Claire Messud, Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other reasons why I write: An autobiography in essays (W W Norton & Co 2020)
Claire Messud (Wikipedia entry here; her own website here) is primarily a novelist. I haven’t read any of her novels, but this book – a collection of essays of which versions were published between 2002 and 2019 in journals ranging from Vogue to the Kenyon Review – was on offer at our book-swapping Book Club. I’m a bit of a sucker for writers’ writing about writing, and on top of that I was intrigued: Did Kant keep a tiny sculpture of a head on his shelf, and whose head was it?
It turns out this is the first book I’ve read that mentions Covid–19. The introduction, dated April 2020, strikes an optimistic note. Speaking of the climate emergency, life under late capitalism, and the way recent years have been ‘a dark maelstrom’ (which may be code for the Trump presidency), she continues:
This ominous hurtling, the relentless ouroboros that is social media, the destruction of ourselves and our environs – we had come to see it as inevitable, and ourselves as the passive and ineluctable victims of forces beyond our control. Humanity has risked collective despair, than which there is no more certain doom for our planet and ourselves. But even in the past two months, although at the mercy of a ravaging virus, we have discovered that in other ways we aren’t disempowered. Crisis and extremity are by no means to be desired; and their consequences – human and economic both – will be challenging for the foreseeable future. But these extraordinary times have also forced us to slow down, to think collectively, to seek hope, to value the truth, and to celebrate resilience and faith in our fellow human beings.
To find these resources, we may look to the past – to history and to literature – to the vast compendium of recorded human experience, from which we draw wisdom, solace, or, at the least, a sense of recognition.
It might have been harder to hit that note of optimism eight or ten months later in the USA, and harder to assume that the ‘we’ in that passage is universal, or even a majority, but it’s still saying something real.
The book is organised into three parts: ‘Reflections’, which comprises mostly family history, and the self-explanatory ‘Criticism: Books’ and ‘Criticism: Images’. The divide, while clear, isn’t absolute. As Messud says in her Acknowledgments, her ‘family is at the heart of it all’. The three essays on Albert Camus at the start of the second section – on respectively his ‘naive optimism’ during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), a new translation of Camus’ L’Étranger, and Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, which is a response to L’Étranger – take on extra depth and resonance from Messud’s family history. Her father’s family were pied-noirs (Algerian-born French) like Camus, and the first Camus essay begins with a memory of her father as an old man grieving for the country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager.
I approached the first part cautiously. Other people’s family history provoke one central question: Why should I be interested? Will this family be amusing? Will their stories shed light on my own? Will they open out to some broader understanding of the world? In this case the answer to all three questions is Yes. Claire Messud brings to her stories of her parents and grandparents not only the precise aura of childhood memory, but also an adult grasp of their contexts. She spent a large part of her childhood in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, then moved with her family to Toronto, and from there to the USA. Each move meant a cultural shift, and it’s Kambala Church of England School for Girls in Rose Bay, seen through Messud’s eyes and now ours, that is the weirdest of them:
We had uniforms for summer and for winter. The former was a grey-and-white checked shirtdress, belted, worn with a straw boater banded in grey, with the school crest upon it. The latter was a grey tunic, beneath which we wore white shirts (with Peter Pan collars while at [the junior school] Massie House) and grey-and-gold striped ties (bow ties, with the Peter Pans), and topped by a grey felt hat, again banded with the crest. Grey socks; black oxfords; grey jumpers; grey blazer (with gold piping); grey knickers; grey ribbons (compulsory if your hair touched your collar).(‘Then’, page 8)
And there’s much more.
The dislocations in the early lives of Messud and her sisters, it turns out, are mild reprises of their parents’ lives. Her father was a pied-noir. His father, a patriotic Frenchman who also loved his native Algeria, took his family to Morocco in 1955. Messud’s father never returned to Algeria, but moved from country to country, and when his guard was down would grieve for the country and language of his childhood. A fierce atheist, when he was dying in a nursing home, he was bullied into taking Communion from a visiting priest, but as the priest was offering the host:
‘Isn’t there someone,’ my father asked me pleadingly, ‘who could do this in French?’(‘Two Women’, p 45)
Her mother was ‘raised petit-bourgeois and socially aspirant in mid-century Toronto’. The parents met in Oxford, and their first date was at a picnic also attended by Gloria Steinem. Messud’s father’s younger sister, mentally unstable and zealously Catholic (she’s the one who pushed for the deathbed Communion) became part of their life from their marriage in 1957.
The family story is told with generosity to all parties, including the aunt, and extends to the tribulations of Messud’s teenage daughter as she deals with school-age bullying.
Inevitably, some of the essays are less interesting than others: ‘How to be a Better Woman in the Twenty-First Century’ is little more than a listicle, and an account of the author’s two dogs, though funny and heart-rending, is still an essay about dogs.
I’ve been reluctant to read review essays of books I haven’t read ever since Colm Toibìn’s review of On Chesil Beach essentially told the whole plot of that very short book in one full page of the London Review of Books. But I read all the critical essays here. I enjoyed and was enlightened by the one on a book I’ve read – Teju Cole’s Open City (link is to my blog post): I was surprised by a twist at the end; Messud doesn’t mention the twist, but discusses many moments along the way that would have made it less surprising if I’d been paying attention. I’ve seen the movie based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and her discussion of the book brought back the movie’s power. Essays on Jane Bowles, Italo Svevo, Magda Szabó, Rachel Cusk (this one especially), Saul Friendlander, Yaasmine El Rashidi and Valeria Luiselli are all enticing, giving enough information and context to make one want to rush out and get hold of a copy.
The third section comprises catalogue essays on painters Alice Neel and Marlene Dumas, a review of photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and finally returns to family with a sweet essay on how she and her children love Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Living as I do with an Emerging Artist, I read the catalogue essays with relevant books open beside me, and could feel my capacity to appreciate art expanding as I read and looked. These essays are enriched by their inclusion in this book. When Messud writes that Marlene Dumas’ Amends, like each of her paintings, ‘has evolved out of a particular combination of autobiography, politics, culture, and the demands of the medium’, she could be describing the book as a whole or in its parts. In her essay on Sally Mann (which also, by the way, makes a telling contribution to current conversations about whether you can appreciate a work of art created by a person of vile character), she could likewise have been describing these essays, a good bit more accurately than the book’s subtitle, when she wrote:
… this memoir is notably neither confessional nor self regarding. Mann, ever the photographer, stays behind her lens, turning her ‘intensely seeing eye’ on the people and the natural world around her. […] We will know Mann by the outline that she leaves, by what touches her and how.(‘Sally Mann’, p 287)
I didn’t get the writer-writing-about-writing hit I was expecting. The title essay is the only one that explicitly fits the bill – and the title, incidentally, refers to a line in a Thomas Bernhard novel that Kant’s monumental work shrivels down to a legacy of ‘Kant’s little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog’: to write is to aim to have at least that much legacy.