Les Étrangers | The Nation


Les Étrangers

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Sagesse (meaning "wisdom") LaBasse, the narrator of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life, is French-Algerian on her father's side and American on her mother's. A born storyteller, she is thoughtful beyond her years but wholly persuasive as she contemplates the endless, arduous question of identity, tracing the history of her father's benighted family over several decades in Algeria and the southern coast of France.

About the Author

Jay Parini
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is The Apprentice Lover (...

Also by the Author

Pablo Neruda is often compared to Walt Whitman. In fact, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner outdid Whitman in some respects.

Charles Wright and Charles Simic count among the best poets of their generation. Each career has unfolded with considerable excitement for serious readers of contemporary poetry, their latest work always building on previous work, always shifting in unexpected ways, challenging the reader to answer light with light, dark with dark. Their latest books are certainly as good, if not better, than those that preceded them, and that's saying a good deal.

In Wright's fifteenth volume, A Short History of the Shadow, he reaches back to earlier moments in his creative and spiritual life (which, in his case, are intimately connected), revisiting "old fires, old geographies," as he says in "Looking Around," which opens the volume. This and other poems in the collection resemble in form and texture those of his middle period, which began with The Other Side of the River, where the terse, imagistic lyrics of his earlier work gave way to long and languid meditations in the loose, associative format of a journal. As ever, Wright centered each poem in a particular landscape--Tennessee, Virginia, California, Italy--sometimes skipping blithely from landscape to landscape, season to season, assembling images that seemed miraculous in their originality and oddness. Ignoring the dogged domesticity that informs so much of contemporary poetry, he addressed large matters: the place of human intelligence in nature, the nature and role of memory and time in the life of the soul, the fate of language as a conduit between spirit and matter. Wright was, in a sense, adding apocryphal books to his own hermetic scripture with each poem.

He still is. Admitting to a "thirst for the divine" in "Lost Language," he catalogues his habits and desires:

I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
Where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
Where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach.

A dark Emersonian, Wright reads the Book of Nature closely, consistently and fiercely, as in "Charlottesville Nocturne," where he concludes:

Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
desolate syllables
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.

Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.

Here as elsewhere, Wright fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to create a subtle, alluring music. He could not be mistaken for any other poet, although one notices the remnants of his reading, thoroughly absorbed and transmogrified, in almost every line. It's often amusing to hear him toying with phrases and linguistic motions from the poets who have influenced him: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Montale (whom he has translated) and others. When he says, for example, "I like it out here," in "Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture," one can't help hearing Stevens's similar remark in "The Motive for Metaphor." Of course, poems often unfold from poems, and most good literature is a tissue of allusions. Wright knows this; indeed, he embraces it.

There is evidence of wit everywhere in this volume, more so than before. Wright sounds immensely self-confident and authoritative and can say anything, as in the above-mentioned poem, which disarmingly opens:

A shallow thinker, I'm tuned
to the music of things,
The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I'm all ears
To all this and half again.

Tell me about it. Wright is all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly. His poems, like all good poetry, embody their meanings well before they are available for rational understanding, and they are only understood in a full way over time, in the context of his previous work and, indeed, the work to come.

Though rooted in the traditions of European and American Romanticism, Wright has kept an eye on the East, and in the new poems he alludes easily and often to Chinese poets and philosophers, who embrace the concept of emptiness in ways that complement Wright's aesthetic, as he suggests in the gorgeous "Body and Soul II," where he presents another in his series of poems in the ars poetica mode:

Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of
      the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.

In "Body and Soul" itself, Wright embraces his aesthetic more ardently than anywhere in his previous writing, if I'm not mistaken. He writes:

I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it
      was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably
      to grace,
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I
      was young.

I still do.

Movingly, Wright places his confidence in the gnostic way of knowledge, in the appropriation of Logos through language itself, in "word-sway and word-thunder," a formulation that recalls Hopkins, who sought the divine in language, wherein he discovered an "inscape"--his term for a distinct internal form--that embodied the mystery of grace.

Wright is a seer in the truest sense, a poet who stands out among contemporary poets as a lone figure, belonging to no recognizable school, inimitable. His vatic stance, though unpretentious because the manner of the poet is often quite offhanded and colloquial, remains central to the meaning of his poetry, and he falls smack in the line of American visionaries, who look always to Emerson as the source.

Wright and Charles Simic could not be more different in style, even substance, though Simic's work shares with Wright's an abiding interest in the realm of spirit in its worldly embodiments. Simic, though, is more likely to find "the proof of God's existence riding in a red nightgown." Simic's interlocutor in the title poem of the new volume, Night Picnic, asserts: "All things are imbued with God's being--." This God, however, is a dark and possibly demonic figure, defined as much by his absence as his presence.

A bitterness over this absence appears to haunt Simic, here as before, although humor blends with the bitterness to create his unique affect. His poetry locates itself in casual moments of sudden recognition, as in "We All Have Our Hunches," which follows in its entirety:

The child turning from his mother's breast
With a frightened look
To watch his grandfather raise a beer
And drink to his future happiness
In the kitchen full of unwashed plates
And busy women with quarrelsome voices,
The oldest of whom wields a rolled newspaper
With the smiling President's picture
Already speckled by the blood
Of warm-weather flies and mosquitoes.

In the somewhat claustrophobic hothouse of this poem, a rather typical one, Simic contrasts young and old, powerful and powerless--oppositions that have intrigued him from the outset. The shadow of violence falls across the room, emblematized by the oldest "quarrelsome" woman with the rolled newspaper and amplified by the blood-speckled picture of the President. The reflexive fear of this child is a fear that permeates Simic's verse, which often trembles on the edge of despair.

Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic's early childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. His first language was Serbo-Croatian, and he brings an Eastern European sensibility to his poems, a feeling of almost lightheaded absurdity coupled with a wryly sardonic feeling of helplessness. For close ancestors, one might look to poets like Georg Trakl or Zbigniew Herbert--poets at home in the eerie dreamworld of surreal poetry.

In the unnamed country where most of his poems are set, war seems to hover in the background. The authorities in this country rule by violence, and ordinary souls shrink into the crevices of history, destined for oblivion. The poet's voice in this almost speakerless poetry emerges from an anonymous Mouth, that "old rathole/From which the words/Scurry after dark." Typically, Simic's poems gather their disparate parts in unexpected ways, hinting at "dark secrets still to be unveiled," the pieces falling miraculously into place in the final image, where the reader is often led to a huge metaphysical brink, which beckons from below.

A prolific poet--by my count this volume is his fifteenth--Simic revisits similar nightmares in book after book. He dreams about butcher shops, ominous city streets, prisons and dismal bedrooms, where the insomniac poet studies the flies on the ceiling and contemplates his own dim fate. But there have always been some bucolic poems, too, and they are usually set in deep country, under blue skies, as in "Summer in the Country," which opens:

One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in a jar after dark.

That we never learn who, exactly, these instructors are doesn't matter. In Simic's surreal world, anything can happen; guide-ghosts can unexpectedly materialize to lead the characters in the poem into heaven or hell--or some combination of the two.

I've always relished Simic in his wry but happy moods, as in "The Secret of the Yellow Room," where he celebrates sloth and the "silky hush of a summer afternoon." But the weather of any given poetic mood can shift unexpectedly. "Roadside Stand," for example, begins with a sumptuous account of a kid's roadside vegetable and fruit stand:

In the watermelon and corn season,
The earth is a paradise, the morning
Is a ripe plum or a plump tomato
We bite into as if it were the mouth of a lover.

The kid, however, is bored. He doesn't understand the peculiar enthusiasm of his customers, who make such a fuss over his produce; wanly if not wisely, he surmises that "what makes people happy is a mystery." The gears shift quietly under the hood of Simic's poem as it widens in meaning.

Though Simic rarely mentions a specific historical situation, he refers often--and chillingly--to politics. "Sunday Papers," a remarkable lyric, begins: "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops." "Views from a Train" offers the depressing sight of "squatters' shacks,/Naked children and lean dogs running/On what looked like a town dump." "In the Courtroom" laments a world of injustice, where "ghastly errors" occur and "mistaken identities are the rule." But Simic sees no easy remedy for these problems, which seem eternally to plague humankind. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden suggested, then a poet's nightmares can't help much. In "New Red Sneakers," Simic notes with rueful candor: "A lifetime of sleepless nights/Cannot alter the course of events."

The "Wee-hour world" of his writing is haunted by twisted faces, tinhorn preachers and a variety of indigents who cannot reinvent their lives or take comfort in philosophical musings. Even art doesn't help much. "The true master," suggests one voice in an eerie poem called "The Lives of the Alchemists," "needs a hundred years to perfect his art."

Simic has been working for more than four decades at his art, and he's brushed up against perfection more than a few times. Indeed, American poetry would be desperately poorer without at least a dozen of his poems, and the work in Night Picnic is as lively, horrific, amusing and satisfying as anything he has yet published.

The LaBasse clan are nothing if not tortured. Jacques, the autocratic but desperate grandfather who runs the three-star Bellevue Hotel--which he built in the late fifties on an unpromising stretch of Mediterranean shoreline with money borrowed from a wealthy university comrade--casts a long and dark shadow over everyone. In particular, he torments his son, Alexandre, Sagesse's father, who defiantly and foolishly stayed on in Algeria after his father read the political writing on the wall and decamped, with nearly a million other French Algerians, the so-called pieds-noirs, to take up uneasy residence in a country where they could never feel at home.

Only the birth of his physically disabled and brain-damaged son, Etienne Parfait (the second name, ironically, meaning "perfect"), forces Alexandre's hand, and he abandons his beloved soil, taking refuge with his father. Not surprisingly, the new life doesn't take: "In France, both literally and metaphorically, Alexandre was dépaysé." In a sense, everyone in the bewildered LaBasse family fits this description, even Alexandre's American wife, Carol, who adores French culture but simply can't abide the rule of her father-in-law or the assumptions of her husband, who "had been raised to believe that a woman would bend, easily, gratefully, to her husband's life." The disintegration of their marriage forms the bleak underbelly of this novel.

Sagesse has been a student at Columbia University for six years when she begins her story, but we are quickly absorbed into her sensually opulent, adolescent world, which she describes with a peculiar grace and sensitivity. Indeed, a large part of my enthusiasm for this novel arises from the prose itself, an exquisite medium of artfully chosen images and memorable phrases, as when Sagesse describes herself as "trapped in the whispering unease of my parents' house" or when she tosses off a brief sketch of her coastal surroundings:

On the quay, the ferries and tour boats were disgorging and absorbing people in great numbers: old women with sun hats and straw baskets, families in shorts and sunglasses, a few businesspeople looking creased and harried, heading home early. The boats at their moorings clacked in the swell, and gulls strutted the pavement, pausing to poke their beaks at crumbs and abandoned frites.

In lesser novelists, such passages become set pieces as the writer draws a deep breath, then exudes a trail of vaporous prose baubles. Messud never succumbs to that urge; her lyricism remains integral, a part of the accumulating force of her narrative. This requires immense confidence, a willingness to accede to the story and its demands and various dimensions. One saw the beginnings of this confidence in her first book, When the World Was Steady (1995)--a lyrical exploration of opposite worlds created by two middle-aged sisters--but Messud has leaped forward here.

The Last Life is a complex instrument, a harp whose many strings are always in tune. One strain that seems always present is the family's unhealthy tradition of keeping secrets, a "rolling conspiracy of silence" that Sagesse finds herself folded into, however unwillingly. This willful absence of communication forms the empty center of the marriage between Alexandre and Carol, about which Sagesse ruefully observes: "I dreaded my father's returns in the evenings, and was sickened by the civilized facade my parents maintained, whether for my benefit or Etienne's it was never clear."

Alexandre, of course, learned his tricks at the master's feet, and Jacques is defiantly unwilling to reveal himself to anyone, even when disaster strikes him and his family. "He had always been deemed, by those who loved him," notes his granddaughter, "a difficult man and brilliant therefore, a man with a temper, a man gnawed upon by undisclosed demons."

The theme of exile, which figures centrally in postcolonial fiction from Camus to V.S. Naipaul and beyond, is implicit everywhere in a sense of longing for a homeland that doesn't quite exist, neither in the buried past nor in some glittering, projected future. As Sagesse observes: "St. Augustine is Algeria's first child, her most celebrated offspring. He is all of us, and his is our abiding legacy." That great fourth-century theologian and autobiographer "cast the harsh life of Africa upon his religion, upon the here and now, a present reality of guilt and punition; but he lived for a corresponding beyond, a perfection hereafter." It is this perfection (as in Etienne's middle name) that eludes the LaBasse family, who idealize the colonial past while fantasizing about the life to come. While Augustine may have been Algeria's first child, Camus was her second. He haunts Sagesse as he haunts this novel, which in its texture recalled, for me, the note of alienation and longing sounded in The Stranger and in many of his essays, where he also yearns for a time and place he can never hope to recover. That "moral stance in the face of our mortal futility"--as Messud neatly characterizes his project--appeals strongly to adolescents, and Sagesse is no exception. She finds in Camus a persistent spiritual companion, taking comfort in his assessment of the Algerian situation as one--mirrored in most colonial settings--where no choices are easy or morally untainted.

Sagesse, by nature, is liberal-minded, a child of her time and generation; she has friends who are Arab, for example, and thinks nothing of it. Her grandfather's stern, even racist, views are unsettling, of course. He, like most of the pieds-noirs community, supports the right-wing National Front and its fanatical leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Grandfather LaBasse "believed in the Algeria that had been--not in the one Camus yearned for, that utopian, impossible City of Man; but in the earthly city that he had left behind."

Sometime after the Second World War, when the independence movement in Algeria began to pick up steam, Jacques lost his faith in Algeria as a homeland. "He never spoke of why," Sagesse remembers, "of how doubt crept into his frame and spread until it became certainty of a different fate; but history speaks for him." Much to everyone's surprise, he left his job as deputy manager of the St. Joseph Hotel, which overlooked the Bay of Algiers, to found the Bellevue, his kingdom by the sea. But his rage over the loss of a homeland is never quelled, and he becomes increasingly unstable as fears about the future of his hotel, "with its sculpted pathways and meticulous flora," lead to an emotional breakdown that climaxes on a fateful night in 1991, when he opens fire from his balcony on a group of teenagers splashing in the hotel pool (while Sagesse, nearby, is perhaps too symbolically having her first sexual experience!). One friend, Cécile, is wounded. Jacques is put on trial, then in prison; the crack in the teacup soon widens into a fissure, and the cozy, bourgeois world of the LaBasse family eventually shatters.

Messud rejects a linear narrative, moving back and forth in time, gathering strands from her grandfather's, her father's and her mother's pasts, weaving them into her own story, which vaguely gestures in the direction of Bildungsroman but which, in the end, becomes something more complex. It becomes a rueful exploration of time past as it figures in, transmogrifies, time present, as when toward the end of the novel Sagesse speaks on the telephone, long distance, with her grandmother, and is "visited by the blinding glare of the Mediterranean sun, by the vast, silvered, twinkling expanse of the sea that had once shaped my whole life." Her life, in its totality, with phases at a New Hampshire prep school, with years at Columbia, becomes a shimmering palimpsest, with endless erasures and revisions that cannot quite blur the vivid stamp of that hotel, that night when the gun cracked, that hot Mediterranean sun. She cannot forget, nor would she want to, the sexual and emotional awakening that occurred back then, when she was 16.

America becomes, for Sagesse, "a home of a kind, without the crippling, warming embrace of history." Indeed, the narrator's American experiences seem pale by contrast with the rich layers of French Algerian life that permeate her memory; the stories that she was told as a child, that she tells herself almost involuntarily, become more appealing and important than anything that occurs in the narrowness of the unalloyed present.

Finally, The Last Life is about stories and what they mean to those who tell them. "We had lived, always, in a world of belief," Sagesse insists. She explains that the LaBasse family invented a history for themselves in which their "pessimism was the bulwark against disaster." They fed on "privately husbanded hopes" without any basis in reality. They believed "in God, in country, in family, in history--and thought faith sufficient," despite the evidence before them: the loss of French Algeria, the cruel silence of Etienne, the madness of Jacques, the force of the law and so forth. These invented stories, however, proved insufficient to the exigencies of their various lives.

Perhaps Alexandre suffers more than anyone, having lived "only as if he believed." That is a fateful "as if." His life had been rooted in Algeria, and he could make nothing of the stories told in exile, "the fragments shored up against his ruin," as Sagesse puts it, alluding to The Waste Land, here as elsewhere. Like Eliot's Fisher King, Alexandre inhabits a dry land, where the symbols have no living power to transform, where the myths are empty and the landscape (mental as well as physical) parched. It comes as no surprise that his life ends disastrously. Sagesse insists that faith, "religious and otherwise," governed her early life and "the tiniest movements of our household." Exactly how faith operates in their lives remains inexplicit, but a careful reader will observe that, most convincingly, Sagesse puts her faith in fiction, in her ability to summon a vision that she can claim. This narrative comprises her last will and testament, her own private bulwark against disaster; though tinged with tragedy, it becomes a cautiously hopeful book in which sad familial ends are meticulously woven into a coat of many colors by a master storyteller.

Messud concludes on a strange but lovely note, with Sagesse (after many failed attempts at love) meeting a man, Hamed (another creature of complex historical origins, one suspects), who may well play a role in her future: "I see him in the library, glimpse him in the delicatessen or the Polish pastry shop, his slender, old-fashioned briefcase dangling at his side, his cuffs too short for his bony wrists, his lonely brow furrowed in the effort of translation." She hardly knows him, of course, but she understands that making a useful fiction is essential to making our lives run smoothly. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" asked Eliot in "Gerontion." Sagesse appears, with her accumulated wisdom, to be asking much the same question, but she may now (just) be willing to forgive herself.

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