, an embodiment of sardonic wisdom and society, of aristocratic refinement”) and a figure of sinister foreboding, exuding the fascination of a “reptile, a beautiful but dangerous one”; Seeley speaks openly of his admiration for Napoleon, and his wish to “unmask” and “debunk” individuals of prominence, like Marina’s father Murray Thwaite, the novel’s “emperor”: “the country’s liberal conscience.”