Claire Messud’s novel of a stalled woman artist
From the outset, it’s been clear that Claire Messud has all the necessary equipment—a fertile imagination, a grown-up sensibility, and writerly ambition in spades—to write very good fiction, perhaps even a novel that defined our times. One could detect in her prose the influence of many writers—Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen are just two that come to mind—without being able to pin her to a particular school or manner. She seemed, that is, very much her own person, trying out various devices as they suited her. If anything stood in her way, it was the fact that her imagination and sensibility sometimes seemed to float ahead of her narrative technique, her ability to engage the reader on a realpolitik level of character and plot development. There was, for instance, her habit of piling on descriptive detail, seemingly for its own sake; of using adjectives (like bulbed in “bulbed nose”) that made you stop and cock your head, trying the images on for size, rather than their really evoking anything you could immediately envision; and then there was the way some of her characters seemed like projections of her authorial voice—like literary exercises, rather than fully fleshed creations.
None of these drawbacks got in the way of Messud’s being hailed, already with the publication of her first novel, in 1994, as a writer to take note of. Although that novel, When the World Was Steady—which follows the radically divergent destinies of two British sisters—strikes me, for all of its excellent moments, as overspun and insufficiently gripping, it won high praise and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Messud’s following novel, The Last Life, published in 1999, took on the ways historical events (in this case, a family’s colonialist past in Algiers) affect the unfolding of individual trajectories. The book moves back and forth in time and place, as did her first novel, cutting an impressively wide swath. Messud juggles a lot of balls—family dysfunction, teenage angst, the price of exile, and the process of self-creation—for the most part fairly effectively. There are, to be sure, scenes and sometimes whole sections that overreach; The Last Life is strongest when it remains inside the head of its fifteen-year-old narrator, the French-American Sagesse, and less vivid when it recounts the complex backstory that led to the uprooting of both of Sagesse’s parents. I’m also not persuaded the domestic drama at the novel’s center bears the weight of the political and philosophical issues that Messud attaches to it. By any measure, though, it is a striking achievement, showcasing the author’s range and dexterity, her fluid use of dialogue and ability to invest even casual perceptions about, say, adolescent friendships with a certain urgency: “For a long time,” observes Sagesse of a best friend who has dropped her, “I was, literally, hungry for her company: I could feel my longing burning calories, hollowing out my stomach and scratching at its walls.”
Bookforum | April/May 2014.