The award-winning novelist on the fluidity of sexuality, the intersections of art and selfishness, and her most recent book, The Woman Upstairs.
Image by Lisa Cohen
The title of Claire Messud’s latest novel instantly summons to mind the madwoman locked and scuffling in the attic, haunting the lives of those below. And yet Nora Eldridge, Messud’s protagonist in The Woman Upstairs, insists she is not of this ilk. “They get lots of play,” says Nora, who has shelved her ambitions for the artistic life in the world’s great cities for a placid existence teaching elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious.”
The Woman Upstairs, released earlier this month, narrates Nora’s interior world at a moment when, closing in on middle age, she finds herself falling in love with one of her students—“a child from a fairy tale”—and his glamorous parents. After the young boy is accosted by bullies in the school yard, Nora begins sharing a studio with his mother, Sirena, an artist whose outsized installations of feminine wonderlands stand in stark contrast to Nora’s painstaking dioramas. From its inception, Nora’s love is an obsessive fantasy, composed of tenuous affirmations onto which she directs the longings gone unfulfilled in her life. “Of perennial interest to me is the extent to which our interior lives are actually the determining factor,” says Messud, in the interview that follows. “For everybody, what is most important doesn’t break the surface. You can’t see, you don’t know.”
Throughout the book, Messud dispenses with Nora’s vehemence in precise rations, managing to fuel the story with crackling rage, while maintaining a self-conscious remove as the heroine recasts a history of self-discovery with shades of self-doubt. Nora describes being “alone in a tiny pool of light in a great dark room, as if I were myself the figure in someone else’s diorama, manipulated in my own stage set by a giant I could not see.” Pinpointing the identity of this invisible director is an elusive task, but one that makes the book utterly compelling, as the narrative tracks between Nora’s complicity and her helplessness. In that crisply illuminated moment, we also catch a glimpse of Messud herself, informing us that the world is legion with these muted furies. “I think there’s a lot of rage that rises from always being the good one,” she tells me.
Messud is the author of four other works, the last of which, The Emperor’s Children, broke through the plane of critical praise to become a bestseller, achieving the ranks, as she jokingly told New York Magazine, of “the kind of crap you buy at airports.” All four novels were named New York Times Notable Books, and two were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Messud and I met over coffee at a midtown hotel, where, though frank, she was continually inclined to flip my questions on their head, turning them right around with a casual, “And what about you?” For all the swollen feelings at play in her work, Messud is a soft-spoken woman, and the din of mid-morning concluding all around us continually rose above her low, measured voice.
—Katherine Rowland for Guernica
Guernica: From the first moment we meet Nora, we meet her rage. On the very first page, we encounter “FUCK YOU ALL,” in caps. But with the caveat, “Don’t all women feel the same?” She tells us, “We’re all furies.” From where in your life and your imagination did this woman come?
Claire Messud: There’s an answer. Among other things, I always loved reading the ranters and the ranters are all boys, and I thought, well, what would it be like? It’s unseemly for women to be ranters, but I certainly know at times that I can be a ranter.
There are, too, particular questions that seem to me more gendered. Questions of wanting to be an artist, and what does that mean, what makes you an artist? Are you an artist if you’re in a gallery in New York and not an artist if you’re doing it at home? Do you need legitimation to count? If you’ve been acculturated to believe that you have certain obligations—familial, social, human—if multitasking has been your forte and that’s what’s been praised and rewarded, where do you find the single-mindedness, the selfishness to do something like art? I think those are questions that arise differently for women and for men.
Someone asked me, Is it hard to understand Nora’s rage? And I said, No, not at all. Nora’s rage is maybe different from mine. But I think if you had a Venn diagram there would be some overlaps. That first chapter was the first part I wrote and it came to me in a volley.
When we were in Germany [for a fellowship] I read from it and there was a Dutch anthropologist in his sixties and he came up to me afterwards and said when he was growing up he never saw his mother angry. Saturday morning was cleaning day and she would go upstairs and his father and the children would all be sitting in the kitchen and would hear her cursing at the top of her lungs while she was changing the beds and sweeping the floor. And then she would come back downstairs smiling, and they would all go on as if they hadn’t heard. They never spoke of it.
I think there’s a lot of rage that rises from always being the good one.
Guernica: Would you say the “woman upstairs” is a widespread condition?
Claire Messud: I think that it is. Either Nora’s rage speaks to something in your experience or it doesn’t, and it doesn’t have to mean that you as a reader are an angry person, but that you’ve had some exposure to some version of this. But then there are people whose lives—how beautifully—have not had any exposure to this.
There was a book event in January and one person came up to me and said, “I can’t believe you’ve written this book; Nora is me.” And a little bit later another woman came up and said, “I don’t understand why you’ve written about this character. She’s such a loser, I don’t want to read about her, I wouldn’t give this book to my daughter.” And I wanted to take her by the arm and point her in the direction of the other woman, and say, well, she thought the book was about her, so maybe you should have a conversation and find out why. I saw you chatting earlier and I don’t think you think she’s a loser, and she thinks that’s her.
The extent of her anger is directly commensurate with the grandeur of her hope. It’s the enormousness of her disappointment.
Guernica: But with Nora, it seems like it might be hard to recognize her, because there is such a rift between her exterior life and her interior world.
Claire Messud: In writing about someone’s interior, there are people who mistake that for an exterior life, and they’ll say that she’s not nice or she’s silly and selfish and misguided and deluded. But the fact is, if Nora walked in, she would seem a very plausible person indeed. She’s successful as a teacher, she’s beloved by her students and their parents. She’s a runner, she has friends, she’s somebody who has every appearance of—not an insanely successful life, she’s had challenges—but someone who in the spectrum is pretty together. But the fact is there are all these appetites that she has had to keep under wraps.
Of perennial interest to me is the extent to which our interior lives are actually the determining factor. I often have in mind Chekhov and “The Lady With the Dog,” where the protagonist is walking his child to school and thinking of his mistress and suddenly he realizes this is true for everybody. For everybody, what is most important doesn’t break the surface. You can’t see, you don’t know.
There’s so much we don’t know, and with Nora, she manages to create—it’s not to say that the signs are tenuous—but she certainly manages to build an elaborate web of relations to the Shahids on a few points. And I don’t think that’s uncommon. I’ve seen people do that, I know we do that.
Guernica: Do we all engage in that in some capacity?
Claire Messud: I think we certainly all do some version of that. She’s extreme, but I think we all in various ways in different domains—some in the workplace, some in the family—we all create a narrative to make something livable to us or for us.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel Nora’s not really rageful—she’s rageful at the beginning, she’s rageful at the end, but what she’s describing is actually a time of discovery and wonder, awakening. The extent of her anger is directly commensurate with the grandeur of her hope. It’s the enormousness of her disappointment.
Guernica: I feel I veer more on the side of the first woman who came up to you to say that she identified aspects of herself in Nora, and some of my discomfort with the book came from the moments where it tread a little too close to personal experience—to my interior life. Perhaps because of that I also felt my sympathies were ambivalent at times. Nora describes herself as a “ravenous wolf,” and it made me want to say, Go feast. But I also saw how her social circumstances were starving her.
Claire Messud: She is also complicit. She makes some terrible choices that are not self-respecting. When she’s asked to babysit Reza for Sirena, she says “yes!” having never in all her time as a teacher agreed to babysit, and then she says she doesn’t even want to get paid. It becomes like some S&M relationship. She’s encoding an imbalance that she feels, she’s placing it structurally into the friendship, and it’s not smart. But I think people do behave that way. Dostoevsky, in Notes From Underground, which was the first ranting narrator that I read as a teenager, was writing in part in response to Chernyshevsky, who had written a tract saying that everybody, if allowed, would behave for the greater good. And Dostoevsky’s response was no, humans are perverse, we will do things that are against our own best interests, we will do things that are self-destructing, self-abasing, foolish. That is human nature, and if you try to create a social model that doesn’t take that into account, it will fail. And so I really believe that each of us makes poor choices sooner or later in one way or another.
The things that we associate with femaleness are not the single-minded, exclusive pursuit of a vocation, whether it be art or anything else. It is not a model that is widespread in our culture, it’s not something we think of for women.
But my hope would be that there will be some people who read it and might identify with Sirena. If you stand from Sirena’s point of view, this woman is a little bit creepy—she’s nice—but she behaves really badly. She does not conduct herself as you wish a friend would. So yes, on the one hand, Sirena is selfish and seems to feel entitled and maybe uses her friend, and certainly is a lazier friend than Nora is, but on the other hand, Nora is keen to play that role and as I said, she can tell the story in a way that makes it all make sense to her, but it all depends where you stand.
Guernica: Looking at that relationship, here is Nora making these painfully miniature pieces, dollhouse dioramas with an almost pathological attention to detail, while Sirena is sprawling in her artistic expression. From Nora’s eyes, we see her as the Artist, the epitome of the imagination unbound. But she is also depicted as a monster. Is the message here that we have to draw on a certain selfishness to be artists?
Claire Messud: I think there’s no question that there’s a reason why small children make great art and why slightly bigger children don’t. And it’s because small children don’t worry about what anybody else thinks and slightly bigger children start to worry about these things. So, we can call it selfishness, but I think these are often names that make us feel better: you know, wow, I would never be that selfish. But it certainly takes some single-minded commitment, whether that’s selfishness or selflessness I don’t know.
Having both a son and a daughter and watching them as they grow, you see it just in the way girls interact and the way boys interact. There’s a reason why trainspotters are not girls, there’s a reason why there’s the myth of the slightly autistic male genius, there’s a reason why Gertrude Stein believed that her self-presentation was male. One could argue that was Susan Sontag also. The things that we associate with femaleness are not the single-minded, exclusive pursuit of a vocation, whether it be art or anything else. It is not a model that is widespread in our culture, it’s not something we think of for women.
Guernica: How do you find that balance in your own life, as a mother and as a wife? You wrote The Emperor’s Children, a huge bestseller, when your children were quite small…
Claire Messud: I always feel the reason people read it is because it has really short chapters and other people also have lives. So I always secretly thought that the key to that book having readers was that it had short chapters. But the writing of it, and why the chapters were short, was that those were the blocks of time that I had.
You know, I’m not good at boundaries, I’m not super organized, and—in the same way people call other people selfish to make themselves feel better—I’m very good at certain obligations. I might complain about them, but I do show up for the third grade music concert at 10:15 a.m. on a Thursday, and I think, well, I actually probably could skip that one. And it’s hard to know whether I secretly enjoy it—even though I don’t admit it to myself or whether it’s a procrastination tool that enables me to feel worthy because I’m doing something that’s praiseworthy in some quarters. I’m actually somebody who, if somebody says do your job, that’s actually incredibly thrilling and relieving to me. If somebody says, like when we went to Germany, for the next eleven months it is your job to write, and if you fail to write, you’re not doing your job, I feel like I can do that. Then there’s shift in focus for me, and I can say, Lovey, I would come to your third grade music concert, but unfortunately mummy has a job, and whatever the complex psychology is—it’s self-destructive in some way—it’s relieved.
Guernica: I wonder about the potential double-whammy of being a woman and being a writer in claiming a right to that space.
Claire Messud: Well, how do you do it?
Claire Messud: Your husband is an artist also, so maybe there’s comprehension on both sides…
Guernica: I think we can feed each other’s inspiration but also nurture each other’s block.
Claire Messud: Yes, it works both ways.
Guernica: What about you and James [Wood]?
Claire Messud: Going to my twenty-fifth college reunion last May, there was a panel—the writers panel—and the moderator says, Ok, I’m going to ask each of you a really difficult question, and his really difficult question for me was, “What’s it like being married to James Wood?” And I asked, Is this the point where you want me to get up and walk out of the room? It seemed incredibly annoying. This was my twenty-fifth college reunion at a university where my husband did not go. To me the question seemed so dumb. To think, like I’d never been asked that before.
I understand, people want to know. But the truth is that we met very young, and he was already a critic then, he was writing book reviews for the papers, and I was already trying to write a novel, so we were just kids doing our thing. Do you know that Greek story where people turn into intertwining trees? People say, How does he influence you, how do you influence him? I don’t know, somewhere in between paying the parking ticket and emptying the dishwasher, and I can’t believe you bought them Lucky Charms.
In the book, one of the epigraphs is from Proust, about how the person you love is never the actual person. So I think that one of the great things about spending—as in my case—twenty-something years with somebody is that at some point you do love the actual person. They’re there little by little, the outline is really pretty clear.
You fixate on an unattainable love object and thereby liberate yourself from any real and necessary interaction.
Guernica: In the book, we’re given obsession. And I wondered how much room there is in obsession for actual love?
Claire Messud: I think first love is always some sort of fantasy and being in love with love. In Nora’s case, she’s certainly in love, she’s in love with all of them, and she is also obsessive. It’s a spectrum. She’s not a stalker—I didn’t want her to be someone calling the house and hanging up—but she’s not uncreepy, because she is creating a fantasy in which the actuality has only a little part.
A long time ago, my sister and I came across a diary of my aunt’s. The diary was basically spanning almost ten years about her passion for her best friend’s brother, who was married and lived on another continent. My aunt never married, and there would be a couple of dinners a year in Paris, and the husband would often come without his wife and children. And she really managed to keep on these tenuous pegs these thoughts alive. She would write about going out on dates, but nothing in life is as interesting as he is, and he’s a nice man but I couldn’t possibly fall in love with him because he’s not nearly as amazing, etc. Those tenuous pegs corresponded with the closing of her fertility window, from her early thirties to her early forties, and we could never ask her about it—we read her diary, and she didn’t know we’d read it. She wasn’t crazy, but there was some very complicated need. I’ve seen it with friends. You fixate on an unattainable love object and thereby liberate yourself from any real and necessary interaction. Nora is doing some version of that. At one point in the book she talks about longing, and the difference in longing is that you don’t expect to get what you want.
There’s a faintly sexualized inchoate hunger that does not translate into, I want to sleep with this person, necessarily.
Guernica: You excuse yourself from it.
Claire Messud: And that’s part of it. I wanted her to be at once recognizable and extreme, because it’s a continuum, everybody does some version. Most don’t let the unreality go so far. Somebody asked me, Why is she single? And I said, Well if she were married and had a family, it would be a lot harder to indulge her fantasy at this level, because there would be reality checks, some reminder that you can’t make it all up, there are real things. But part of her solitude is that she can have it any way she wants.
Guernica: Your treatment of sexuality here is so interesting, it’s part of the hunger and the need…
Claire Messud: But it’s also not very concrete. At the risk of sounding deterministic, I feel that’s another piece I’ve encountered that’s more common among women I’ve known than among men. There’s a faintly sexualized inchoate hunger that does not translate into, I want to sleep with this person, necessarily.
It’s not that there aren’t men who are similar, but I feel as though I’ve encountered more women for whom the arousal is not necessarily directed toward a sexual act. I also feel that Nora’s fluidity encompasses all of them, focusing at one time on Sirena, and another on Skandar. I wouldn’t have written it if it didn’t seem plausible to me. But we live in a funny time, a funny era, when desire, to be adult desire, has to be conceived as sexual. And that didn’t used to be the case. Sexuality is a social construction as much as anything else and I think the realities of sexuality don’t always fit into the social constructions that we have, and we live in a goal-oriented time—on all fronts. My editor actually asked, after Nora has her encounter with Skandar, “Did she have sex with him or didn’t she?” And I said, It depends what you mean. That’s what she’s saying, and that’s the point, there’s an automatic assumption. In the same way that you are an artist if your picture is on the wall at a gallery in Chelsea. But really? Are we reduced to that?
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