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 …