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Steady On

Messud remains true to the craft of belles-lettres

EILEEN MURPHY

The Last Life

Author:Claire Messud
Publisher:Harcourt
Pages:368
Genre:Fiction

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 8/29/2001

With a few exceptions, Americans don't much care for authors who simply write well. We want our books to do something. Whether reading fiction or nonfiction, we prefer stories filled with action, where characters (and readers, vicariously) experience roller-coaster thrills as they find the killer, win the big case, connect with true loves. When we crave more intellectual thrills, we seek out writers who reinvent the literary form, play with language, mine new territory. In both cases, we want progress, whether represented by a character's success or an author's ability to write an entire novel without using the first-person-singular pronoun.

But there's a whole subset of writers who write well seemingly for the sake of writing well. Their shelf in the bookstore used to be called "belles-lettres," defined by the Random House/Webster's College Dictionary as "literature that is polished and elegant and often inconsequential in subject or scope." The late food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote wonderful books that fit into this category; New Yorker alum John McPhee has expanded the definition with his enormous tomes on everything from art to oranges.

Along comes novelist Claire Messud. She too writes beautifully, and the tales she tells are small and subtle. These aren't novels of ideas or overwrought emotions. Her stories are largely internal--attitudes shift, not tectonic plates--and her writing is dense and thoughtful, yet somehow elegant.

Born in the United States but raised mostly elsewhere, Messud entered the British literary fray in 1994 with When the World Was Steady, a finalist for the (American) PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1996. The novel follows the parallel paths of two middle-aged sisters as they reluctantly deal with their changing lives. Although both women cover physical distance to re-establish their emotional footing, their true journeys are across interior landscapes. Emmy, the younger sister, travels from her home in Australia to Bali to come to terms with her recent divorce and the accompanying displacement from Sydney society. Virginia, the elder, accompanies their mother on a trip from London to the family's ancestral home in Scotland, and there recovers from a series of incidents that shake her religious faith, which had been her only refuge.

The novel made a big splash; it might have been short-listed for the British Booker Prize had not Messud's husband, James Wood--then a Booker judge--caused a scandal by allowing the novel to advance through the ranks of nominees without revealing his connection to the author. But for all the attention, When the World Was Steady is a surprisingly modest book. At the end, the two sisters, previously estranged but now friendly, evince little outward change but face the world with renewed acceptance.

The Last Life, Messud's sophomore effort, is extraordinary, as large as her debut work was small. The author takes a familiar form, the coming-of-age novel, and invests it with a worldliness and sense of perspective seldom seen in the genre. Like the narrators of other such stories, 14-year-old Sagesse does learn to kiss in the course of this novel, but she also masters much harder lessons, such as coming to terms with the many forms of exile. Set in the south of France, The Last Life stitches together the elements of a dysfunctional family, the complicated legacy of colonialism (here represented by the relationship between France and Algeria), and the outsized, confused emotions of adolescence. The sweep of the novel, informed by history and leavened by a fresh voice, brings to mind Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and his more recent Anil's Ghost.

Messud's most recent book, The Hunters, claims to be "two short novels." Readers will know better; these are novellas, the name for fictional narratives longer than short stories but shorter than a full-length book. The term itself screams belles-lettres: Authors interested in anything other than the writing know to work in a more marketable form.

"A Simple Tale," the first selection, introduces Maria Poniatowski as an old woman, but over the course of its 92 pages the story recounts her experiences as a young Ukrainian in a German labor camp, her marriage to a fellow "displaced person" after the end of World War II, and the family's new life in Canada. As Maria suffers the usual blows of life--her husband dies, her son marries a woman she doesn't approve of--she finds herself lonelier and more confused than when she was in the camps. When her longtime employer and friend, a wealthy and proud woman who pays Maria to clean her house, declines into a desperate and needy old age, Maria is forced to admit that the traits that have sustained her this far--a dogged constancy, a firm belief in the importance of tradition--are no longer useful.

The title selection, "The Hunters," is less satisfying than "A Simple Tale." In this novella, a narrator of unknown name and gender moves into a flat in a less-than-desirable section of London. Ostensibly there to research a scholarly book on shifting perceptions of death, the narrator is really hiding out after a failed relationship.

Into an otherwise perfect peace lumbers Ridley Wandor, the narrator's neighbor and a caregiver for the elderly whose patients are dying with alarming speed. Ridley is far too friendly for the narrator's taste, but her professional shortcomings are a welcome distraction for the narrator, who is soon imagining all sorts of nefarious goings-on and fantasizing about calling the police.

The story ends with a Poe-esque turn, but the tale is not nearly as rewarding as those of that master. Messud seems to be trying on the form rather than inhabiting it, but her humor is dead-on and her references delightful to any reader with a literary bent.

Although much of the story is internal, perhaps the problem with "The Hunters" is that there's too much action for Messud's careful lyricism. In her best work, she captures the nearly imperceptible shifts of emotional growth, the metaphorical equivalent of a glacier carving out a canyon over centuries.

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