Remembrance of Things Past
"I find myself wanting to translate the world inside..."
Sagesse LaBasse, the teenage protagonist of Claire Messud's The Last Life, lives in a fragile world held together by the secrets of its past. Her family owns the Hotel Bellevue, a summer retreat for the well-to-do, set on the cliffs of southern France; the view is back toward Algeria, which her paternal grandparents fled during its struggle for independence from France. As her grandmother laments, "Every morning, I wake up and look out my window at the Mediterranean sea, vast and creeping, and I smell the pines and the heat on the breeze, rising up the clifftop, and I'm in Algiers again. I live, still, in my heart, in Algeria."
The loss of their homeland is always present to the LaBasses, and the consequent search for identity both reflects and compounds other difficulties. Sagesse's father ("fleshy, ingratiating, explosive") languishes under his own father's control, and is often unfaithful to Sagesse's mother, an American who tries to pass as French. Meanwhile, their young son, Etienne, is so severely mentally and physically impaired that his birth is likened to "the clanging of their prison door." Sagesse's grandmother looks on with cool resignation, and her grandfather, the family's hot-headed patriarch, will let no one rest. When, late one night, the old man fires his rifle into a group of children swimming at the hotel's pool, no one is seriously injured, but the family's livelihood is put at risk, and long-simmering resentments find an outlet.
Sagesse is the perfect narrator for this fractured situation. She is neither French, nor American; not a girl, yet not quite a woman. Her grandfather's rash act causes her to lose her friends at school, and she is forced to "seek out the very pot-smokers I had...readily disparaged little over a month before." These new friends, upon realizing her family's past (having been French colonists, they are suspected of being racists, and members of the National Front) and relative wealth, also abandon her. With guests trickling away from the hotel, and tensions rising within the LaBasse family, Sagesse tries to understand what remains, and what place there might be for her.
Fortunately, while her life may be painful, she never finds it dull. Sagesse's language is rich and evocative, full of descriptive power. Here, for example, she witnesses the market: "There were vegetable men and fruit women and stalls selling both, blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants...pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates...the fishmongers sold their bullet-eyed, silver-skinned, slippery catch, blood-streaked fillets and orbed, scored steaks, milky scallops and encrusted oysters...." And here, a painting of the Bay of Algiers: "its apron of azure sea, erratically white-capped, broken by the sandstone finger of the port...the white rise of the city, a thousand precise terraces and roofs climbing into the sunlit sky, the European curlicues and the higgledy-piggledy casbah, all their outlines drawn as if with a single hair, interspersed with delicate little palms and cypresses and other trees of variegated greens, and with broad, brown avenues like branches."
A brilliant, complex world is formed by the accretion of these images, and they are juxtaposed and spur each other seamlessly, multiplying atmosphere and complicating plot lines. While most of the novel's events take place around 1990, Sagesse tells of them from a time almost a decade later (when she is a graduate student of the "history of ideas" at Columbia). This frame, constructed of occasional asides and short passages, allows a fluidity where revelations from the past and future cause momentum to shift and whirl -- the dead rise, their movements sharper and words more portentous with the reader's knowledge of coming tragedy. This later perspective also enables Sagesse to add deft hints and wise commentary. Looking back on herself, for instance, she says, "Children do not have words to ask and so do not imagine asking; not asking and not imagining, they eradicate distance: they take for granted that everything, someday, will be understood."
The Last Life stands as a testament to reflection, to making sense of an unruly past. It is also a kind of autobiography, an attempt to constitute an identity. In its ebb and flow of images, action, and ideas, the narrative deals so well with this attempt, implicitly, that it's unfortunate that it must also be treated explicitly. Frequent asides concerning identity and the nature of the self ("the one thing that would not leave me: the only and inadequate definition of my 'I.'") seem unnecessary; they lure Sagesse into self-dramatization, and contain the novel's most uneven prose. Some readers may find that such self-analysis helps characterize the narrator, but it's difficult to believe the story wouldn't be stronger without it.
Still, the novel's concern with such weighty questions is representative of its, and Sagesse's, fearlessness. As she seeks the truth about her family and herself, she also reflects on politics and race, dreaming of a "Mediterranean culture democratic and polyphonous" while simultaneously acknowledging its impossibility. This seeming contradiction must be borne, she learns, since to blindly accept what has happened is to forget alternatives and to repeat mistakes. "I live as if this might-have-been existed," she writes, "shimmering in the imaginary; and if it is but an 'as if,' I have learned, then it is none the less real for that."
The Last Life ultimately concerns itself with questions of fate and self-determination. In a world of disasters, Sagesse wonders if and how they might have been avoided: "The abiding question...was it fate? Is our ending inscribed in our beginning -- and, if so, in whose beginning?" The "obvious answer," she says, is that we cannot escape our fate, that our choices are illusory. The richness found in her story, however, suggests the less obvious answer -- that we might affect our fate, and better confront the present and future, if we work to come to an understanding with our past.
In the narrowest possible reading, The Last Life appears to be another entry in the well-worn coming-of-age genre, detailing as it does an adolescent girl's awkward, painful transition into adulthood. But told in reflection by the same girl 10 years later, Claire Messud's sprawling, beautifully wrought faux-memoir benefits from a much wiser perspective, exploring how three generations of knotty family history have profoundly shaped a young woman's identity. At first, Sagesse LaBasse, the privileged 14-year-old daughter of a French-Algerian father and an American mother, seems perfectly healthy and well-adjusted, with no greater concerns than filling lazy summer afternoons at her grandfather's three-star hotel on France's southern coast. But Sagesse and her parents are experts at maintaining this cheery façade, which conceals its dysfunction from the outside world. That changes when her grandfather, in an irrational fit of rage, shoots his rifle at a group of unruly teenagers, injuring her friend and turning the community against them. As the resulting maelstrom stirs up the LaBasses' clashing nationalities and bitter old secrets, Sagesse clings to her severely disabled brother, whose blank innocence remains constant regardless of the occasion. With graceful, enveloping prose, Messud leads her through the fickle cliques and stop-and-start romances of the average teenager while disturbing pieces of family history gradually come to light. At its core, The Last Life is about the importance of identity--sexual, ethnic, and familial--as a stabilizing force and the psychological scars collected by those who are robbed of its comforts. In every sense an exile, the older Sagesse bravely recalls the afflictive memories of "a home that exists only in the imaginary," a form of therapy that grows more poignant as the book progresses.
A fine first novel-and the "first" is deceptive, for its author has the daring and the assurance to take on Iris Murdoch-like questions about goodness and truth...Messud's gaze never wavers.
NY Times Book Review
An assured and engaging debut.
Times Literary Supplement
An intelligent and spirited narrative, an intriguingly skillful experiment.
A beautifully observed portrait.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Loss of innocence--for a young girl, her family and her nation--is the theme of Messud's resonant second novel. Plangent with the memories of a pivotal two-year period in the life of teenage narrator Sagesse LaBasse, the novel flashes back to three generations of the LaBasse family, pieds noirs who fled Algeria during the 1960s. Domineering patriarch Jacques, Sagesse's grandfather, establishes the Hotel Bellevue on France's Mediterranean coast and proclaims the family myth of invincibility. But the LaBasses suffer from the same vain and empty values--overweening pride and social snobbery--that led to the French debacle in Algeria. To Sagesse's piously Catholic parents, Alex and Carol, their severely handicapped son, Etienne, is the embodiment of the doctrine of Original Sin, and Carol cares for him at home because LaBasse women must sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Etienne is also a blow to his parents' marriage, already foundering because of Alex's womanizing and their different cultural backgrounds: Carol is American, and has never been accepted by her stern in-laws. After intolerant, irascible grandp re shoots at rowdy teenagers on the hotel property, he is sentenced to prison, the LaBasses become social outcasts and Sagesse's friends abandon her. Alex briefly comes into his own and runs the hotel, but Jacques's release accelerates Alex's and the family's destruction. Messud (When the World Was Steady) sustains an elegiac tone in describing a seemingly ordered world that in reality is precarious; the LaBasses erect futile defenses against tragedies they are unable to prevent. In striking scenes, Messud recreates the last days of French rule in Algeria and the anomie of the ex-colonials, exiles from the land they love and strangers in their mother country. Sometimes these frequent flashbacks are awkward and not well integrated into the narrative. Yet some scenes--Sagesse acting out her adolescent insecurity during a summer with her relatives in New England, for example--are small gems. Questions of morality and mortality, of choice or fate or historical destiny, permeate the chronicle, adding coherence to a moving and insightful story. Agent, Georges Borchardt. Author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In this coming-of-age novel, Sagesse LaBasse, now in her early twenties, offers us privileged entry into her most private and highly perceptive thoughts concerning her own youth, the unconventional personalities that comprise her family, and her cultural heritage. The LaBasse family, blending both French and African blood, escaped from Algiers prior to the turbulent revolution that established Algeria's independence from France in 1962. They founded the Hotel Bellevue on the French Riviera, a luxury resort where the action of the story takes place. Characters in the novel seem trapped by decisions made early in their lives. The LaBasse patriarch, Jacques, and his wife, the formidable Monique, grandparents of Sagesse, believe the family will survive because it has always stuck together in the pastduring their escape, the unfortunate marriage of their son to an American woman, and the birth of Etienne; they have faced the present problems together, and Jacques and his wife believe the family will be together in the future as well. The essential question in the story is whether Sagesse can escape the undertow of family and cultural heritage to discover a more fulfilling life. This highly intellectual novel surely requires more than a single reading to fully appreciate its structural integrity (how information is revealed) and the complexity of layered details connecting past and present. KLIATT Codes: SARecommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Harcourt, 403p, 21cm, 99-25612, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Susan G. Allison; Libn., Lewiston H.S., Lewiston, ME, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Messud's first novel, When the World Was Steady, was a finalist for the PEN/ Faulkner Award; this second work certainly deserves the same kind of treatment. Told by 14-year-old Sagesse LaBasse, it details the destruction of a family of French Algerian emigrants in the south of France. Sagesse is stunned when her grandfather takes a shot at a group of noisy friends at his hotel pool. Other domestic stresses complicate the family's unity: the disabled brother, the philandering father, and the domineering grandmother who had tried to keep the family together with stories from the past. This is a thoughtful, beautifully written novel with well-developed characters and psychological insights. Sagesse is totally believable as a mixed-up teen, and the historical background of the Algerian war for independence from France is accurately depicted. Highly recommended for all public libraries.--Ann Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Silver Spring, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Employing Jamesian prose and a healthy dose of wit, Messud brilliantly conjures LaBasse's 14-year-old consciousness. Equal parts coming-of-age story and novel of ideas, The Last Life makes one anxious for more from Messud.
Time Out New York
Where Messud outstrips the competition is in her tenacious grip on psychological realism; she plumbs the moral shallows of her characters with a brutal regard for honesty.
The New Criterion
...[S]o vivid, its rendering of the conflicting claims of memory and denial so fraught with felt emotion, that the reader might easily mistake it for a memoir....Ms. Messud has written a large and resonant novel that is as artful as it is affecting....[A] thoughtful meditation upon the uses of personal and public history and the need people have for creating narratives...about their families and themselves.
The New York Times
...[A] large part of my enthusiasm for this novel arises from the prose itself, an exquisite medium of artfully chosen images and memorable phrases as when
Sargasse describes herself as "trapped in the whispering unease of my parents' house,"
From The Nation, October 18, 1999
Ms. Messud is a fine craftswoman of sentences. The emotioinal depth of her writing reaches down into the darkness, and the full detail of the ideas it explores is not easily grasped. This is a quietly powerful book that needs to be read in silence.
Messud returns (When the World Was Steady, 1995; not reviewed) capably indeed, with an intelligent coming-of-ager about a teenaged girl half-American and half–Algerian-French. Sagesse LaBasse is 16 in 1991, and here she tells what took place in her life in that crucial girlhood year and in the three or so years before it: and in doing so also limns a painful span in French history, from colonial days in Africa through the battle of Algiersand on to the psychic tolls taken on those who became no longer Algerian and not quite French either. Sagesse's grandfather fled Algiers before the collapse, having invested already in land on a semi-barren spot on the Riviera. There he relocated his family, built a hotel, and saw it flourish just as he had foreseen, along with the growing tourist industry. He had always been a rigidly domineering man, however, and success only fed his bitterness at "exile," his increasingly rightist demand for what he thought of as social dignity, decorum, and, above all, civic respect and order. So it is that one night when Sagesse's friends are using the hotel pool and making a great deal of modern, disrespectful teenage noise, her grandfatherwell, he shoots at them. Wounding a girl, he ends up in court, goes to jail for six monthsand thus exposes the psychic-emotional crack in the LaBasse family that will break it up for good. When that happens, Sagesse will describe it just as bravely and vividly as she does everything elseher own trials through adolescence; her American mother's strange and pale varieties of weakness; the probable feelings of her profoundly retarded brother Etienne (and her own for him); her father's boyhood,maturation, marriageand finally his utter, wracking, ruinous calamity. A broad canvas, unflinching and clear eye for the truth, and a family tale that never fails to compel and that reverberates universally, as a fine saga should.
Read an Excerpt
I am American now, but this wasn't always so.
I've been here a long timesix years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before thatand have built a fine simulacrum of real life. But in truth, until now I've lived, largely, inside. These small rooms on New York City's Upper West Side are my haven: an ill-lit huddle of books and objects, a vague scent that is home. I've been waiting, although I could not, until he appeared, have given earthly shape to what I waited for. "By pining, we are already there; we have already cast our hope, like an anchor, on that coast. I sing of somewhere else, not of here: for I sing with my heart, not my flesh."
I'm not American by default. It's a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn't known this? It is the same, for the Korean saleswoman or the Bangladeshi businessman or the Nigerian student, for the Iowan nurse and the Montanan secretary, as it is for me: Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.
Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I livehow can I not?with my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed.
Now I find myself wanting to translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France's southern coast; with the fragrances and echoes of my grandfather's BellevueHotel, perched above the vast Mediterranean in its shifting palette of greens and blues and greys; and, as a starting place, with the high season of 1989.
The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or, indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot at me: I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.
Those summer evenings were all alike. As Marie-José used to say, we had to make the time pass. Of its own accord, it didn't, or wouldn't: the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glaucous dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled. Every night the white, illuminated bulk of the island ferry ploughed its furrow across the water and receded to the horizon, the only marker of another day's passage.
Still almost children, we scorned the games of tag and cops and robbers that the younger kids delighted in, spiralling their pursuits outwards from the round benches by the parking lot to the furthest foliated corners of the grounds. Instead we idled, and smoked, and talked, and were so bored we made a virtue of being bored. And we flirtedalthough most of us had known each other for years, and had spent each summer swimming and playing together, for so long that we knew each other's skin and laughter and illusions like our own, we flirted. It made the time pass.
I can't recall now whose idea it was first, to swim at night. We spent our days in the water, in the murky, boat-bobbed brine of the bay, or in the electric indigo of the swimming pool, its surface skimmed with oily iridescence. We lived in our bathing suits, tiny triangles of color, and worked (it was the closest that we came to work) on bronzing our skin evenly, deeply, so it held its tinge even through the winter months. We filed from beach to pool to beach again, up and down the tortuous paths, past the aloes in which, in earlier years, we had carved our initials, careful scars in the prickled, rubbery flesh. Why we felt the need to swim again, I do not know: perhaps because our water games were still those we had always played, a sphere into which self-consciousness had not yet intruded. We tussled in pairs on the pool's rim, struggling to push each other in, jumped from the overhanging balustrade into the shallows (although this maneuver had been strictly forbidden since a guest had cracked his skull attempting it), flaunted our elegant leaps from the diving board and, squealing, chased each other the length of the pool, the prize a firm shove on the top of the head and a spluttering sinkage.
Our games echoed in the trees. The higher our pitch the more we felt we enjoyed ourselves. In the daytime, the adult guests lounged in disgust by the water's edge, cursing our explosions and the rain of chlorinated droplets that they scattered; or else, stoic and frowning, they forged a measured breaststroke through our midst, their wake immediately swallowed by our flapping arms and legs. But at night the pool, lit from below, wavered, empty, avoided by the grown-ups who wandered through the distant hotel bar or dawdled, debating, over endless suppers, their voices rising and falling in the cicada-chorused air. The nearest thing to swimmers were the swooping bats that shot along the waterline in search of insects, attracted by the light.
And so, around ten o'clock one evening in July, or possibly even later, Thierrythe son of the accountant, a boy who never seemed to grow and whose voice obstinately refused to change, who compensated for his size with awkward arrogance and tedious prankssuggested that we chase away the bats and reclaim the shimmering depths for ourselves. Familiar in the sunlight, the pool in the dark was an adventure, all shadows around it altered. We had no towels and, beneath our clothes, no suits, so we stripped naked, our curves and crevices hidden by the night, and plunged in.
We were a group of eight or nine, the children for whom the hotel was home and those for whom it was each summer the equivalent. Our gropings and sinkings and splashings were more exciting for our nakedness, our screams correspondingly more shrill. We didn't think of the adults: why would we? We didn't even think of time. The night swim was a delicious discovery, even though our heads and arms, when protruding to the air, were cold, and our bodies riddled with goose bumps. Ten minutes, maybe twenty. We weren't long in the water, and it is still difficult to believe we were so very loud, when my grandfather emerged onto his balcony, a dark form against the living room lights, with the bulge of the plane tree like a paleolithic monster yapping at his feet.
He declaimed, his voice hoarse and furious. People were trying to think, to sleep. This was a place of rest, and the hour unconscionable ... In short, we had no right to swim. We dangled, treading water, cowed into silence for a moment until someoneThierry, no doubtbegan to hiss across to me, half-laughing, inaudible to my grandfather, about how the old prick should be silenced.
"Tell him you're here," he whispered. "Just tell him you're here and that'll shut him up. Go on. Or else he'll blabber on all night. Go on!"
OthersMarie-José and Thibaud and Cécile and the resttook up his exhortation: "Go on, Sagesse, go on." Their voices lapped like waves that my grandfather, slightly deaf and still ranting, could not distinguish.
"Grand-père," I shouted, finally, my voice high as a bell. "It's us. It's me. We're sorry. We didn't mean to disturb you."
"Get out right now," he yelled back. "Get out, get dressed and go home. It's the middle of the night." Everyone sniggered at this: we believed that people who went to bed, who got up in the morning and went to work, were some kind of a joke. "Does your father know you're here?"
"Yes, Grand-père, he knows."
My grandfather snorted, disgusted, a theatrical snort. "Go home, all of you," he said, and turned, fading back into the light, regaining his features and the high, greyed dome of his forehead.
We scrambled from the pool, a dripping huddle, muttering.
"Your grandfather, man," said Thierry, jumping up and down with his hands clasped over the shadow of his genitals. "He's something else."
"It's not Sagesse's fault," said Marie-José, putting a damp arm around me. "But he is, you know, a jerk."
"He's a bastard to work for, my father says," said a skinny girl called Francine, her teeth chattering. Her father was the head groundsman.
"My father says the same," I said. Everyone laughed, and just then a bat nose-dived and almost clipped the tops of our heads. We screamed in unison, and tittered guiltily at our screaming.
"Be careful," said Thibaud, one of the summer residents, the son of nouveaux riches from Paris and the boy I had my eye on. "Or he'll come back out." He growled. "Rottweiler."
We dissolved again.