“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.