Claire Messud is the author of four novels and a book of novellas. Her novel The Emperor’s Children was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and was selected as one of the ten best books of 2006 by The New York Times. Her most recent novel is The Woman Upstairs. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Brother of the ‘Stranger’

Kamel Daoud’s novel The Meursault Investigation may have attracted more international attention than any other debut in recent years. The Algerian writer’s book, first published in French in Algeria in 2013, then in France in 2014 (where it won the Goncourt First Novel Prize and was runner-up for the Prix …

Discovery, Bewilderment, Joy

Per Petterson on his farm in Norway, 2000
Readers of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson will already know him to be a master of strenuously achieved economy. Like a painter working with a restricted palette, he evokes a considerable, urgent range of emotion and experience from his intimately known surroundings: just as Alice Munro knows her territory of …

A New ‘L’Étranger’

One of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, carries, for American readers, enormous significance in our cultural understanding of midcentury French identity. It is considered—to what would have been Camus’s irritation—the exemplary existentialist novel. Yet most readers on this continent (and indeed, most of Camus’s readers worldwide) approach him not directly, but in translation.

Camus & Algeria: The Moral Question

Albert Camus and his publisher, Michel Gallimard, Greece, 1958
One Christmas when I was in my early twenties, my mother, my sister, and I returned home from midnight services to find my deeply private and resolutely lapsed father watching John Paul II’s mass at St. Peter’s on television, his face wet with tears. Distressed to see him thus, we asked why he was crying. “Because when I last heard the mass in Latin,” he replied, “I thought I had a religion, and I thought I had a country.” My father, like Albert Camus, was a pied-noir, a French Algerian.

Germany: Surviving the Whispers

Painting by Gustav Klimt, 1912; from Gustav Klimt: The Complete Paintings, which collects his portraits, landscapes, drawings, and letters, along with newly commissioned photographs of his mosaics for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. It is edited by Tobias G. Natter and has just been published by Taschen.
In a brief acknowledgment at the end of The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore explains that the impulse to write her novel arose during her stay at the American Academy in Berlin in 2006. In a radio interview at the time of publication, she further explained that her protagonist’s Irish …

The Elephant in the Room

In these relentlessly noisy times, to deem a writer “quiet” seems tantamount to an insult. Surely “quiet” is synonymous with “dull”? “Discreet” is no better, implying, as it does, prudery of some sort. But any of us must recall the moment when we realized that the smartest girl …

On a Mystery Voyage with Michael Ondaatje

Art is like life: some fiction writers are familiar to us, in the way some physiognomies are familiar; while others—the misfits—prove always strange. With them, each new creation is like the unfurling of an undiscovered flower, the shape and color and scent of which must surprise. It is naturally safer to be—and to read—writers of the former sort; but infinitely more exciting to encounter the latter. For those of us who also write, the eccentric imaginations are not simply a focus of admiration, but a source of inspiration, even awe. Each book by Michael Ondaatje is, thrillingly, a departure, in some way unclassifiable.

The Secret Sharer

A self-portrait of Teju Cole, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 2010
In our age of rapid technology and the jolly, undiscriminating ephemeralizing of culture and knowledge, an insistence upon high stakes—a desire to ask the big questions—can seem quaint, or passé, or simply a little embarrassing. How to reconcile Philip Roth’s observation about American life, in his essay “Writing American Fiction” …

An Experiment with Wonder

Charles Baxter
While Charles Baxter is probably best known for his best-selling novel The Feast of Love (2000), made into a popular film starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear, the passion he inspires in readers—and in particular in readers who are writers—is focused chiefly upon his short stories.

Life Exactly as It Is Lived

Deborah Eisenberg, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2009
There are just two complaints one could make about the recently issued volume of Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, and they seem to contradict one another. The first is that the tome, at just shy of a thousand pages, is as unwieldy as a small encyclopedia, which makes it difficult to …

The Fate of Sara and Dara

A still from Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 film Shirin, which examines the faces of women watching a film, never seen by us, of the twelfth-century Persian love story Khosrow and Shirin
When, last summer, YouTube disseminated from Tehran the extraordinary cell-phone images of the young woman named Neda as she expired from an apparently random bullet at a pro-democracy demonstration on June 20, 2009, perhaps few thought first of all of Shahriar Mandanipour’s highly literary metafictional novel Censoring an Iranian Love …

Revealing the Real Iran

When I landed at boarding school in Boston in the fall of 1980—from a public school in Toronto, another world—I assumed the Iranian girls knew the ropes better than I did. Posh New England culture was utterly alien to me; but how much more so must it have been to my fellow boarders lately of Tehran? Aware of the recent revolution—even at fourteen, one couldn’t not be—I nevertheless was unable to relate the girl brushing her teeth beside me in the dorm bathroom to mass demonstrations or the then ongoing hostage crisis half a world away. I never asked the Iranians a single question about their histories: it was tacitly accepted that it was too delicate a subject and, by force of silence, too remote from our placid world of emerald lawns and peeling white columns. What, I now wonder, must the Iranian girls have thought?

In Evin Prison

Haleh Esfandiari at a press conference in Washington, D.C., after her release from detention in Iran, September 10, 2007
Extraordinary events in Iran over the past six months have brought us images, voices, and narratives until recently unimaginable; they reveal, among other things, how little we understand about quotidian life in that country since the revolution. In the United States, we are nevertheless aware, with a dark tremor, of …

Come Rain, Come Shine

Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer unlike any other. This may seem a truism—what writer, after all, is not unlike others?—but Ishiguro’s fiction is, in fact, very strange indeed. His celebrated gift lies in illuminating the hidden emotional complexities beneath a mundane surface—something canonically accomplished in The Remains of the Day, …

Land Divers

Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver, near Paestum, circa 480–470 BCE
The burglar stood at the bedroom window and watched them drive the Mini into the garage. They’d had the car windows open and Noddy and Cissy had been singing, very loudly, the calypso carol the lower school choir would perform at the Christmas concert: “See him a-lying on a bed …

Aiming to Please

Edward Hopper: Room in Brooklyn, 1932
Recently stopping by our old house, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Berniss, who, with her particular combination of fluster and devout resignation, informed me that her husband—a night-shift cabbie invariably encountered grumbling amiably on his front porch, flat cap on pate and cigarette butt dangling from his gray lip—is …

Witnesses to a Mystery

In the opening paragraphs of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, the elderly narrator John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in the small Iowa town of Gilead, tells his young son: I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like…. I used to say it …

Blood Relations

Only in the years following my French Catholic grandmother’s death was it revealed to me that there is no such thing as “magical realism.” There are, instead, culturally specific experiences of the real which, when rendered in fiction, produce different results. Raised in an essentially Protestant setting, I had in …

Signs of Struggle

In each generation, over the course of time and through the production of volumes of fiction of almost unwavering quality, a small pantheon of Unassailables forms. These writers’ names are spoken in tones of hushed reverence; their work is, in some absolute sense, beyond criticism. Elevation to this summit is …

When Life Caught Up With Him

Father David Anderton, the protagonist and narrator of Andrew O’Hagan’s subtle third novel, has never been, it would seem, a very good priest. Be Near Me, set in the Scottish town of Dalgarnock in 2005, is Father David’s account of his fifty-seventh year, the year of his unraveling, or his …

A Case of Development

For twenty years, Frank Bascombe has wandered his way through the prosperous suburbs of New Jersey and the American literary landscape, reflecting, reacting, and simply getting on with his life. He first appeared in Richard Ford’s 1986 novel The Sportswriter, set in 1983: a divorced thirty-eight-year-old with a quietly held …

The Way We Lived Then

Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God(1995), is the fascinating account of a young woman’s childhood and adolescence in the housing projects of …

Fairy Tale in Reverse

“Treason is not inherited, my lord,” Rosalind pleads of her uncle, Duke Frederick, in the opening act of As You Like It, as she tries to persuade him not to banish her the way he did her father. Raised alongside Frederick’s daughter Celia, Rosalind is baffled by the sudden imposition …

Heartburn

Where would love be without the love letter? The messenger, the vessel of love, it is also, in Cathleen Schine’s charming fourth novel, its conjurer. It works its magic upon Helen MacFarquhar, a divorced mother of one in her early forties, who runs a bookstore in a well-heeled seaside town …