May 2024

For Claire Messud, all the world’s a stage

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The acclaimed author's latest family saga follows the French Algerian Cassars, who find themselves bit players in the global shifts following WWII.
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In The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud mesmerized readers with her psychologically astute character portrayals. This Strange Eventful History, her much anticipated sixth novel, draws from the stories of generations of Messud’s own French Algerian family and their reckoning with their position in colonial history.

“I’d been preparing all my life to write this book”: Read our starred review of This Strange Eventful History.

While This Strange Eventful History is a work of fiction, in the afterword, you note that your characters’ “movements hew closely to those of [your] own family.” Would you say more about the process of composing a novel inspired by your family history? Was your experience writing this book different from previous novels?

This novel is more ambitious in scale than anything I’d attempted previously—it spans seven decades and five continents. The places that the characters live at various times in the novel aren’t random—they’re the places where members of my family lived, at the times in which they lived there. The novel is shaped, then, by basic facts; and in some cases by historical incidents. I did a lot of research, in particular for the first half of the book—a good bit involving family documents, but also lots of plain old historical research.

The novel follows three generations of the Cassar family, beginning in Algeria as its colonizer France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and ending in Connecticut in 2010. What impelled you to explore this longer arc of family history?

In his retirement, my devoutly Catholic French grandfather wrote for my sister and me a family memoir about the years before and during the Second World War (covering 1928-1946). He called it “Everything that we believed in”—because he wanted to try to convey to us, his granddaughters, whose secular North American upbringing was so far from his own, what their lives had been like. I’ve realized, over the past decade or so, that the world in which I grew up—the world of the late 20th century, shaped by the postwar years that preceded it—has vanished. In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what it was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War. Because that cataclysm, of course, determined everything that followed.

Would you tell us about your choice of the novel’s title?

The title is a line from near the end of Jaques’ famous soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage,” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The novel is framed around François’ life—from the age of almost 9 until his death, over seven decades (“and one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages”). I chose the title both because it refers to that speech (which is reflected in the novel’s form) and because the shape of François’ life, and of the lives of his family members, are, to me at least, strange and eventful, without being grand or important.

“In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what [the world in which I grew up] was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War.”

The Cassars’ unhappiness seems to be linked both to a scandalous secret and to being out of sync with history writ large. In your view, what is the relationship of your characters’ lives to larger forces of history?

The Cassars’ unhappiness both is and isn’t linked to a scandalous secret; each member of the family has their own relation to that secret, and for some it’s not unhappy at all—quite the opposite, indeed! I hoped to convey that events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference. If you’re devoutly religious, for example, something will look a certain way, and if you’re not, it looks different. The same of course goes for any of our beliefs.

The family is perhaps not so much out of sync with history as simply at the mercy of it. In this case, the family are French colonials in Algeria, and must make their lives elsewhere when Algerian independence comes. Again, each family member has a different reaction to that situation: Gaston and Lucienne put their faith in God, as he says, “like the birds on the breeze”; François creates a life far from France and never speaks of the past; while Denise shapes her life’s narrative around what she experiences as loss. This, I think, reflects the broader reality that each of us is always at the mercy of history’s great events—consider our lives just in the past few years, my goodness!—and that the only thing we have any control over (and sometimes precious little control at that) is how we understand and contend with our challenges.

Uprooted by war and the collapse of French colonialism, the Cassars move frequently, from Algeria to Massachusetts to Argentina, Australia, Canada and France. Your depictions of these places are vivid and precise. What kind of research did you do in composing the novel? How much arises from memory and how much from invention?

I did a lot of research—and I was fortunate to have a lot of help. This is the first time in my life that I’ve worked with research assistants. Over the many years that I worked on the novel, several amazing people helped me discover all kinds of things: political and military history about France, World War II and Algeria, but also what Amherst College was like in the early 1950s; what CEI, the business school outside Geneva, and its environs looked like; and about the man who ran it from the beginning—a great idealist. I’m very grateful to these brilliant helpers. I read lots of published books, of course, as well as my grandfather’s memoir (which is close to 1500 pages handwritten) and many family letters, spanning decades. For example, while I don’t have any letters my dad wrote when studying at Amherst, I have all the letters that his family wrote to him from Algeria. It was an amazing experience to unfold the onionskin sheets and know that nobody had read these pages since my dad tore open each letter, probably while walking out of the campus post office, back in 1953, and then stuffed them back in the envelope—reading them, time collapsed.

Chloe, the youngest Cassar, is the only character to narrate in the first person. From childhood, Chloe sees herself as a guardian to her family and a storyteller. She is curious, sometimes to the point of being nosy. She aspires to be a writer. Do you feel a particular kinship with Chloe?

Yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to a certain kinship with the character of Chloe—of course, that’s partly why her sections are in the first person. But they’re also in the first person because the understanding is that she’s the speaker in the prologue, and that she’s writing the book, as it were. I wanted the novel to reflect in some way her evolution, along with the narrative’s, from more traditional third person storytelling to increasing interiority and subjectivity. Hopefully that’s something the reader can feel in the changing rhythms of the prose as well as in the voice.

“Events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference.”

Your novel contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have recently read. They are long, elaborate, stately and often inward-dwelling in a way that feels deliberate. Could you tell us about your choice of sentence structure?

Thank you so much—I’m so glad you liked the sentences. I don’t know that it’s so much a choice as almost a sense that the sentences come through me—I hear them in my head, their rhythms, like music. I can feel when a word is off, or the syntax. I have an innate feeling of the shape of a sentence—of each sentence, and of how they sit together as well as each on its own. For me that’s a big part of what writing is—the music of the language, interwoven with meaning. They’re inseparable.

At what point do you share drafts of your work in progress, and with whom?

Historically I’ve shared work earlier, but this time around, I simply had my head down, mostly. I’d written about 100 pages over several years and couldn’t find the space to do it properly while teaching full time, so I took an unpaid leave to write the rest of the book. That meant I had a bit less than eight months and no time to loiter. I write by hand, on graph paper, pretty small, and nobody can really read my manuscripts, or not without effort. So I had to type it into the computer before anyone could read anything. My husband is my first reader, and eventually he read parts of it, and then ultimately the whole thing. Luckily for me, we know each other well at this point; he’s great at being a cheerleader at the right moments, and then offering real criticism when that’s what’s called for.

What were the biggest challenges and satisfactions of writing This Strange Eventful History?

That’s a good question—I think they are linked, in fact. As I mentioned, the scale of this novel is bigger than anything I’d written before; finding a form that would enable me to take on such a long stretch of history, while still exploring the characters’ interiority and while not having the book collapse under its own weight—that was for me a central challenge. I can honestly say that I’d been preparing all my life to write this book, and I couldn’t have managed it earlier, for all sorts of reasons. So there’s real satisfaction simply in having got the book written, at last!

Claire Messud author photo © Lucian Wood.

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