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Claire Messud Looks Back on Life, and the Art That Shaped Her

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KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD AND OTHER REASONS WHY I WRITE
An Autobiography in Essays
By Claire Messud

We dog people are incorrigible, so after dutifully reading the first few essays in Claire Messud’s new book in order, I of course skipped ahead to the one titled “Our Dogs.”

Its opening sentence — “People react differently to our canine situation” — worried me: Who has a canine situation as opposed to too many dogs, too few, tongue-lolling angels or fang-baring devils? What a technical locution. What a cold one.

I was given even more pause on the next page, where Messud devotes an entire paragraph to the “holistic foulness” of her dachshund’s stench. Where was this essay going? And was I supposed to be enjoying it?

Eight pages later — pages, I should add, that went by with steadily increasing logic and ease — I was reading the last words, flicking away a tear and nodding gently at her question: “How does our strife with the dogs differ from our general strife: Could it not be said that our canine situation is simply our life situation?” It could, and while it could be said more colloquially than in this odd and oddly affecting rumination, it really couldn’t be said a whole lot better.

[ Read an excerpt from “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write.” ]

“Our Dogs” is one of about 25 essays in “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write,” and it’s in many ways emblematic — the elegance of it, the challenge of it. Messud isn’t a writer who grabs her subject matter by the throat or pumps her prose full of kinetic energy. She moseys, she circles, she lies in wait. She sighs where others might scream, mists up where others might sob, ponders “holistic foulness” where others might just run for the cleaner-smelling hills.

But more often than not, it works. There’s usually a moral in her sights, one worth getting to, and there’s sometimes a deceptively strong current of feeling beneath a surface of reserve. I didn’t gobble these essays down, as I would a bucket of buttered popcorn. I savored them in unhurried spoonfuls, as with a bowl of glistening consommé. And I felt amply fed.

I’m speaking in large part of the first section of the book, which is the heart of it. It’s called “Reflections” and comprises essays that, like “Our Dogs,” are essentially snippets of memoir, with the exception of two, “How to Be a Better Woman in the Twenty-First Century” and “The Time for Art Is Now,” that are more topical, political and not especially memorable. The book’s second section, “Criticism: Books,” is slightly longer, while its third and last section, “Criticism: Images,” is the shortest of all. Nearly all of these essays have been published before, in places as diverse as Vogue, Granta, Kenyon Review and The New York Review of Books.

Messud is best known to readers not for nonfiction like this but for fiction, especially “The Emperor’s Children,” her exploration of three young strivers (of sorts) in New York City in the prelude to 9/11. Count me among the many happy readers who found that novel an indelible portrait of a certain kind of entitlement, a certain cast of ambition, and of the laughable, pitiable chasms between who we are, who we expect to be and who we really want to be. It was packed with cutting social observations and, even more so, with wisdom.

These essays don’t carry the same weight or deliver the same punch, perhaps because they don’t enjoy the free rein of imagination. They’re confined by the parameters of Messud’s own life and the lives of the writers and artists she examines in her criticism. But a similar intelligence courses through them, coupled with an erudition that, unfortunately, tilts into exhibitionism. If you played a drinking game in which you took a shot every time you tripped across an invocation of Tolstoy, Nabokov, T. S. Eliot or the like, you’d be tipsy just a few paragraphs into some essays and blotto by the end of others.

Messud’s literary criticism is more absorbing than her arts criticism and its appeal is proportional to a reader’s familiarity with the subject. I’m less versed in Albert Camus than I should be, even now that we’re living “The Plague,” so the three essays about his work — written long before the coronavirus — mattered less to me than her vivid, insightful analyses of three novels that I read in the recent past and remember well: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” Magda Szabo’s “The Door” and Teju Cole’s “Open City.”

The beginning of her take on “Open City” demonstrates her great talent for enlarging the context of whatever she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary. It also captures her determinedly elevated tone and vocabulary, which won’t be to every reader’s taste: “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.”

The ending of her take on “The Door” demonstrates her even greater talent for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting close, with a few final phrases that distill the meaning of all that preceded them and send a kind of shudder through your mind and heart. If she were a gymnast, she’d be renowned for sticking her landings.

The essays in “Reflections” reflect a background that is geographically expansive, privileged and bereft of big, messy drama — the word “genteel” kept popping into my brain. “Like many of us, I’m a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many things,” she writes in the title essay. “My childhood was itinerant, my identity complicated. My father was French, my mother Canadian. I grew up in Sydney, Australia; in Toronto, Canada; and then at boarding school in the United States. I went to graduate school at Cambridge University, where I met my British husband.” That doesn’t make Messud the most relatable narrator, but it affords her a panoramic perch and allows her, for example, to take readers on an extensive, evocative tour of Beirut in “The Road to Damascus.”

With that essay and others, she explores two themes — two conflicts — in particular: the impermanence of human circumstances versus the durability of art, and the evanescence of experience versus the tenacity of memory. In her memory, her mother and her father’s sister live large; so she immortalizes them in “Two Women,” about what strange bedfellows some in-laws make. A long-ago friend’s disappearance endures as a lesson in people’s inscrutability that she imparts in “Teenage Girls.”

Messud makes the point that every relationship we’ve had and every residence that we’ve inhabited survives in the scrapbooks that constitute ourselves: We leave them far behind and never leave them at all. “It is wrong to think of them as past: Sydney, then, was just beginning; and Toronto was, in our lives, a constant, and then, for a time, a home; just as Toulon, my father’s family’s chosen place, remained until just a few years ago my life’s one unbroken link,” she writes in “Then.” “They were concurrent presents, and presences, and somehow because of this, and magically, they have remained always present. If I crossed the ocean today, would I not find my childhood friends dangling from the monkey bars, their ties flailing and their crested hats in a pile upon the grass?”

Now those friends, those monkey bars, those ties and those hats exist not just in her thoughts but in these pages, where they’re fixed forever. That’s why Messud writes. It gives the past a future.

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