'Words on Paper Will Outlast Us': How Claire Messud Distills Her Life

The author of The Woman Upstairs says that writing preserves the worlds we inhabit—even if so much of them dies with us.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

“When writers die,” Jorge Luis Borges once said, “they become books.” Artists, in other words, become bound within the static confines of the physical things they’ve made. To “live on” through one’s work, then—in the writer’s case, to reincarnate as shelved objects that only speak when opened—is a more complicated fate than the phrase “literary immortality” would suggest. How much of us remains in what we leave behind?

So much and yet so little, said Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, in our conversation for this series. Using a cherished line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Messud discussed the paradoxical nature of the literary afterlife—the way writing gives us unrivaled access to another person’s imagination, while still leaving the great bulk of personhood shrouded, mysterious, and silent. Messud told me how Eliot’s image—of a complete self broken down into smaller, enduring fragments—informs her approach to writing, and to her life and death.

In The Woman Upstairs, which was recently nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Messud deconstructs a literary archetype: the spinster. Outwardly placid, inwardly seething, the book’s 42-year-old narrator Nora Eldridge rails against her solitude. (The inscription she wants chiseled her gravestone? “FUCK YOU ALL.”) When a glamorous academic family brings her into their lives, Nora feels her hunger for family and artistic fulfillment may finally be sated—perhaps at the expense of the people who trust her.

Messud’s other books include The Emperor’s Children and The Last Life. In last week’s New York Times Book Review Philip Roth named her in a list of younger writers that exemplify the verve and variety of contemporary American fiction. She teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College, and she spoke to me by phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Claire Messud: For me, it was a formative experience reading Eliot when I was younger. The Waste Land, in particular. I don’t know if schools still assign it so frequently as they once did, but many people my age read “What the Thunder Said” early on, probably first even in junior high school, and again in high school, and again in college. Looking again at the poem now—which I haven’t for years—one of the things that strikes me is how much has stuck, even though I have the memory of a sieve. I wouldn’t say I know it by heart, but reading it is like reading learned lines from the play you were in last year.

There’s one line in particular I have carried around with me for years. It’s near the end of the poem:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

When I ask myself “What is it all for?” I think of this line.

With death, everything goes. All of it. In our brains are recorded every second of our lives, whether we’re able to retrieve them or not—of course, we can’t retrieve most of it. But every thought we have had, every smell we have smelled, every change in the light, every embrace, everything is there. When we die, these moments can never be retrieved. They are gone. Forever.

The large portion of human experience will vanish. I remember my grandfather, when he was quite old and in his nineties—he lived to be 94—sitting in the window of his apartment. He was French, and he lived in an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean in the south of France. I remember him staring out the window at the vast open sea. I was in my early thirties, and I assumed “Oh, he’s thinking about my grandmother. Or he’s thinking about death.” But when I said, “Grand-pere, what are you thinking about?” he said, "I’m recalling my visit to an oil well in the Sahara in 1954.”

I hadn’t known he’d been to an oil well in the Sahara. It’s just proof that we live so many lives, contain so much experience, that even the people who know us best don’t know. When someone dies, all that goes. All of it.

Things we write down are the fragments shored against our ruins. They outlast us, these scraps of words on paper. Like the detritus from the tsunami washing up on the other side of the ocean, writing is what can be salvaged. Of course, there are other ways to make your mark. If you’re rich, you can leave a library, a building, or a hospital wing. But writing leaves behind a visceral sense of what it was like to be alive on the planet in a particular time. Writing tells us what it meant for someone to be human.

Every art form is a version of this. A painting lets us know how somebody literally saw things. A piece of music transmits is another language that transmits a whole wealth of emotion and wordless experience. But writing is special in the way at allows us to temporarily enter another person’s world, to step outside the boundaries of our own time and space. I teach at the MFA program at Hunter College, and earlier in the term we read Tolstoy’s Childhood. You read Childhood and you know exactly what it was like to be an aristocratic child on a rural estate in 1840s Russia. You don’t know it in an intellectual way—you know it in an absolutely visceral way. In a way that no painting could ever give you, no piece of music could ever give you. You are there. You’re in that room. You’re with those kids. This is a power specific to literature—the power to acquaint us intimately with a world that no longer exists on earth.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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