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.
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.