“In these relentlessly dark and riven times, I find myself beset by a new, ravenous hunger for beauty,” Claire Messud writes in her essay “The Time for Art is Now,” which appears in her first essay collection, this fall’s Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write. I accept this thesis without question, but when I read it in September, I found myself thinking back to the early days of the pandemic—a crawling and fleeting three months when I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy art, or to read, let alone write (I, for one, cannot write unless I’m constantly reading). This was a wholly unnatural state to me, as an obsessive reader who began wearing soda-bottle glasses as a babe of six thanks to long hours squinting in the bad light of my childhood home in Poona. I was entirely captured by the news, unable to do anything but watch the many different ways the world seemed to be crumbling around me. I was emotionally spent, the sacred fortress I’ve built over the years—the one where I store the sentiment I need to write—in ruins. For pieces assigned, I turned in embarrassing first drafts. I was besieged, as well, by immigrant panic: when would I hold my parents close again, wake up to the smell of my grandmother’s’ cooking, listen to music with my brother?
And then there was the literal isolation, another wholly unnatural state for me, having been raised in a country one billion people strong, and having built my adult life in a city of many millions. After years of pressing up against people with no sense of personal space or boundaries on the subway, in restaurants and bars, I realized with a jolt that my husband was the only person I could touch, kiss. A blessing, and yet we were quarantined in a teeming, thronging city plunged into a silence so eerie I could have slept with my windows open if it were not punctuated by the wail of ambulance sirens.
As spring thawed into summer, the sirens were replaced by the chants and shouts of curfew-defying protestors and the near-constant mechanical whir of police choppers, taking a chainsaw to the semblance of internal peace and solitude I’d been trying—in vain—to cultivate. Half-read novels were coasters for half-drunk cups of coffee. And I wept, almost daily, to my husband, terrified that I’d never be able to read again. He assured me a hundred times, sometimes patiently and sometimes not: the books, they’re always there. Waiting. Whenever you’re ready. Needless to say, I didn’t believe him.
I don’t remember how or why I picked a copy of Messud’s The Emperor’s Children off my bookcase. It was a novel I’d read almost a decade ago and forgotten, but I tore through its 400 pages in less than a week, feverishly addicted to this saga of almost-thirty-year-olds in NYC, which seemed written for me. After that, I felt reconstituted, and I read, and read, and read. And I wrote and wrote. Imbibing Claire Messud’s first essay collection, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, then, is like spending a few sumptuous hours walking through the beloved novelist’s library of life, a timeline in books. At once intimate and illuminating, this delightful memoir-in-essays offers us a glimpse into her inner world, the characters who populate it (both people and dogs), the places, and—crucially—the artists who inspire Messud’s unshakeable faith in the life-altering power of stories and the transformative power of language. I, too, find myself “beset by a ravenous hunger for beauty.” And I thank the artists who have given me beauty to feast my senses on. It is they who will carry me through any time, however dark, however torn.
–Madhuri Sastry for Guernica
Guernica: You begin the collection with a meditation on the COVID-19 crisis, in which you write about the possibility of empowerment in this traumatic time; of the value of stories, of art; of the transformative power of language—indeed, the transformative power of a single sentence. It echoes your 2018 essay—also in the book—”The Time for Art is Now.” I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your relationship with art during the pandemic.
Messud: One of the cultural shifts that I have observed in my lifetime—that I find deeply saddening, but also humanly troubling—is this shift towards a highly utilitarian model of existence, where our culture has led us to believe we should do things that are purposeful—the purpose of which, the value of which, can be measured. Of course, it’s a late-capitalist mindset, and art falls into the realm of immaterial superfluity, right? You cannot put a price tag on the time or the effects of reading a novel, or standing in front of a painting for an hour, or listening to a piece of music. And yet those experiences are what shape us, make us human, and make us empathetic, and stimulate our imaginations, and make us believe in the possibility of worlds that don’t exist—or don’t yet exist. I also see the advent first of the Internet, but then more perniciously of the smartphone, as being distractions. There’s a new Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma, which interviews a number of people involved in the large Silicon Valley companies from the beginning. They talk about how everything was designed on a precisely for-profit model, to get more likes, take your attention, hold your attention longer. And that was done very deliberately, with the result that the smartphone is like a monster of distraction, manipulatively constructed to distract you ever more. It’s like the grout between the tiles. It fills up any space that you might have to be bored, to be curious, to be daydreaming, to be inventing something or just thinking, with photos on Instagram or that stupid little fruit game or whatever it is that people do with their phones.
All of that is a preamble to saying that the past years have come to feel to me like we’re hurtling. But what are we hurtling towards? And so I think the fact of having a stillness imposed upon us—this is not to disregard the tremendous suffering, not just health-wise, but economically and so on—humanly, to have everything put in abeyance even for a short while, to give people some space to stop, possibly to think, possibly to have experiences they wouldn’t otherwise, possibly to turn again to some of the mysteries enjoys of art—that seemed to me as though it was a glimmer of hope in what has felt a very dark stretch of time.
Guernica: Were you able to create art, to write during the pandemic?
Messud: I was actually teaching in the early months, and when I’m teaching, there’s not a lot of time for me to be writing anyway. By June, however, I was able to work. All of these responsibilities that I would normally have had—I usually teach in summer programs, go to visit relatives, and so on—were taken off the docket. So I had this stretch of time where I could write every day for two months. I hadn’t had that sort of time since before I had kids, and my daughter was turning nineteen in the summer. So, for me to have that long without other commitments was a sort of strangely precious gift of [isolation]. I say that even as it was a really challenging time, everybody else in my family was having a really hard time. And I was sort of waking up cheerful because I was going to my study to write! I was aware that it was not uncomplicated, but I was grateful too.
Guernica: So, whom do you return to in times of crisis—whatever crisis? Is there a writer or a singer that you go to to seek solace and comfort?
Messud: There are different sources of solace and comfort. In the spring, Yiyun Li was running a book group to read War and Peace, so I re-read War and Peace. At the same time, with our kids, we started reading a chapter or two of Anna Karenina at dinner time. That was an incredible solace to me. In War and Peace in particular, there’s some very hard times—like when Napoleon reaches Moscow, scenes of the siege and the invasion of Moscow, and wealthy people selling their gold and paintings to get space on a peasants’ cart that would take them out of town—it seems not unlike this situation that we were in the time when wealthy New Yorkers were fleeing the city. It was not a military siege, but it was a siege of a kind. I say this in the introduction [to Kant’s Little Prussian Head], but it’s very easy, when you don’t read, to think—because of technology or because of the march of time—that this is an experience that nobody’s had before, and nobody knows what it’s like and we’re alone on a darkling plain. But that’s like a teenager thinking that their parents never had sex. Humanity has been through a lot. There are a lot of generations and there are a lot of stories about the difficult times that people faced and surmounted. To read them is to have your faith in the future restored, because these are voices that come from the past.
I would also say that for me to reread Camus is always a solace. It’s easy to forget now, but he became very unpopular because he refused to, as it were, toe the left-wing party line in France. He was not a member of the Communist Party, he was condemned by Sartre who broke with him, and so on. And he was somebody whose vision of justice never wavered and was always humane and was always inclusive. And that was not the space his culture was in at the time. People couldn’t really necessarily listen to that then, and now we look and think: Look, he was unwavering in his principled humanity through thick and thin.
Guernica: I’d like to pick up on Camus, since you brought him up, and you’ve written three essays about him and his work in this collection. Camus writes about being so desperately in love with Algeria, and he doesn’t consider himself a part of the colonial class—he advocates for the rights of indigenous Algerians, etc. But one also sees how he was unable to let go of the idea of Algeria being French. I don’t think that one could imagine him arguing that France was a part of Algeria, for instance. So, in other words, I feel like he never rejected this idea of colonialism, with France as a colonizer. Why do you think that he was able to separate from France in some ways—with respect to the atrocities that the French were committing, for example—but not in other ways?
Messud: I see the world as a novelist, and that means I’m interested in people. There’s a Ram Dass line: You look at a tree and you see the twisted trunk of the tree, or the way the tree has grown that is strange, and you don’t say, that tree should be a straight tree – why is it crooked? You look and you say, oh, it had to bend to get the sun, isn’t it remarkable that it managed to survive? In spite of where the seed with was planted, it shouldn’t have made it, and so on. But with people, we’re always judging and we’re saying, well, why isn’t he this way? Or why didn’t he do that?
But in fact, we’re all creatures born of a series of circumstances at a particular time in a particular place. It’s a thing I think about a lot in this moment, as we’re all looking back at the founding fathers in this country and the systemic racism that was part of their daily lives. For so long we haven’t thought about it, looked at it. We are being called upon as a nation, I think, to understand what Fitzgerald said: “Intelligence is being able to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at once.” And to understand that Benjamin Franklin could be an amazing guy—amazing inventor and diplomat and all sorts of really positive things—and at the same time, because of a series of circumstances and the acculturation of his time, he was also a racist. And those two things co-existed, and they don’t cancel each other out.
One of the things that I think I feel so powerfully when Camus writes about Algeria is that we are animals. Steve Jobs and his cohort would like us to forget that, and to think that we’re just minds with a keyboard and a screen. But no. We’re animals, and we are embodied. And so, for Camus to have the complications when he was trying to grapple with the injustice of colonialism—he couldn’t, as it were, root out from his body the recognition of that landscape, and that sky, and that ocean, what he felt for those things and what he had felt since his birth for those things. And then to be told, those things, that place doesn’t belong to you—he couldn’t make sense of it. And that makes sense to me.
There are different versions of colonialism, right? Algeria was different from other French colonies, different from India. Algeria was conceived like the United States. And so, by the time you got to Camus’s generation, his grandparents, his great grandparents were born there. So, it doesn’t excuse colonialism, but it also is a complicating fact, and I guess I understand, emotionally, his limitations. It makes sense to me. It doesn’t mean that colonialism should have endured, but it means that there were facts on the ground. And also, I would say things could have unfolded differently, right? South Africa, there are white South Africans still there.
Guernica: Speaking about contradictions, was Camus just unable to confront and reckon with the complexities of his own existence—that his raison d’etre was actually this colonial project?
Messud: Maybe. Yes. But I also think one of the things that’s difficult in his particular case is how very modest, humble his origins were. His family was, if you will, oppressed, not by race, but by class. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, his father having died when he was an infant. He had an older brother who left school at age 11. He was only himself able to continue school because his teachers pleaded with his grandmother to let him continue at school. I think that he didn’t in any way feel associated with or naturally allied with a sort of entitled majority; that seemed alien to him. It was as if you came from urban poverty in Chicago or Detroit, and somebody seemed to be implying that you were part of an East Coast elite.
It’s not uncomplicated. Take South Africa, again. Obviously this was not the case with Camus, but some of the most conservative white South Africans are the poor farmers, right, are those with the least material wealth. There’s that history in Algeria, too, that some of the least enlightened French colonialists were among the humblest. But he was in this sort of complex position, I think, of being someone who was in principle enlightened, but in reality poor.
Guernica: Do you think that it’s ahistorical to separate race from class? That it doesn’t do us any favors? Because even, let’s say with poor or working-class white Americans, who are extremely disenfranchised, where the privilege of being white might not be immediately apparent, whiteness is still a way out, in a way that is not available to poor racialized people.
Messud: Yes! In Camus’s case, it was certainly a way out, right? With Algeria, it’s quite striking—not to say it was easy for Camus, but to be white was literally to have a French passport. I’m not sure it’s in the piece I have about Kamel Daoud, but something he said, which is so interesting, is that the French in North Africa saw the Mediterranean as a beginning, and the Algerians, who are not traditionally a seafaring culture, saw that as the end. The seashore has a totally different significance if you have a white French or Spanish background, versus if your ancestry is Algerian. That border between land and sea means something really different. And so, yes, certainly in this country it’s obviously true. To have white skin bestows a privilege that is, as it were, unconsidered, but also not replaceable by other advantages, right? It’s a very particular advantage that never goes away. On the other hand, I would say novelistically, if you think not about principles, but about individuals—and I don’t know the individual stories of the poor, white, disenfranchised people whom you referred to—you might find stories where that, in practice, really doesn’t feel true, right?
Guernica: Absolutely. I do think that the big source of disconnect—even in modern discourse—is that whiteness isn’t the basis of any discrimination, other types of discrimination notwithstanding. Whereas for other people, race is the basis of discrimination, among other things.
Messud: Yes. Yeah. There are more scenarios than we can count where that very superficial thing affects your life, right? When I say superficial, I mean that when somebody sees someone with the skin of a different color, but from a distance, in a restaurant, in a parking lot, you risk encountering prejudice or discrimination that is unrelated to anything else in your life.
Guernica: Yes, absolutely. Speaking of belonging, I’d love to get your thoughts on place. In the titular essay of your collection, you write, “I’m chiefly an American writer. But like many of us, I’m a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many things.” How do you approach place in your work and how is it important to you?
Messud: A friend recently sent me pictures of us together, right after university. I remember the pictures, and I remember when they were taken and everything, but sort of like a witch, I was surprised to be in them. Part of the result of my peripatetic, mongrel upbringing is like this Woody Allen film called Zelig. It’s about this figure who is sort of invisible, but everywhere. I feel as though I don’t belong anywhere, but I should be able to understand anywhere or anything or anybody, that the range of my experience should make me able to observe and listen and understand more. Like, that has to be an upside of not belonging anywhere. At one point I cite Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. I belong with my family—I belong with the family I was born with, largely gone to the thereafter now, and I belong with the family that I made. And beyond that, I don’t really belong anywhere, and that’s okay. That’s okay because I can fit in, possibly, in a number of different situations, and I can listen, and I can learn. And I can try, through fiction, to convey something of the experience of being human on the planet.
One of the things that is confusing to me about this time of nationalism and powerful identity politics—both the principles with which my parents raised us, and the tenor of the world in the time when I was raised, was towards the opening of borders, towards hybridity, towards complexity, towards tolerance and attempted mutual understanding. And so to see us living now in a time when the opposite hold sway, it seems tragic. It’s not that it doesn’t seem understandable, but it seems a backlash against the type of world that I thought we were trying to build and move towards. I think you might feel the same. One of my close friends is Indian, whose parents are of an age that they were, as it were, born with the nation. They grew up with the nation. The India they were trying to build was that, and Modi’s India is the opposite. And her parents, who are now in their eighties, are undone. A lot of people around the world had an idealistic faith in a project, and right now that project is not just in peril, that project is seemingly being dismantled.
Guernica: I very much share your friend’s parents’ numbness and your dismay about India. And living here, with all my love for this country as well, watching it fall apart…
Messud: It’s devastating, yeah.
Guernica: But moving on to something that brings me a lot more joy, one of the things that I adore about your writing is how vividly you describe physical spaces: your grandparents’ home by the sea, Murray Thwaites’s study in The Emperor’s Children. What is it about these spaces that moves or inspires you?
Messud: There’s a quote from Edith Wharton—and it’s a very Whartonian metaphor, because she was rich—where she says, “People are like great estates, and all that we ever know of them is that portion of the estate that abuts our own.” And I actually think that’s true, right? These things date me and put me in a in a particular cultural moment, but I grew up loving and revering Flaubert and Chekov and Tolstoy. Flaubert never tells you what to think. He just gives you. Reading Madame Bovary is like watching a film. You have so many details: the texture of the farm house in which she lives with her father before she marries, the details of her bedroom, the room that Rodolphe takes in the hotel where they meet. These things are so vividly described that you’re there.
It seems to me that if you’re attentive, the outside world is how you actually know people. The rest is projection, right? But when you go to visit someone and you look around their living room, you see particular things. If you think of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” there’s this moment where one of the sisters—I think it’s Julia—is singing to the assembled company at the party. And Gabriel, who hasn’t given his speech, is looking around. It mentions what he sees, which is the pictures on the wall. One is a scene from Romeo and Juliet, and the other is a worked tapestry of the two princes in the Tower. When I teach “The Dead,” it’s like an Advent calendar; that’s just a detail in passing. But if you stop and think, they’re in Dublin, they’re Irish. One of the conversations that is going on at the party is between a friend of his from university who’s calling him a West Briton and saying he’s not Irish enough. Well, the princes in the Tower—that’s Richard III, who, before he becomes king, smothers the princes in the Tower. That’s an English royal narrative. If you’re observant, you might notice that, and you might say, “Huh, that says a lot about this household.” The picture they have on the wall, which, by the way, isn’t just a picture they slapped up without thinking. Somebody sewed that, and framed it, and put it on the wall. That was something somebody spent time over. And so this gives us a sense that this isn’t an Irish myth, or a traditional narrative that they’ve taken an image from. It’s an English royalist myth. That’s one detail in a sea of details, and yet, if we’re observant, so many of the material things speak.
One of the things that I feel, as a writer, is that we live in a concrete world, and we live among trees and flowers, yes, but also among books and tables and whatever material things somehow speak for us. And it’s a silly thing, but I use my grandmother’s bread knife when I slice my bread, and that to me is a very small thing, but then but it ties me to my ancestors and—I mean, maybe a big word—that’s true in fiction, too. Fiction, as I understand it, is like life.
Guernica: You write, “What any fiction writer hopes to achieve is magic.” When you set about to create that magic, what is the first spark? In other words, where and how do stories begin for you?
Messud: That’s a good question. Each story is different. Each time is different. It’s like, every time you fall in love, it’s different. It can be a story that you’ve heard, that’s like a melody, a particular sequence of events that captures your imagination, and you then put that melody into a time and place into the hearts of particular people. Or it can be that you start with a situation between people, or that you start with an event. The one thing I would say is that it has to feel urgent. It has to feel compelling to the writer. And then the writer hopes to convey that sense of urgency to the reader. But if the writer doesn’t feel it, then there’s not much hope.
Guernica: To me, it seems like you’re moved by the idea that to people—regular people—their own lives are interesting and dramatic and profound and complex.
Messud: One of the things that I write about in the introduction, when I talk about letter-writing, is, the urgency and importance of individual lives used not to be in question, right? It used to be a given. I was thinking this as I was taking out of a drawer some embroidered handkerchiefs I have from my Canadian grandmother. I don’t know whether she embroidered them herself, but when you think about the task of embroidering pillowcases, or embroidering sheets, or embroidering a nightgown, you think of the meticulous labor involved in making something so effortful, so beautiful, entirely private. Right? Who’s gonna see the pillowcase? You and your husband. Who’s gonna see the handkerchief, which is literally for blowing your nose, right? And yet, this beautiful embroidery. It’s because each life is important. You might never leave the town in which you were born. You might never know anything grand. You might never have money. But in these small details, your life is made meaningful and made beautiful.
One of the things that in the past seventy years, with technology and globalization, we’ve undone, is that faith. So that now you watch celebrities and think, Well, their lives are meaningful, but mine is not. There’s a complicated, interesting thing that happens with everybody dancing on Instagram or TikTok—it’s some version of the embroidered handkerchief, but there’s something curious about it being performative, there’s something curious about it being for other people’s eyes. You do the dance for other people to see. So if you did the dance and people couldn’t see, the dance isn’t meaningful? Some changes bring many amazing things, also; there are many incredible positive things about the world that we are in, in spite of the dark moment that we’re in. But I do feel that this sense of the value of an individual life, however small, is being lost. It isn’t about it being seen by others; its integrity is in itself. That was given, that is worth preserving. And I think fiction is a place where that happens. It’s one thing to read a novel about Laura Bush, or Melania, or whatever, but most of the novels we read are about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, and that’s quite another thing.