She risks coming across as elitist — ouroboros, for those who lack her formidable vocabulary, refers to a snake swallowing its own tail — but her intent is generous: “Each of us can be nourished by the richer life of the mind,” she insists. Literature and art connect us with the wisdom of the past, providing an antidote to the helplessness and isolation we feel in a polarized, commerce-driven society. Her faith is quite possibly unrealistic, but couched in Messud’s lucid, quietly fiery prose, it’s also inspiring.
The personal origins of this faith become apparent in the lovely autobiographical essays of the collection’s opening section, “Reflections.” Her Canadian mother and French Algerian father met at Oxford. Messud was born in the United States, but the family moved to Australia in 1970, when she was 4. By the time she was 12, she had lived in three countries and attended five schools. She acquired an Australian accent and learned the local slang so she could fit in at school in Sydney, then was sullenly outraged to discover on a Christmas visit to her grandmother that her accent and unseasonable tan made her a curiosity in Toronto.
“Always, already, I didn’t quite belong,” she writes. Her inner life, the life she carried with her from Connecticut to Sydney to her French grandparents’ home in Toulon, was “infinitely more real, blooming and billowing in the imagination.”
Messud communicates that inner life and the outer trappings of her peripatetic childhood with marvelous particularity, capturing in palpable, resonant detail various family homes and intricate familial interactions. For her, literature is not a lofty enterprise pursued among the muses on Mount Parnassus; it is the way we share our human experiences. The writers whose work speaks to her, she tells us, have a common mission: “to illuminate what it means to be alive in their time.”
That is Messud’s mission, too, in the nonfiction collected here no less than in such accomplished novels as “The Woman Upstairs” and “The Burning Girl.” (A rueful piece about her daughter’s difficult entry into fifth grade sketches the latter’s real-life origins.) Clear-eyed essays about her parents, Margaret and François-Michel, and her father’s devoted sister Denise are characteristic. All three are conjured in their prickly individuality, yet firmly located in their time: Denise, unshakably committed to the Catholic Church and the petit-bourgeois social code that deemed her an unmarried, childless failure; Margaret, embittered by her confinement to the housewifely role she effortlessly fulfilled and loyal to the husband she constantly criticized; and François-Michel, serially uprooted by his father’s naval career, World War II and the Algerian war for independence, always looking for “some impossible belonging.” “Reflections” is indeed the “autobiography in essays,” the subtitle promises, vividly conveying the people and places that shaped Messud as a writer and a woman.
The critical essays that follow are just as astute and almost as compelling. Messud’s relationship with literature and art is emotional and visceral as well as intellectual. Hungarian novelist Magda Szabó’s novel “The Door,” she writes, “has altered the way I understand my own life.” Reviewing a memoir by photographer Sally Mann gives Messud an opportunity to examine “what it entails to live as … an artist who is a mother, wife, and member of her community.” The freedom an artist needs comes at a higher cost to women, she notes in a sensitive appreciation of painter Alice Neel that also name-checks novelists Jean Rhys, Christina Stead and Penelope Fitzgerald. Albert Camus, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Italo Svevo are among the male writers who get equally thoughtful treatment.
Progressing from Messud’s autobiographical essays through her criticism, we come to understand what she most values in art. It’s the balance she praises in Teju Cole’s novel, “Open City,” between “life’s urgent banality” — dogs to walk, kids to feed, dishes to do — and “the greater subjects — violence, autonomy, selfhood, life and death” — that art gives us the tools to grapple with. While she understands the alienation that underpins Thomas Bernhard’s sardonic use of “Kant’s little East Prussian head” as a metaphor for the ultimate futility of literature, she rejects it. “A single poem or novel can alter someone’s life forever,” she affirms. Looking back on her past and assessing some of the art that has mattered to her, she makes a forceful case for that belief.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write
An Autobiography in Essays
By Claire Messud
W.W. Norton. 336 pp. $26.95