Claire Messud on Writing the Past That Lives Within Us

Claire Messud’s new novel, This Strange Eventful History, is both spacious and distilled, spanning seven decades and multiple continents, told from five points of view in one family, dazzling us with echoing themes, unraveling secrets, and rolling crescendos that peak in a series of finales. The narrative is based on her own family history, and the novel has been many years in the making, she notes:

I’ve been thinking about this novel in one way or another for probably the last twenty years—and arguably you could say that my second novel, The Last Life, was in some ways a first approach to some of the material—that’s to say, the pied noir history. I was certainly doing research for this novel well over a decade ago. I couldn’t have written it when my parents were still living; and then couldn’t have written it in the years immediately after their deaths, when I was full of sorrow. When I had a leave from teaching in 2017, I finally read my grandfather’s memoir—an account of the years from 1928 to 1946, which he wrote by hand for my sister and me—and only after that did I finally start thinking about the form the novel might take. I started writing not long after that, but progress was for a long time very slow.


Jane Ciabattari: How have these recent tumultuous years of pandemic and conflict affected the writing and launch of This Strange Eventful History?

Claire Messud: They have indeed been tumultuous years, in so many ways. I was struck, recently, reading a Virginia Woolf essay, that she observed that the world had changed entirely between 1918 and 1923—even though World War I, of course, was 1914-1918. I can’t help but think that the same is true in this century. Maybe it just takes the first twenty odd years for a new century to become itself, somehow…?

It’s my job to write as truthfully and well as I can about some small fraction of what it’s like to be alive on the planet.

Your question is excellent, and also too big, somehow, to begin to answer. What’s the role of fiction in the current moment? What does it mean to write books now? The world is urgently preoccupied by pressing conflicts; the world is also much distracted by the ephemeral; the world is changing constantly. But it’s not my job to keep up with it all; it’s my job to write as truthfully and well as I can about some small fraction of what it’s like to be alive on the planet, or what it has been like. Writing fiction is what I can do, so I persist.

JC: In an earlier Lit Hub conversation, you mentioned in reference to Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Nowadays we talk a lot about craft, as though everything can be taught; but mystery is a large part of creativity.” How did mystery influence your work on this novel?

CM: I think mystery is always essential. If we knew exactly what we were going to write, it wouldn’t be alive in the same way—writing is a process of discovery, sometimes frustrating, sometimes thrilling. There are those wonderful (all too rare) moments where you think ‘yes, that’s exactly it!’ But you can’t anticipate them. Planning and writing the story—it’s like the difference between looking at maps and photos of a city, and visiting that city.

JC: When did you begin to think about your family as complicated in terms of its connection to belonging, nationhood, borders, boundaries? When did you first encounter the term pieds-noir and what does it mean to you?

CM: I can’t tell you when I first thought of my family as complicated—it always was. We moved four times before I was five years old. My French grandparents and my Canadian grandmother couldn’t speak to each other because they didn’t have enough language in common. My French aunt could speak English, so that helped. But by the time I was properly aware, we lived in Australia where none of us really belonged. Eventually, I learned that I could sort of fit in almost anywhere, and would belong nowhere—except with family.

I don’t know when I first encountered the term pieds-noirs—it would have been used in adult conversation when I was a child. It was originally derogatory (referring to the dirty feet of the colonial peasants in Algeria) but that wasn’t something I knew as a kid. It has a particular valence now, of course—that community is often associated with far-right politics in France. I think now that my father was pretty deliberate about sparing us this knowledge. Only as an adult did I come to understand the history.

JC: What research was involved in this work? Your grandfather’s 1,500-page memoir, which you’ve mentioned? Other documents? Diaries? Photographs? Other books? Oral histories? Your own first-hand notes? Travel?

CM: All of the above! My grandfather’s memoir was important—not just because it’s filled with great stories (very few of which are in my novel) but because it’s written in his voice, with his observations and perceptions. I also read hundreds of family letters, from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, even the 1970s. I looked at photographs, at picture books and maps, at tons of online sources. I’d been to many of the places, indeed knew them well; but I visited Beirut and Thessaloniki (what was Salonica).

I also read about places I’ve never been and people I never knew. And I read lots of books—things like Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace and Zohra Drif’s memoir Inside the Battle of Algiers, and of course Pontecorvo’s remarkable film The Battle of Algiers, and Jacques Attali’s Alger 1943: L’Année des Dupes—but also histories of the French company Péchiney, of John Hemming’s trip up the Amazon (with Kit Lambert, wildly, who later managed The Who), of the history of the CEI business school in Geneva and the people who ran it…to name just some of the topics.

JC: “I’m a writer: I tell stories,” Chloe, your first narrator, tells us in your prologue. “Of course, really, I want to save lives. Or simply: I want to save life.” Your narrator has at that point recently visited her late grandparents’ home in Toulon, France, to celebrate her father’s seventy-fifth. Later she notes, “A story is not a line; it is a richer thing, one that circles and eddies, rises and falls, repeats upon itself.” This seems a perfect way of describing how the novel spirals back in time, filling us in on Chloe and members of her family. It strikes me this is a novel about generations, about history, about preserving time, and memories, and also about how storytelling works. Is this what you had in mind?

The past lives with us, in us, and our understanding of the present is shaped by that past, whether we know it or not.

CM: Thank you for your generous reading—yes, that’s what I hoped. To write various stories and to show how they’re interwoven, how they’re partial, how they recur, over time, in memory, sometimes a bit altered by time or by a different character’s perspective; how they eventually become the stories that people tell themselves, the way they understand themselves, and inevitably the way they’re understood, too, at least up to a point.

It’s always been flummoxing to me, that we read in time—we can stand back and see a picture all at once, but when we read, as when we listen to music, we have to experience elements severally, in accretion, one sentence after another. Where we start and where we end up can be very different. So in the telling, as in our experienced lives, we live immersed in all the history up to the present—and perhaps also with ideas or dreams for the future. But the past lives with us, in us, and our understanding of the present is shaped by that past, whether we know it or not.

JC: Your ambitious plots cover seven decades (1940-2010) in the lives of the members of the Cassar family. Did you always have that historic reach in mind? How did you come up with the complicated polyphonic structure of the novel, beginning with Chloe, your writer/narrator, and including Francois, his sister Denise, their father Gaston (the Cassar family patriarch, whose marriage to Lucienne is shaped by a scandalous secret not revealed until the end), and Barbara (Francois’ Toronto-born wife)?

CM: At the beginning, I thought to write three or four short novels—rather like Edward St. Aubyn’s tetralogy—that would then be published in a final volume altogether, making a different book, a whole. My husband laughed at this idea, saying “no publisher will ever agree to that!”; and indeed, my wonderful and wise editor Jill Bialosky said, “You’re writing one book. One book.” So then it became a question of how to write it as one book.

There are seven decades (hence the epigraph from Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy), and five points of view. There are three points of view in all but one of the seven sections—the first one has two—and then the prologue, interlude and epilogue—which makes a total of 23 sections altogether. All prime numbers—misfit numbers—because they’re misfits. (I had to laugh at myself, remembering the character in Martin Amis’s The Information who is writing the novel “’Untitled,’ with its octuple time scheme and its rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators”—egads, is that what I’m doing?!) 

JC: Not unlike Nora, the furiously frustrated woman in your novel The Woman Upstairs, it seems that Chloe learns that a good definition of any artist in the world is “a ruthless person?” Is this a question you have grappled with in working on this book?

CM: It’s funny—I have long thought, like Nora, that artists have to be ruthless. But writing this novel was and is for me absolutely an act of humility and love. More and more, I know that love is the most important thing, in literature as in life. Chekhov knew it. Not blind, saccharine, conditional love, not fearful or apologetic, but love that sees all things and forgives all things. Or as much as we possibly can, being human, and flawed, and seeing always only partially.

JC: What are you working on now/next?

CM: Right now I’m working on a completely different sort of thing, a collaboration with a wonderful visual artist. It’s exhilarating.


This Strange Eventful History

This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud is available from W.W. Norton & Company.

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