Magazine article The World and I

The Haunted - Claire Messud Explores Memory, Displacement, and Reinvention in Two New Novellas

Magazine article The World and I

The Haunted - Claire Messud Explores Memory, Displacement, and Reinvention in Two New Novellas

Article excerpt

Linda Simon is associate professor of English at Skidmore College.

Claire Messud
 Publisher:New York: Harcourt, 2001
181 pp., $23.00

Among any individual's transforming experiences, leaving home is one of the most traumatic: disorienting, often lonely, yet potentially liberating. Sloughing off barnacles of family, culture, and history, one can try to reinvent one's identity, to find a new theme and plot for the story of one's life. Whatever is gained, however, is tempered by loss of familiarity and security. Claire Messud, a 35-year-old American novelist, has taken exile and regeneration as her fictional territory. In her previous novels, When the World Was Steady and The Last Life, and now in the two novellas collected in The Hunters, Messud focuses on characters who, by their own choice or because of historical urgencies, find themselves far from home and from the people, places, and experiences that shaped them. She explores ways that her characters come to make sense of their past, interpret the present, and orient themselves toward the future: how, in short, they fashion a coherent story of their lives from disparate, and sometimes incongruous, experiences.

Sagesse LaBasse, the central character in The Last Life, is a young French-American woman on the verge of adulthood, haunted by the histories of family and nation. Her grandfather fled from Algeria, across the Mediterranean to France, to escape unrest and revolution. Her father, though, remained in Algeria until the last moment, resisting expatriation; after he joined his parents to run a hotel on the French coast, he felt an abiding sense of loss, both of autonomy and identity. Sagesse's mother, a timid American student studying in France, married him as a gesture of independence and freedom from a culture that required conformity to an image of womanhood that felt decidedly constricting. What she found in France, however, were rules and conventions

that she had failed to anticipate.

As Sagesse grows up, she uncovers her family's--and her culture's-- secrets and tries to understand what motivated the choices that her parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents made. She also comes to make her own choices and, in doing so, to realize the limits of freedom. When she decides to leave France to find a home in America, she admits, "I'm not an American by default. It's a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn't known this? ... Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within." Yet it is a choice motivated by a need simply to survive. "Wherever we have come from," Sagesse tells us, "there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. ... In America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new."

While The Last Life is an expansive, engrossing, multigenerational novel, Messud narrows her focus in The Hunters, exploring in each novella the life of a single character. Although here, as in her previous fiction, she shows herself to be a writer of delicacy and rare sensitivity, the result is uneven: A Simple Tale is a moving novella, beautifully and economically told; the title story is undermined by an unlikable and unreliable narrator whose anguish seems largely self- imposed.

Searching in the shadows

Perhaps to inspire any reader's feelings of identification, in The Hunters, Messud presents us with an unnamed narrator of unspecified gender (a dappling of clues suggests that he is male and bisexual), an American scholar who comes to London to research a book about death, specifically about "an analysis of the shift between an eighteenth- century conception of death and a Romantic conception thereof, and ultimately of the poetic manifestations of that shift." His work at the British Library focuses on tracing demographic changes in the causes of death during these periods. …

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