Claire Messud: Why I Write
Kant’s Little East Prussian Head, Among Other Reasons…
Not long ago, we sat down with our children to watch the (relatively) new television series about the cosmos. It proved essentially unwatchable for me, in part because what the presenter was saying gives me vertigo.
All he had to do was to lay out for his viewers the earth’s cosmic address: Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Local Group, the Virgo Supercluster, the Observable Universe. To remind those of you who may have forgotten, the Milky Way is one of about a dozen galaxies in the Local Group, which in turn is but one of thousands of clusters of galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster. The Observable Universe involves a very large number of superclusters of clusters of galaxies, and extends more than 10 billion light years in all directions. More than that, the presenter explains, “Many of us suspect that all of this—all the worlds, stars, galaxies and clusters in our observable universe—is but one tiny bubble in an infinite ocean of other universes.”
This news evokes the feeling I had several times in youth, when lying in a field staring up at the night sky, that I might fall into the infinite void. For people like me, this idea mostly provokes anxiety. Oh, there’s wonder too, to be sure—how can one not marvel at our unlikely existence?—but this re-awakening to humanity’s insignificance re-awakens in me also my nine-year-old self, a child whose response to the magnitude of the universe might have been, “then I guess there’s no point going to school today. And maybe not much point getting out of bed, either.”
Fortunately, age, experience and general busy-ness make it largely possible to repress our knowledge about the cosmos. Once we’d turned off the television, I could let go fairly quickly of my vertigo. There were dishes to be done, dogs to be walked, children to be bustled to their beds—the stuff of life, as we call it, when we don’t deem it the impedimenta to the life we might have lived, that life of the mind that, for all except the hermits among us, is ever more reduced and pushed to the margins by the contemporary world’s demands, by family and students and homework and emails, and so on.
As Thomas Bernhard’s scathing narrator recalls, in his brilliant novel The Loser, while reflecting upon his friendship with the pianist Glenn Gould (who is, needless to say, the narrator’s figment, a version of the genius that only partially resembles the man himself—but that’s another story)—anyway, the narrator recalls Glenn saying:
Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought. Our great philosophers, our greatest poets, shrivel down to a single successful sentence, he said, I thought, that’s the truth, often we remember only a so-called philosophical hue, he said, I thought. We study a monumental work, for example Kant’s work, and in time it shrivels down to Kant’s little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog, which winds up in the same state of helplessness as all the others, he said, I thought.
A good friend of mine, a philosopher and a Kant scholar, has devoted the past twenty years to interpreting passages of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. It is but one of the briefer texts in Kant’s monumental work; and yet, in order properly and thoroughly to understand it, she has committed all of her adult life thus far, and considers her labor far from complete.
For almost all of us, such serious focus on Kant’s thought is impossible. For most of us, if we apprehend even “a so-called philosophical hue,” we consider ourselves in pretty good shape. It’s like the dizzying enormousness of the cosmos in reverse: if, in order properly to understand a paragraph of Kant, one would need to engage in a lifetime of study, what are we to make of the entire breadth of his oeuvre—the Observable Universe of his oeuvre, if you will? And what, beyond that, are we to make of the fact that Kant’s published writings represent already a careful ordering and editing and articulation into intelligible language of his philosophy, of his conscious thought? And beyond that, given that his thought arose in part from his experience, experience all but entirely lost to us—made up of countless minutes and hours and days and years of life upon this planet, of Kant’s individual and particular life—how are we to conceive of the unknowable vastness that was Kant?
And further: if Kant is just one philosopher among thousands, just one German among millions, just one man among billions—how can we conceive of the entirety of un-communicated and incommunicable human experience? What infinite invisible universe of Bernhardian “night and fog” is this, in which we must drift—the great genius Kant, according to Bernhard, “in the same state of helplessness as all the others”?
Thomas Bernhard was a writer who took the dark view. The shrinking of Kant’s mind, the breadth of his interests and wisdom, down to his little East Prussian head does seem like a loss; but maybe, too, it’s like the freeze-dried vegetables in packet soup: merely awaiting water for reconstitution.
In contradiction of Bernhard’s darkness, I’ll offer a quotation from a 1980’s British film, The Long Good Friday, in which the gangster Harold Shand (brilliantly played by the late Bob Hoskins) gives a speech at a party on his yacht in the Thames, welcoming the American mafia to London to collaborate on some white-collar crime in the East End: “Hands across the ocean,” he says in his Cockney growl, bullish and optimistic, “Hands across the ocean.”
Because, of course, Bernhard is absolutely right—of so much of our lives we retain but “a so-called hue”, philosophical or not; but to convey what Bernhard laments as “a single successful” sentence—that, I firmly believe, is cause for celebration. Even a single successful sentence can be transformative; and a single poem or novel can alter someone’s life forever. That, my friends, is “hands across the ocean,” and it’s a meeting that happens if not only, then most fully, through language. With words, we can travel across nations and through time; we can inhabit lives far from our own.
Here’s the first paragraph of Tolstoy’s Childhood, his first-published novel (1852):
On the 12th of August, 18—(just three days after my tenth birthday, when I had been given such wonderful presents), I was awakened at seven o’clock in the morning by Karl Ivanitch slapping the wall close to my head with a fly-flap made of sugar paper and a stick. He did this so roughly that he hit the image of my patron saint suspended to the oaken back of my bed, and the dead fly fell down on my curls. I peeped out from under the coverlet, steadied the still shaking image with my hand, flicked the dead fly onto the floor, and gazed at Karl Ivanitch with sleepy, wrathful eyes. He, in a parti-coloured wadded dressing-gown fastened about the waist with a wide belt of the same material, a red knitted cap adorned with a tassel, and soft slippers of goat skin, went on walking round the walls and taking aim at, and slapping, flies.
So swiftly, intimately, Tolstoy draws us into the experience of young Nikolai, his semi-autobiographical protagonist. Specificity is essential—from the first, we know it’s the 12th of August, the late summer—and if we pause there, we can feel the light of a late summer morning, the sleepy air before the day’s full heat, and what it is to waken into it. We can hear the intermittent buzzing of the flies, now swooping, now crazy against a windowpane. We know, too, that our narrator has just turned ten, and his “wonderful presents” are still in his mind: he evokes, in passing, the particular delight of that birthday, of reaching the double-digits, of the pure joy of one’s birthday presents, if they’re the right ones, when you’re ten—and this simple Tolstoyan specificity renders Nikolai’s world both present and vivid to us. We, too, have been ten years old; we, too, have been wakened, unwilling, at seven in the morning; we, too, have felt the laziness of late summer, as we have been irritated by the buzzing of its flies; and although we may never have seen one made of “sugar paper and a stick”, we have surely wielded, or at least seen, a fly-swatter.
Each of us, then, can imagine the particular displeasure of opening an eye—on what should be such a glorious morning—to the sound of the swatter’s slap, to the faint but unmistakable sensation of a fly’s corpse falling in our hair. The particular image of Nikolai’s patron saint may be unfamiliar, but we can sense its frame trembling on the bedstead above our head, and can imagine, too, raising a hand to steady it. In a matter of sentences, we are fully in this room, with this boy, seeing, hearing and feeling as he sees, hears and feels. This Tolstoy gives us in a shared language, in familiar words, if you will. His simple, lucid descriptions insist upon the transparency and commonality of his words.
But key to this particular August morning is the zeal of Karl Ivanitch. Now, Karl Ivanitch is thus far, to the reader, merely a name, a void. But we understand, simply by the way that name is evoked, that for Nikolai, the words ‘Karl Ivanitch’ imply much more. The physical description Tolstoy offers us will evoke him as clearly as any photograph, in his gown, cap and slippers; but it’s his restless fly-baiting wander that gestures towards the tutor’s personality that we will come to know: fierce, even obsessive, crucial in young Nikolai’s life, but also petty, and somehow absurd. All this is here, from the outset.
What Tolstoy achieves—and what any fiction writer hopes to achieve—is, in fact, magic. I use this term not sentimentally, but literally. Tolstoy conjures for us a world familiar enough that we can place ourselves in it; and then, more profoundly, he conjures its inhabitants. Nikolai knows Karl Ivanitch; and the promise, if we read on, is that we shall know him too, that Karl Ivanitch will enter our private imagined world and live there along with the jostling population of characters, real and fictional, who fill our consciousness and shape our lives.
Because naming is magic. Spells are essentially a private language; and the magic that they work is very particular. If, for example, I say to you the name “Marjorie Riches,” you may have some idea about how the name sounds English, and old-fashioned; or about the literary potential—either ironic or symbolic—of a character with the surname “Riches.”
But if I say “Marjorie Riches” to my sister, I am performing an act of magic: I am conjuring a person. Marjorie Riches was our maternal grandmother, and simply in saying her name I am recalling an entire life, in my childhood, in Toronto: the heavy front door of her grey stucco house; the cul-de-sac above High Park on which she’d known all the other residents forever. I am raising her before us, and in us: the tiny ridges of her fingernails and the wart-like callous on her left index finger; the shiny, papery quality of the skin on her hands; the slithery sound of her synthetic floral dresses against her slip when she pressed us to her chest; the difference in the size of her blue eyes behind their glasses (where they looked enormous) and without them (where they looked quite small); the slightly duck-like flare of her nose; the flossiness of her granny’s perm, upon which she wore a hairnet at bedtime.
I am conjuring, too, our child’s delights in her house, with its laundry chute and the hatch next to the side door for the milkman, where foil-topped bottles and pounds of butter would appear before breakfast; the oxblood-colored concrete floor in the basement with a drain in the middle, around which we rode a tricycle in circles, at speed, even when we were too big really to do so and our knees were pulled up to our chins. I’m bringing back the bowl of pastel-coloured nonpareils on the side table in the living room, our lunches of tinned ravioli in wintertime, eaten on a creaky stool in the sunroom overlooking the snowy garden. I am conjuring, simultaneously, the apartment of her old age, and the high firm ship of her long-widowed marriage bed, and her glossy crimson Underwood typewriter, that she kept on a little table near the window. There is her jewel box full of sparkly clip-on earrings, and the powder-puff music box with its filigree silverwork. Here, now, we picture the particularity of her handwriting, the slight downward slope of her signature—whether she wrote “Marjorie Riches” or, on all our cards, “Grandma.” And here, too, the warm, flowery smell of her neck, which lived in her scarves long after she died, and which, having taken a few of them home to my apartment (I was an adult by then) I would inhale greedily every so often just to bring her back, until one day the scent was finally gone. I can hear her persistent habit of clearing her throat, that so irritated our mother; and know again the intent way she had of listening as she grew blind, with her eyes looking off slightly to one side of your face, focused but unfocused.
To tell you these things is to give you but a tiny fraction of what her name means to me, of the magic that her name carries now, since my parents’ deaths, for just two of us on this planet, for my sister and for me. It is to make of Marjorie Riches a little Canadian head to stand upon its stake next to Kant’s little East Prussian one: but I would insist, again, that this, even in its near-total failure, is cause for celebration. With various proper nouns I can, in this way, bring to life, for different constituencies, so many different moments in my life, a few words carrying great weight, in the way of a private, or magical, language: I can bring back my life as a child in Sydney, Australia; or summers spent with my French grandparents in Toulon, France; or, more recently, the year I spent with my family in Berlin.
How does this relate to fiction, to why I tell stories? In part, because to the outside, in my summarized self, I have only a “little American head.” I am chiefly “an American writer.” But, like many of us I’m a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many things. My childhood was itinerant, my identity complicated. My father was French, my mother Canadian. I grew up in Sydney, Australia; in Toronto, Canada; and then at boarding school in the United States. I went to graduate school at Cambridge University, where I met my British husband. I didn’t live in the United States, outside of school, until I was in my late twenties. Like every single one of us, I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that “I contain multitudes.” I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us.
I’m not at all ungrateful for all my life’s disruption, but I know what Salman Rushdie meant when he wrote his important essay “Imaginary Homelands”: “home” for me, such as it is, is in my mind. Rushdie wrote: “It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.” I, for my heart, couldn’t afford to lose these things. I could, instead, tell stories: I could become a writer. As the American writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Albert Camus’s character Meursault puts it slightly differently in L’Etranger: “a man who had only lived for a single day could easily live a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from getting bored.” I couldn’t save them all—just as one can’t fully capture a single day, just as Kant is reduced to “a single successful sentence,” or to his little East Prussian head. But I could save fragments, I could convey a “so-called… hue.” Knowing that I must necessarily fail, I could only try, with the particular gift of the English language at my disposal, its opportunistic magnitude, its extraordinary and elastic vocabulary: more than that, I could not not try.
And I could go further: I realized that in making up stories, as in reading stories, I could create a contained world in which an experience is shared in its entirety. I could invent characters, name them, evoke them, and around them a society, or a landscape, born of my experiences but as free as my imagination. Weaving together the known and the unknown, the public and the private, I could cast a spell.
After reading Tolstoy’s Childhood, and then its companion pieces Boyhood and the unfinished Youth, there is much we don’t know and will never know about Nikolai’s upbringing. But how much we do know, and how much we have experienced ourselves, and internalized. Karl Ivanitch, first seen in his wadded dressing gown, will be forever familiar to us, buffoonish, poignant, passionate and uniquely himself. He will join the ranks of our relatives, his name a magical evocation, along with Effi Briest, or Leopold Bloom, or Mrs. Dalloway or Anna Wulf or Okonkwo or Portnoy or José Arcadio Buendià… If I say to you “Marjorie Riches,” it may not carry much meaning for you—yet. But if I say any of these names, or Hamlet indeed, or Humbert Humbert or Raskolnikov—then we’re talking, with the thrill of a shared secret knowledge, the evocation of so many formerly private relations and experiences we have had with our books.
Fiction, as Picasso said of art, is a means of “seizing power, of imposing form.” It’s a way of navigating between a shared conventional language—to return again to Tolstoy, we all know what the 12th
If I tell you a story about an elderly woman in Toronto who may or may not be called “Marjorie Riches,” I am “seizing power” of a kind. I’m sharing my magical language, and casting a spell. My magic will always be partial, always a failure, a shrunken head next to life itself. But as my friend has given her life to understanding and explaining a small portion of Kant, I give mine to describing—that is, to attempting and failing to understand and explain—some small portion of life itself.
If all language were already shared, then ours would be a dull and limited world. That would be the world of functional discourse—almost of internet English, if you like—in which we live much of our lives. And of course, if language were entirely private, no communication would be possible. The terrain of a fully private language is madness or dementia. It’s the situation where “hands across the ocean” can’t quite bridge the gap, where we the recipients, the readers, are left without access to experience, where it remains veiled, not shared.
When my mother, in old age, began to lose her memory and her lucidity, she sometimes spoke in poetry, in an oracular language. In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet—she who had been so vitally social—and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered.”
This beautiful postcard from across the abyss, from the incommunicable private island of her later experience, stays with me in each day. What is our hope for the experience of literature, if not to share this: shards of memory and new worlds discovered? What, indeed, if not this, is the best truth of our experience of life?
I have my own collection of little literary and philosophical heads, my own stock of single successful sentences. Each of us is constructed, like a magpie’s nest, from these as much as from our childhood experiences and our temperament and our loves and losses. We are as much the sum of our lived literary experiences as of our literally lived experiences. This, of course, is what T.S. Eliot expressed in The Waste Land, and his is one of the essential sentences I carry with me everywhere. I’ve slipped it into several of my books. “These are the fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That’s all. It’s why I write, really. Fail again, fail better—to cite another from my collection. A single successful sentence, a so-called philosophical hue. Each an invocation; each a hand across the ocean; each a seizing of power away from fear and desire; each a small magic.