Claire Messud’s collection of essays and reviews from the past 20 years — titled Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write — is an uplifting work: complex, precise and bracing. Messud, the author of seven novels and a professor at Harvard has divided this book into three sections: Reflections (a series of autobiographical essays), Criticism Books and Criticism Images. This structure means that we come to her analyses of writers and painters through the prism of the characters and dynamics of Messud’s own family.
We read her thoughts on Rachel Cusk’s unforgiving, semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels with Messud’s high-cheekboned Canadian mother in mind, a woman who once remarked of a friend of her daughter’s: “She was such a nonentity, I kept forgetting she was in the car.” We read about Camus thinking of her French-Algerian father, 18 years the writer’s junior, who grew up in a similar neighbourhood to Camus’s Belcourt, in Algiers.
While reading about the Sargents in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I pictured Messud’s portraits of her grandmothers, so brilliantly drawn: one adored — “She was rightly sized for us, at little over five feet, and stout, with pillowy white hair and a pillowy bosom (which we did not then know to be made of foam and removed nightly)”; the other, her father’s mother, “elegantly gaga”.
Two strong-willed, serious-hearted thinkers hover powerfully over this collection. Messud’s pied-noir grandfather — who spent a decade writing a 1,500 page family memoir just for Messud and her sister — and his son, her father, who devoted all his free time to the intricate, private scholarship of philosophy without ever writing on the subject. These twin examples of commitment stand as a beacon of inspiration and also, perhaps, a warning of the dangers of operating so purely and discreetly.
The family section of Messud’s volume is rendered vividly, in sentences beautifully formed and built to last. Some of the scenes she conjures feel unforgettable. The passage in which she depicts her French Catholic Aunt Denise persuading Messud’s father to receive Holy Communion on his deathbed — against his better judgment (and from a priest named Bob in a baby-blue short-sleeved shirt), in the full knowledge that her mother, in the early stages of dementia, will be furious — is astonishing. I can imagine thinking of it in 20 years’ time, half-wondering if it happened in my own family or in a dream. The strength and delicacy of these chapters leave you trusting Messud’s taste and judgment before you sample her criticism, which doesn’t disappoint.
Messud’s rigorous enthusiasm for the writers she admires is infectious. Her appreciation of the wildness of Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno and her admiration for the daring moral slant of Jane Bowles’s 1943 novel Two Serious Ladies sent me straight to the bookshop. Who doesn’t hanker, especially now, for a character who says, as Bowles’s Mrs Copperfield does, “At a certain point gin takes everything off your hands and you flop around like a little baby. Tonight I want to be like a little baby”? Messud’s admiration for Open City by Teju Cole, a novel from 2011 that considers a year in the life of a young half-German, half-Nigerian New York psychiatrist, opening out Manhattan in entirely new ways, made me begin it immediately.
During her review of The Door by Magda Szabo, a work of fiction concerning a wealthy woman’s intimate relationship with her housekeeper, Messud finds herself thinking about her French grandparent’s adored housekeeper Odet. She remembers the tremendous strain her Aunt Denise put on Odet after she moved in with Messud’s father, following the death of her mother.
Towards the end of the essay as Denise emerges as more overtly troubled than anyone else in Messud’s circle, her niece considers whether she showed enough warmth and acceptance as her aunt finally descended into alcoholism. Her attempts, instead, to help her aunt take a stand against her lavish deterioration gradually harden into a regret, and this hardening is used to show how books have the power to change our understanding of life. Books are life, after all.
It is in the essay on the painter Alice Neel, however, that Messud confronts head-on the dilemma of all artists, perhaps the main thread of this book: how to both observe and live, to be “the painting and the painter”, to make work of a heroic nature without viewing other people, one’s own material needs and time spent away from deep thought as an encumbrance. Messud quotes Neel’s inspiring declaration: “You know what it takes to be an artist? Hypersensitivity and the will of the Devil. To never give up.”
There is something of that staunch atmosphere to Messud herself.
Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography Through Essays, by Claire Messud, Fleet, RRP£14.99, 306 pages
‘Loved and Missed’ by Susie Boyt will be published next summer by Virago
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