Friday, March 21, 2008

Elegiac craftmanship (Books - The Last Life by Claire Messud)

...Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.

Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I live - how can I not? - with my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed...

The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot at me: I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.

I'm only 40 pages in, but the story of The Last Life, Claire Messud's second novel, seems a song of betrayal, escape and the remaking of oneself. It is one of those books written after the fact by an older, wiser narrator who was also a character in the events, sees them anew, and now must write about them. The form uses the writing as a framing device - not an uncommon technique in writing or theater by any means - often it is meant, I think, to eliminate self consciousness - if we own up to the artifice upfront and it won't call attention to itself when we don't want it to because it is part of the story.

Now I was one who really enjoyed The Emperor's Children, Messud's more recent novel. I've heard lots of criticism, though never of the writing, most of the criticisms I can remember faulted the novel for the fact that its characters were privileged, which I found feeble. Who were most of those readers, by any meaningful standards, if not privileged themselves? No one faulted Allan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader for being about the queen of England or Brideshead Revisited for being about members of the aristocracy with tons of power and money. There is no dearth of art about the rich and famous, they are potentially as conflicted and full of the range of human experience as the rest of us. The work need only compel us to be interested to succeed - and it did me. In any event, The Last Life is again about a man of influence - the grandfather mentioned above - but he is a small man, a big fish in a little French pond. We don't know it yet, but I have my suspicions that the book's secret lies with him, I won't share them so as not to spoil the plot. The first two paragraphs of the excerpt are part of the first short chapter, a frame about the narrator's current existence. The third is the opening of the second chapter, which I would bet dollars to donuts was originally the first chapter. It smells of a writing workshop opening sentence to me:

The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me.
Is that not a killer opening? Messud sings the narrator's song of memory and has so far managed to sustain the elegiac tone of the opening pages for 40+ pages. But I am not sure that that is entirely a good thing. And good lord is she the queen of the adjective, take this picture she paints of the outdoor market in a southern French town:

There were vegetable men and fruit women and stalls selling both, blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants, exuberant fronded skirts of frisee salads cozying next to succulent crimson cherries, pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates. There were florists whose misted anemones and roses glistened as if it were dawn, and the cheese vendors' ripe piles, wares which, from behind the glass, leaked their fetid and enticing stinks out into the crowd...

There is not a passage here that isn't a gorgeous but I am having a hard time getting past admiring her craft. I am not uninterested in the story, but every time I start to find myself in it, I am jolted out by some majestically crafted sentence. In this book, that framing device of calling attention to the writing seems to accomplish only that and no more. This seems the flaw of an early work bent on impressing its readers. I can certainly take pleasure in talented writing, and since the story is not uninteresting, and since I did like Messud's The Emperor's Children I am going to give this one some more time.

5 comments:

Dewey said...

Ah, I really need to read Messud. I have The Emperor's Children on TBR Mountain, but for some reason, I keep not getting around to it.

What you say about having trouble being immersed in the story because the gorgeousness of the writing, though you appreciate it, draws attention to itself is the same problem I had with Mary Gaitskill. Except, in Veronica, I also didn't like the characters, so that made reading it especially jarring.

JCR said...

I read "The Last Life" some years ago, and what I remember was the way she used setting description and made it all tie in with the protagonist's mood/state of mind... the descriptions of sun settings, the atmosphere around the pool in the hotel, etc. She is a brilliant writer, and when I saw "The Emperor's Children" get into the top NYT list I was very pleased... enjoy the rest of the book...

raych said...

Sounds really interesting. I mostly like for a writer's prose to be invisible, so that the story can shine through, but there are certain authors who stop me in my tracks in a good way (as long as they don't do it too often). Guess I'll be tossing this one on the pile. Thanks for the review!.

Ted said...

Dewey - That's interesting re Veronica. Somehow that combination of narrative and subject didn't jar me as much as this does, but that could just be when I'm reading it. I found her writing so vivid and her choices so good it made reading about people I wouldn't necessarily want to spend a few days with possible. Whereas with this one, the prose is just plain distracting.

JCR - Thanks. I love it when someone is so specific, in the way you just were, with a comment. It will give me something to look for as I read.

Raych - I'll be interested to hear which camp you think this falls into.

verbivore said...

I also enjoyed The Emperor's Children and have The Last Life on my shelf for a read next month, I think. The Emperor's Children was my first experience with Messud and I thought her writing was just wonderful and her satiric skill just incredible. Now I'm really looking forward to The Last Life.