'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.

And yet we have so little. Only fragments survive. We know about Tolstoy’s childhood because he wrote about it—but so much of his experience, his surroundings, his epoch have vanished for good. And he is just one person among the millions who shared his moment on earth, some of whom know about, countless more we don’t. We cannot know what isn’t written down. To salvage only what is in books is to retain an infinitesimal portion of what was.

It reduces still: Though there as many books as shells upon a shore, in a lifetime you can only pick up so many.

And still: Even of what you do read, you only recall so much—a feeling, a thought an image, or even a single line like the one we’re talking about now. In one beautiful long rant, the narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser laments how great philosophers become grotesque, shriveled versions of themselves on our bookshelves:

“All of Kant,” he says, “reduced to a single shrunken head!”

Even our daily lives reduce this way as we live them. We know so little about even the people we know and love best. We know their gestures and their habits and their responses, I know what my kids will order in a restaurant, and I know what they look like asleep, and I know what they like to read—and yet so much of their lives is unknown to me. And as they grow older, of course, they will become only ever more so. There will come a time when I know only the tiniest things.

And so much of what we do experience vanishes without a trace from our memory. Even under “normal” circumstances, we forget so much, but our ability to remember can change rapidly. Towards the end of her life, my mother lost her memory fairly quickly. I remember one day I said to her, “Mom, what are you thinking about?” And, for a moment, she really did become sort of like the Delphic Oracle. She turned to me, and with this sort of lovely smile she said: “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered.”

Just because we lose so much does not make the small fragments we do preserve less valuable—quite the opposite. Storytelling is a human impulse, and making meaning is a human impulse. We want to make sense of things, and we will always try to tell the fuller story from the fragments that we’ve got. If you think of something like Pompeii, with so much destroyed and so much never found, we still create the story based on the pieces that we have. Look at that Malaysian airlines flight. We want to make sense of it. We want to know what happened. There is always a world to discover within the shards we have.

In the absence of much—we’ll take little. And that’s what fiction is, too—distilling your whole life into the shards you’ll leave behind. This principle of reduction—of shoring fragments against an encroaching ruin—is a useful metaphor for the writing process. Every time you’re trying to squeeze some experience down into words, you’re reducing it, and you’re losing something—even if you’re able to make something beautiful of it, you’re losing something, too.

I’m aware that I don’t have an infinite amount of time. I will get to write a few books in my life. I will only be able to address so much of what I’ve seen and what I know. And so I have to try to choose wisely. So it’s like the moment when you’re walking along the seashore: You want to pick up all the shells, they are so beautiful, but you can only carry so many. I get a few. And each shell might be the last one you get.

But as you do write, something strange and wonderful happens. I often feel that there is something that cannot be articulated about what we do when we write fiction—but I know that it is magic. When I’m working on something and it’s going well, I am so far in that world that I look up and I think, “Where am I again?” You achieve a real distance from your life and enter a different place—and that world has a reality, those characters have a reality, even if they’ve never exactly existed. When I write I am condensing the broad scope of my experience into something narrower but longer-lasting, reducing myself into something that does not contain all of me but will outlast me. If we are very lucky, those fragments will add to the broader conversation of what it means to be human.

As a writer, how do you choose which fragments to shore? In a first-draft situation for me, it’s a visceral rather than an intellectual process. Though I’ll generally have a vague outline in mind, I’ll feel it through rather than take a pre-planned course. I don’t think, “Okay, I need a scene to do X.” And while trying to be as efficient as you can, you generate a great bulk of material. In revision, you begin a kind of creative destruction. If you’ve written three scenes and each of them does a different thing—explores a different facet of a character, or shows her in relation to different people, or whatever it is—well, if you could have one scene that would do everything at once that those three scenes are doing, then that would be better. To have a more efficient and more intense fragment is going to be better. So you compress, the same way that to make something very tasty you might reduce a sauce.

You hope that as you boil down what you have seen and known into your writing, you reduce the best of yourself, too.

Of course, almost none of this will last in the long term. I heard a frightening program on the radio where a scientist was asked: What’s going to happen in the long term? In a millennium, say, down the line, what will survive of our world? And his answer: concrete. Maybe some glass. Well, what about paper? It will be carbonized, any book will be a black oblong object, the contents will be lost forever. All that literature and art and music, that’s going to be gone. Of course, what we have from Pompeii is pots and pans—frescos too—the hard goods. All the softer stuff is gone.

But for as long as they do last, books give us something else: Literature reminds us that we’re not alone on this planet. You’re not alone in this time. You’re not alone in this experience. And not only are you not alone in your city, your nation, your moment—you’re not alone in history. Sappho felt the way you feel. Or Shakespeare, or John Donne. We have this connection. And we are able to have a kind of conversation. The fragments we shore against our ruin—everything that we have read, whatever little fragments we retain, are part of our understanding of the world, the way we see the world, and our conversation that we have with ourselves and with the world.

It’s almost the last line of “What the Thunder Said”: You see, the poem presents fragments from many voices—Kyd and the Vedic texts. All these allusions are part of the human conversation. And Eliot now is one of those allusions, too. He’s referring to the fact that we live with these fragments, that they chatter in our heads long after their authors no longer exist. That’s why I’ve quoted Eliot’s line in all my books, in one form or another. It’s a reminder that literature is a conversation, and it continues.