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.”
The classic European novel which The Emperor’s Children most resembles is Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), the author’s third novel and by some, including Flaubert himself, considered his masterpiece. In the guise of naturalism, L’Éducation sentimentale is a lengthy, relentless satire fueled by Flaubertian contempt for the hypocrisy, venality, and vanity of Parisian men and women during the general period of 1840 to 1851, an era, in Flaubert’s vision, of money-grubbing madness. The “sentimental education” of Flaubert’s zestfully misanthropic novel is that of an idealistic young man from the provinces who has come to Paris to study law: the romantic-minded Frederick Moreau, naive, credulous in the way of a male Emma Bovary, doomed to perpetual disappointment by life and revealed, in time, in a typical Flaubertian flourish, to be as empty-headed as everyone else.
The “young man from the provinces” of The Emperor’s Children is an awkward American cousin of Flaubert’s Frederick, one Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, overweight, slovenly, with intellectual/ writerly pretensions, who has dropped out of college at Oswego and has plummeted, as his anxious mother notes, from being a brainy “phenomenon” (valedictorian of his Watertown High School class) to being a “freak”; a resident of dreary Watertown, New York, who somehow has the conviction that he is, or is meant to be, a genius. Unemployed, unemployable, supported by his doting mother, Bootie feeds upon the fantasy of living
like a philosopher, the way Emerson said that Plato had, alone and invisible, known to the world only through his work…. He had to get to New York, for this: to his as yet unalerted teacher and mentor. To Murray Thwaite.
As these excerpts suggest, The Emperor’s Children is a work of satiric comedy, a considerable departure for Claire Messud, whose prose style has exuded a certain gravitas in the past. Ambitious, multilayered, set predominantly in Manhattan in the months leading up to, and following, September 11, The Emperor’s Children is Messud’s first American-set novel, as it is her first work of fiction to rapidly shift perspective from chapter to chapter, leaping about, with authorial freedom, among a number of interlocked characters. Such omnipotence suggests the airy glibness of a comedy of manners, or satire; Messud eschews here the dramatic intensity of a single perspective, like that of Sagesse LaBasse, in the service of an “unmasking” and “debunking” project of her own. Yet The Emperor’s Children is never so bleakly misanthropic as L’Éducation sentimentale, or even so corrosive as the urban satires of Messud’s contemporaries Martin Amis and Zadie Smith; its prevailing tone of crisp bemused irony suggests the less savage comedies of manners of Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson, and Iris Murdoch. Even as she unmasks them, Messud can’t resist evoking sympathy for her mostly foolish, self-deluded characters; and can’t deny even the fatuous Bootie the possibility of regeneration and redemption in the chaotic aftermath of September 11.
At the center of The Emperor’s Children, in the ambiguous, and precarious, role of the “emperor,” is the aging yet still charismatic writer Murray Thwaite, an adjunct professor at Columbia University whose prominence within his circle of admirers seems to cast more a blinding glare than an illumination. Messud’s subtly nuanced portrait of a public intellectual as both a revered role model and a “disintegrating giant” is specific enough to suggest that The Emperor’s Children is, at least in part, a roman à clef, and yet generic enough to suggest that Thwaite is an idealized, or inflated, American type:
Murray Thwaite has built his reputation on being a straight shooter. On telling it like it is. From the civil rights movement and Vietnam right down through Iran Contra and Operation Desert Storm, from education policy to workers’ rights and welfare to abortion rights to capital punishment—Murray Thwaite has voiced significant opinions. We have believed him, and believed in him.
(This double-edged encomium has been written by Thwaite’s nephew Bootie who, working as Thwaite’s assistant, and living in Thwaite’s impressively sprawling Central Park West apartment, is secretly preparing an exposé titled “Murray Thwaite: A Disappointed Portrait.”) Apart from publishing so frequently that he has begun to plagiarize his own material, Murray Thwaite has been secretly composing his life’s work, titled How to Live, part aphorisms, part essay, in the grandiloquent manner of Emerson; a project that, if it is ever completed, “would at last and indisputably elevate his name from the ranks of competent, even courageous journalists and thoughtful columnists to the rare air of the immortals.” And Thwaite has not resisted beginning an affair with a woman not only young enough to be his daughter, but a woman who is his daughter’s best friend.
Yet more vulnerable is Murray Thwaite as the father of the badly spoiled thirty-year-old ingenue Marina, a “celebrated native beauty (surely this wasn’t of no account?)” who frets about winding up “ordinary, like everybody else.” Marina has done virtually nothing since graduating from Brown ten years before except to work as a Vogue intern and to have accepted a publisher’s advance for her book
about children’s fashions and—for this was the spin—about how complex and profound cultural truths—our mores entire—could be derived from a society’s decision to put little Lulu in a smocked frock or tiny Stacey in sequined hotpants.
Having long ago spent the advance for this project, Marina has drifted about in Manhattan literary circles in a “pretense of work,” trading on her looks and on being Murray Thwaite’s daughter; her vaporous life is given a sudden, if misguided, focus when she is seduced by the opportunistic Ludovic Seeley, who has been brought to New York to start a high-profile, well-financed “revolutionary” magazine with the goal of exposing hypocrisy, called The Monitor. A flashy amalgam of such publications as New York, the New York Observer, Vanity Fair, and the late, buzz-oriented Talk, The Monitor is funded by a billionaire publisher (“Augustus Merton, the Australian mogul. Busy buying up Europe, Asia, North America. Everything in English and all to the right”) and would seem to be a prime example of what an observer calls “the blurring of left and right politics in pure contrarianism. People who aren’t for anything, just against everything.” Unfortunately for the reptilian Ludovic Seeley and his billionaire backer, the lavish “launch” for The Monitor is scheduled for September 12, 2001—by which time its mixture of malice and frivolity has become instantly passé.
The most sympathetic, as she is the most industrious and least self-deluded of the emperor’s children, is Marina’s college friend Danielle Minkoff, a TV producer for a PBS-like channel who retains the idealism of youth even as she is confronted by the cynicism of the TV marketplace: Danielle’s suggestions for programs about the mistreatment of Australian aborigines or an update on AIDS are rejected by her supervisor, who urges her toward more popular subjects like cosmetic surgery. Danielle naively rationalizes her affair with Murray Thwaite in the vocabulary of popular romance: “She considered that their connection was almost eerie, a meeting of minds, a Platonic reunion of divided souls.” Though Danielle feels a “moral repugnance” for sleeping with a man whose wife has befriended her, she can’t resist the primitive charms of the “country’s liberal conscience”:
[Thwaite] had loomed shaggy and grand like a crumbling castle, a half ruin, in the semidarkness of her pristine apartment, his belt unbuckled and his bare torso monumental, and had held her to him so that she could hear his heart beating beneath the grayed fur against her cheek. When he spoke, his voice resounded in his chest, and entered her ear like an immense echo…. Pressed to his chest she’d felt safe and exhilarated at once, as if swept by a great internal breeze; and there seemed little point telling herself that this was immoral.
Messud tries valiantly to pump credibility and feeling into Danielle’s love affair with Murray Thwaite (“Like an addict—no, she was an addict. She thought about him all the time, or else thought about thinking about him, and the fact that she shouldn’t”), but the coolly bemused, sardonic tone of much of The Emperor’s Children, like the swiftly moving chapters, works against the myopia of romance. One feels that Danielle has been pressed into service in a role not suited for her, like a miscast actress, who, apart from the romantic scenes expected of her, is more convincing elsewhere. When Thwaite breaks off his affair with Danielle immediately, on the morning of September 11, Danielle reacts by succumbing to a protracted depression that conflates the blow to her ego and the terrorist catastrophe:
…There was no call to feel anything, there was nothing to feel because you weren’t worth anything to anyone, you’d had your heart, or was it your guts, or both, taken out, you’d been eviscerated,…she had known, she had known all along, and now there was nothing but sorrow and this was how it was going to be, now, always.
The most vividly imagined of Thwaite’s erstwhile children is Bootie Tubb, the overweight, egomaniacal, parasitic nephew from upstate New York who imagines that he is of the elect company of Plato, Emerson, and Tolstoy though he has difficulty reading a book to its conclusion. From the vantage point of youth, he soon discovers flaws in his uncle/benefactor:
He couldn’t have known beforehand how he would feel about it, that the manuscript [How to Live] would seem to him both pretentious and trite…. He believed now that the Great Man had been an illusion all along, mere window dressing. Reluctantly, he slid into alignment with Ludovic Seeley: Murray Thwaite was one great con trick, a lazy, self-absorbed, star-fucking con trick.
Naturally, with the pitiless rectitude of youth, Bootie feels the need to “expose” Murray Thwaite in an article for The Monitor. Exasperating, irrepressible, Bootie is an ideal comic creation; real enough to make any of us shudder at the prospect of a youthful relative coming to visit, especially one who professes to “admire” us. So obtuse is Bootie that, after he gives “Murray Thwaite: A Disappointed Portrait” to his uncle to read, he’s genuinely surprised that Thwaite responds angrily: “Where the fuck do you get off, you little nullity, you common little piece of shit, snooping around in my papers and crapping all over them?” Expelled from the emperor’s lofty residence on Central Park West, the forlorn but unrepentant Bootie rents a room in Brooklyn and, on the morning of September 11, somewhere in the vicinity of ground zero, disappears. (Or so it seems to Bootie’ s relatives.)
The terrorist attack leveling the World Trade Center towers is placed strategically late in The Emperor’s Children, in Chapter 58 of sixty-seven chapters, and, viewed primarily through Danielle’s stricken eyes, it is elliptically and convincingly rendered. Such profound “historic” events, introduced into works of fiction, in which nothing can be accidental, have the force of cosmic rebukes against the pettiness of human beings and the vanity of human wishes; at once, the threat of Ludovic Seeley and The Monitorevaporates, and the sinister Seeley fades from the narrative like a banished demon. Murray Thwaite not only returns to his devoted wife Annabel (who’d been entirely unaware that he was having an affair with their daughter’s closest friend) and, true to his reputation as the country’s liberal conscience, responds to the demands of “his public”:
He had much writing, and speaking, to do. He formulated a reasoned middle ground that, while not stretching so far as those who claimed America deserved it, nevertheless gently reminded his suffering companions of the persistent agonies of the West Bank, or of the ever-growing population of disenfranchised Muslim youth around the globe…. Murray couldn’t help but be aware of the irony that Bootie’s [supposed] death had granted him greater nobility, an importance—he knew it to be false—as a man of justice, unswayed by the arrows of misfortune. But perhaps, had he been able to see it, Bootie would at last have been proud of his uncle.
As for the invincible Bootie: hurriedly fleeing the chaos of September 11, on foot, Bootie thrills to feel himself utterly alone in an “unknown country,” granted a vision he interprets as Emersonian: “He had been given—his fate—the precious opportunity to be again, not to be as he had been. Because as far as anyone knew, he wasn’t.” In the spirit of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, another weighty book he’d been trying to read, indifferent to his mother’s and relatives’ probable concern for him, Bootie simply relocates to Miami and reinvents himself, in a fitting conclusion to Messud’s mirror of our foundering times:
This time, he was ready. This person in motion was who he was becoming: it was something, too: a man, someday, with qualities…. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, he told himself; and take them by surprise. Yes. He would.