Claire Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady, published five years ago, won praise from critics who know what they’re talking about – for example, Penelope Fitzgerald, writing in the LRB. It was a book that showed an easy technical control, an ability to do the things novelists have to do, and in so young a writer these skills were reasonably thought to presage later and more ambitious performances. She seemed to know how all manner of people talked, whether in dull offices and suburban religious groups or in far more exotic settings. Rich racketeers and the petty crooks attending them, people eagerly taking dreary jobs (‘35-hour week at £4.83 an hour’), gay clergymen, they all sounded right. The story of two middle-aged sisters, one staying at home with a formidable mother, the other long since emigrated to Australia but now divorced and wandering about Bali, created all sorts of opportunities.
The Bali pages are craftily sprinkled, as a contribution to what some call the reality-effect, with Indonesian expressions: you eat at a warung, probably choosing ‘the crispy prawn crackers called krapuk’. The natives have a saying, dugas gamini enteg, which happens to mean ‘when the world was steady’. A long sequence is set on the island of Skye, strongly contrasted with Bali in that on Skye it rains continually and one meets hard-drinking but stimulating fishermen. Odder things happen in Bali: the wandering sister climbs a terrifying mountain, a young man is savagely attacked by monkeys. Whether they are in Bali, London or Skye, the characters all seem to have souls, perhaps not wonderful ones, but all different.
The story of the sisters, who meet in the closing pages after thirty years apart, reminds one slightly of The Old Wives’ Tale. What makes this novel more enigmatic is a certain concern with spiritual matters, whether in Balinese or Christian terms. Possibly we are dealing only with ‘transparent illusions of meaning’, but these are comfortable, perhaps even necessary, in view of the endless varieties of human muddle we should otherwise have to lament without consolation. Here is a preoccupation that recurs in Messud’s new novel. But it is the well-managed geographical spread of the earlier book, its expert dialogue and characterisation, and the balance of its two main narratives, that explain why it was admired.
When the World Was Steady is a conventional third-person narrative. In this new book, The Last Life, the story is told from the point of view of a young girl called, for some reason I have not discovered, Sagesse, 14 at the outset. This choice of narrator, as so often, presents problems, which are confronted with energy, even with pleasure, if not always with success. The story is of the girl’s family, but it reaches back beyond her immediate circumstances, and concerns not only her grandparents but a generation and more further back beyond them.
While this chronological scope makes possible some fine things, it requires the girl to describe events and persons she cannot have known, and there are some surprisingly clumsy attempts to get round this problem. Sagesse does quite a lot of eavesdropping, for instance, and part of the past is supplied in a long and improbable monologue by her grandmother. On the other hand, the story is for the most part cleverly told, with many neatly executed timeshifts. If you look at the account of the suicide of Sagesse’s father you find that the narrative repeatedly returns to a point where he was still alive, then on, past the suicide, then back again, a virtuoso technique that harks back to Conrad and Ford, though not surprisingly it cannot match Ford’s wonderfully enigmatic climaxes, like the end of the scene of the Protest in The Good Soldier. Here one feels that the timeshifts, however well done, are to a large extent a matter of expository convenience – a way of cramming a family saga of four generations and more into the reminiscences of a child.
When a chapter opens with a reference to ‘my grandfather’s great-aunt by marriage’ and proceeds to talk about her on the basis of a couple of old photographs one might be excused for thinking the demand on one’s interest is too great. (When Sagesse goes to a séance and claims that there is no French ghost she could communicate with we wonder why she doesn’t summon this great-aunt, or some other remote forebear.) Yet the reference is used to take us to Algeria, where the great-aunt and her brother (Sagesse’s great-great-grandfather) emigrated in 1865 as second-generation colons. In a sense everything in the novel refers back to Algeria, French from 1832 until the capitulation of 1962, on which catastrophe the story ultimately depends.
The girl’s narrative sort of begins when her grandfather, a pied-noir hotelier, fires a shotgun at a bunch of noisy teenagers illicitly using his swimming pool at night. This event is ‘the beginning, as I take it’, but the point is that beginnings are arbitrary and to get to this one there has to be an earlier start to explain the shooting, and so on backwards. Sagesse had been present on a previous occasion when the old man had yelled at the kids at the pool. This time she was conveniently not in the pool but within earshot, misbehaving with a boy, and so is able to report the disaster at first hand.
The present time of the book is actually much later, when Sagesse, a grown woman, has settled in America, but the present time of the tale is dictated by the story of the shooting, the trial and imprisonment of her grandfather, her father’s suicide and the collapse of a family that has always prided itself on sticking together. (‘A Family Doomed to Disaster’ was the headline in the local paper.) In the course of the story the present family is examined from Sagesse’s point of view – rather pert and truculent, oppressed but impudent. Her father is inevitably but unwillingly the subordinate of his father in the running of the hotel, at least until the old man, the stronger figure, goes to jail for the shooting. Her American mother tries hard to be French as well as Catholic and despite appearances fails to please her husband. An important family member is Sagesse’s hopelessly brain-damaged brother Etienne; she loves and is disgusted by him, but like the others does not question that he should be looked after at home. When he is sent to an institution so that Sagesse’s widowed mother can comfortably remarry, the family, once so proud of its solidarity, is finally broken. Etienne is the last male, and though he has an adult body and responds to Sagesse’s illicit sexual stimuli, he will never have children, never even tell his tale. Throughout he has represented the fate of the family, perhaps, even more darkly, the fate of our world.
The ‘myth’ of the family, the version it offered of itself, was sustained by the boy and their love for him. But when one looks at the architecture of the story one sees that there is a more extensive and complicated myth involving a curse. The grandfather and the father are both guilty of sexual misdemeanours. Grandfather impregnated a Berber maid and allowed her to be cast off; so his son has an unknown indigène sibling. And at one point Sagesse discovers that her father, who turns out to be a womaniser, has left Etienne in a dark lift in order to go to bed with a woman he has picked up.
But the curse on the family is not just a matter of inherited sexual misconduct. Above all, they have lost Algiers, here represented as a colon paradise, and handsomely celebrated in Messud’s descriptive prose. The hotel they now own, in a small resort in the South of France, is the successor to the one they had to abandon on the other side of the Mediterranean. Sagesse’s father is ambitious to win the new hotel a fourth star, though after the shooting this could never happen. Nothing can ever again be so good as Algiers. It was the primal disaster.
The celebration of the splendours of Algiers is matched by a good account of the miseries of defeat and flight to a Metropolitan France none too anxious to welcome these colonial compatriots. One of Messud’s most brilliant flashbacks (she makes no pretence that Sagesse, born long afterwards, could possibly have provided the detail) concerns the father’s dilemma when his hope of finding a passage to France is being eroded by the minute. His grandmother is very slowly dying, and he prays for her to die so that he won’t miss the last boat. He wants to take her with him in a coffin. She dies just in time and he manages to take the coffin on board with him, hoping to sleep on top of it. But refugees are not allowed to bring furniture, and the coffin is designated as furniture. The captain insists on a compromise: burial at sea. This is done before the ship is well out of the harbour, and provides the occasion for an extravagant but satisfying conclusion to the episode:
The crowd on shore could see the funeral too ... because they seemed to grow still, and a hush fell over the bay in the brilliant afternoon sun. When the coffin slipped, with a muted splash, into the oily Mediterranean, and was swallowed, the ship’s human cargo stood motionless and wide-eyed: mourning this reminder of the dead they left behind, and their own deaths to come, and the glinting white glory of their city, lost to them like Atlantis, wavering there on the hillside, so near, but gone for ever.
Never mind the structural implausibility, one gets used to that: this sequence is well done.
Sagesse, long afterwards, keeps in her little apartment on Riverside Drive a watercolour of the Bay of Algiers, ‘that sun-filled, gleaming wonder, painted at a time when everything still seemed possible, when the city might just have become – the impossible future of that pluperfect past – in time, Augustine’s City of God or Camus’s City of Man’: a final reminder of paradise lost, here remembered not only for itself but as the habitat of two great writers, a not very well-assorted pair who recur from time to time in the role of distinguished Algerians. Augustine, himself half an indigène, half a Roman, died as the Vandals were at the gates; Camus, when he died in the car crash, also knew that his Algeria was about to disappear for good. These observations are not inapposite, though not as illuminating as they might have been. The Last Life frequently speculates about memory and time, so it might have made more of Augustine’s incomparable meditations on these topics. All the same, Messud is seriously interested in the ‘unforeseen paths’ we follow as from moment to moment our expectations of the future change, and her novel is a real attempt to explore such paths.
The skills of the earlier book are of course still in evidence, and there are one or two set-pieces – a description of the goods on view in an Algerian market, for instance – that resemble similar moments in When the World Was Steady and are close to being rather too exultant demonstrations of descriptive skill. The differences between the two books are nevertheless considerable, the new one setting itself far more ambitious problems. Some are particularly interesting, as when the narrator claims the right to present alternative versions of the events of a particular life (a right exercised daily by novelists, but rarely displayed in non-avant-garde novels). There is some play with the idea that a person may do the work of Fate by shaping her intention to conform with it, a point Augustine would have been willing to discuss.
Indeed, there is evidence that the whole business of narrative, of the nature and purpose of plotting, and of the interaction between the freely chosen and the determined, is a concern of Messud’s. I particularly like the moment when she simply refuses to make anything up about the woman Sagesse’s father was caught out with; it didn’t matter who she was or what she was like, only that she was there, while Etienne sat in the dark lift waiting for his father to finish. A writer of such fertility could have given the woman a past and a present, possibly even a future; it was more interesting, and perhaps more difficult, an exhibition of real command over narrative, to refrain. The Last life is far from flawless but it was conceived as a work of art, and with the intelligence necessary to bring that conception to birth.