Friday, January 17, 2014

The Last Life, by Claire Messud

The Port of Algiers with Haze
by Albert Marquet (1875-1947)
And so we move on from The Geography of Bliss to a geography of lambent nostalgia.

I had recently finished The Emperor's Children when I stumbled across this, Ms. Messud's second novel on a sale table at the Kuala Lumpur YMCA. It sat unread for years, until, by pure coincidence, I pulled it off the shelf a couple of weeks ago, just after learning that my long-term Malaysian visa application was rejected.  A story of reluctantly leaving a beloved place and grieving for ways of life that no longer exist was bound to move me now in ways that it wouldn't have a month before.

According to the jacket blurb, "Moving across generations and continents, from colonial Algeria to the south of France to New England, this is a lush and beautifully told novel of lies and ghosts, love and honour." The narrator is adolescent Sagesse LaBasse, whose family runs the Hotel Bellevue, situated atop a cliff looking across the sea toward the Algeria that they had formerly embraced as home. It was, after all, the only home they'd ever known before their flight. They are the pieds-noir, literally 'black feet' -- those of French descent who considered Algeria a French province and themselves Algerians. Sagesse, born in France, inherits the lore and the customs of her elders who left their hearts on the other side of the Mediterranean, and also the foreign sensibilities of her American mother.

Messud makes her geographical and temporal transitions very gracefully, not leaving her readers feeling stranded on the shores of one continent by darting off abruptly to another, but shift she does -- back and forth between 19th-century Algeria to 1990s Boston. Sagesse recounts what she knows of her great-great-grandparents, who settled in the Maghrib in the 1850s.  This passage captures not only the hardships of the age but the emotional strains of settling in a very foreign place and learning to be content with "a life of sorts".
...with the exception of Anne's infant, they all survived the first year. They learned to farm by farming, to shoot by shooting. They made mistakes. If they had prayed before, they prayed far more frequently, their conversations with God colloquial, constant, indispensable. They built a life of sorts. 
Sagesse's father and grandfather, Alexandre and Jacques, both of whom fled Algeria (although the son held on longer in Algiers, content to be out of his father's control), are now battling for control of the hotel. Irascible patriarch Jacques loses his temper one night when teenagers -- children of long-term guests and friends of Sagesse -- are playing noisily in the hotel pool after hours. He fires a gun from his balcony, and a bullet grazes one of the girls.  His arrest and prosecution result in scandal for the family and the end of childhood friendships for Sagesse. When the school year ends, her parents send Sagesse to spend the summer with her cousins in Boston. Although looking forward to her short stint as an American girl, she quickly realises that she is not one. Her thoughts often meander back to France -- to her American-born mother, practically alone in their big house as her father takes over the hotel operations, and to her brother Etienne, who, critically deprived of oxygen during his delivery a decade before, is the wheelchair-bound, speechless and hopelessly dependent witness of the family's turmoil.
Later, upstairs, I worried about my mother. I could not imagine what she was doing all alone at one in the morning, nor why my father was not home. I wondered what she did -- besides take care of Etienne; but the nurse was there for that -- when I wasn't there. Her life seemed suddenly implausible, a great, empty mistake. This place, practical and vast and so American, was where she was from: it had been home to her. What did she feel, now, there? As though she'd thrown up the jigsaw pieces of her life, for a lark, and when they toppled toward the earth they didn't fit together at all any more. And then she was stuck with them (with me, with Etienne), and there were no more tosses, no more chances. I tried to imagine how I'd feel if someone told me that was it, I had to stay with the Robertsons [the American relatives] forever. I'd have to behave as if it made sense, day after day, and then hope that by force of habit I would simply forget that it didn't. But I would always be lonely, the way my mother was lonely. I'd always be pretending. 
Then I thought about my father, and my grandparents. About the Bellevue Hotel, which was their way of forcing reality, their bulwark against absurdity. Maybe my grandfather had simply got tired of pretending. Maybe it was as simple as that. 
Her French curriculum includes the writings of St. Augustine and Albert Camus -- both children of Algeria --and Sagesse likens the saint's longing for the ephemeral holy kingdom with her family's pining for their former homeland.
Augustine's gimlet eye is always on the gates to his City of God, that gilded metropolis which shimmers forever in an impossible tense... like an Algeria forever French. 
As she describes her father's suicide, Sagesse again uses grammatical tense to describe a place that was, had been, or might have been, and the inescapable depression oozing from the knowledge that it no longer is.
His jacket lay folded on the back seat. He did not loosen his tie; he did pull up his socks so that they would not be bunched up on his corpse's ankles. He took up the gun, a .38; silver, it hovered between him and the vista, between him and his inevitable home on the far side of the ocean, directly southward, the home that breathed only in the pluperfect, in the tense where there had been a future. And he pulled the trigger. 
As she reflects on her father's death, Sagesse asks what she may see as a rhetorical question, but I think it is answerable.
What would the opposite of nostalgia be? That is the kernel for which I groped, and still grope; that is the answer to the question of whether life is worth living.
The opposite of nostalgia, I would say, is hope.  And when we lose hope of finding a home that is as precious and numinous to us as the one we've lost, life indeed may not be worth living.

In a flashback to the Algiers of his early years, Jacques, Sagesse's grandfather, recalls an unexpected visit from a distant relative who had made his way to the city seeking work after an enraged mob of Arabs razed his farm. Jacques is slow to understand that the young man's experience of Arab fury might not be an isolated incident. The farmer likens it to a cancer, which is spreading and metastasising and which will most assuredly strike Algiers soon. Jacques' retort makes plain his view of his place in Algeria, the country in which they are in their third generation.
"Come now, Serge. No need to dramatise. For this there is the military. Keep in mind that we're in France, as much as if we were in Bordeaux, or Tours."
In the end, Sagesse accepts her mother's offer to send her to a boarding school in New Hampshire. "'I am an American now, or passably so,'" she says. The grandparents never forgave their half-American daughter-in-law for allowing the family to scatter after her husband's suicide -- tribal loyalty is LaBasse law. Sagesse, however, has been freed to establish a new life, a new identity, in which she can gloss over or simply re-write the traumas she left behind in France. The last life, or lives, are still there, always there, of course, and she knows it. As do all of us who go somewhere to build a new life of sorts.


  1. I don't even want to think of this book's correlations with real life and how it affects the both of us :(


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