Set in colonial Algeria, the south of France, and New England, and narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl with a ruthless regard for the truth, The Last Life is the tale of the LaBasse family, whose quiet integrity is shattered by the shots from a grandfather’s rifle. As their world suddenly begins to crumble, long-hidden shame emerges: a son abandoned by the family before he was even born, a mother whose identity is not what she has claimed, and a father whose act of defiance brings Hotel Bellevue—the family business—to its knees.
From the PEN/Faulkner Award-nominated author of The Emperor’s Children, named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, this novel skillfully reveals how the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling, can turn on us in a moment.
“[A] tour de force . . . every step feels stunningly sure.” —Vogue
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About the Author
Hometown:Somerville, MA, USA
Place of Birth:Greenwich, CT, USA
Education:BA in Comparative Literature, Yale University, 1987, MA in English Literature, Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1989
Read an Excerpt
I am American now, but this wasn't always so.
I've been here a long time — six years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before that — and 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 live — how 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 Bellevue Hotel, 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 clifitop, 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 flirted — although 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, Thierry — the 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 pranks — suggested 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 groupings 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 someone — Thierry, no doubt — began 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!"
Others — Marie-José and Thibaud and Cécile and the rest — took 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 Pans and the boy I had my eye on. "Or he'll come back out." He growled. "Rottweiler."
We dissolved again.
That was the first night. Marie-José dropped me at home on her moped; my clothes stuck clammily to my skin and my long hair was damp and viciously tangled by the wind. She waved and blew a kiss from within her bubbled helmet, and as she putted back along the white gravel drive to the road, my mother opened the door.
Our house, the home in which I had lived most of my life, had the same marble stillness as the hotel, the same capacity for echoes and light. You could feel people in it or, more likely, their absence, even standing in the foyer before the naked statue of Venus on her pedestal, with the brushed aluminum elevator door like another artwork beside her. The front hall stretched up two stories, and the air high above seemed to hover, waiting to be disturbed.
My mother could slip through the house without moving that air, when she chose to. Her face, too, could remain still — when she spoke, when she was nervous — like a terrified mask, with its sharp planes and dark, hooded eyes.
"Not in bed?" I asked, as casual as I could be, plucking at my tats with my fingers as I pushed past her into the living room.
She fidgeted with the buttons of her blouse, and spoke to me in English, her language and that of my earliest childhood, used now between us only as the language of confidences and reprimands. "Your grandfather called."
"He did?" I sank into the middle section of the huge, death-white sofa, aware that my jeans would leave two wet bulbs beneath my buttocks. I spoke in French. "And how was he?" I put my feet on the coffee table, careful not to go too far even as I indulged in this act of war: I placed them on a large, perfectly positioned book, and did not touch, let alone smear, the polished glass.
My mother took silent note. "Livid."
I waited, busy with my hair, tangling and untangling it like Penelope at her loom.
"He's furious with you and your friends. All that noise! In the middle of the night, Sagesse! The hotel is full of guests, for God's sake."
"It wasn't very late. All we did was go swimming. It's one of the rules, that we be allowed to. He didn't have to yell at us."
"Your grandfather is under a great deal of strain."
"He's a jerk is what he is, who yells at people just because he can. Some of them — Renaud, or Thibaud, or Cécile and Laure — they're guests at the hotel. What right does he have to do that?"
"Your grandfather —" My mother's eyes were pleading, her hands open to the ceiling and then slapped, suddenly, with a click of exas peration, to her sides. "I don't want to talk about your grandfather and what's wrong with him. That's not the point."
"The point is an abuse of privilege."
Small and neat, my mother had done her best to impersonate a Frenchwoman: her dark hair was pulled back in a tidy chignon, her blouses and skirts were cut in the latest fashion, and she favored trim, navy cardigans that pointed up the slimness of her shoulders. But something in her face, in the shape of her head or the way that she held it, gave away her foreignness, the way a transvestite is betrayed by her wrists or the line of her back. Perhaps it was simply anxiety; my mother was constantly anxious. But the result was an inability to take command. Her scoldings were always halfhearted, as if she didn't really believe in them, as if she were criticizing herself and found the duty excruciating.
Then again, there was the awkwardness of my mother trying to assume the voice of her father-in-law: for too long, forever, I had heard and overheard the railing, the whining, the fury — the range of melodramatic expostulations that characterized my mother's emotional expression — much of it directed against her husband's family, against the very man whom she was now forced to represent; and if not, then against the whole of France, in a sweeping, metonymical gesture that fooled no one. The criticism never fell where we all, silently, sinkingly, knew that it must, on the key to her imprisonment: my brother Etienne.
I could have begun with my brother, as easily as I could with the night when the sharp reports of my grandfather's rifle sundered the family (although they did this not immediately: rather, they established the hairline cracks that worked more insidiously and perhaps more lastingly than would a neater, more decisive action). For that matter, I could have begun with my parents, with their meeting, in a café in Aix-en-Provence one April afternoon, when the sun was sinking and the parade of eccentrics, in imitation of the metropolis, marched the boulevard like puppets in a theater for the sole benefit of this eager young American, on a year's release from her women's college where the turbulence of the decade had failed to stretch its tentacles, and of the handsome (so he was, she tells me), gallant young Frenchman who leaned forward to watch the delight in my mother's eyes. They were particularly entranced by the septuagenarian with platinum curls who made her daily way along the sidewalk, on tiptoe, swinging pink ballet slippers over one shoulder and clutching a miniature poodle, whose curls matched her own, to her breast.
Or, indeed, I could have begun with the squalling of my own birth, which occurred at the time of the fall of Saigon, a matter of record for each of my parents in their different ways. For my father because his colonial blood led him to grieve at the ultimate loss of another former outpost of French glory, when the final anguished battles of his own vanished Algeria were little more than ten years past. Whereas my mother — whose interest in and grasp of the political were always vague at best — saw the moment in a rush of nostalgia for America, that vast and only intermittently familiar territory, in pain and internally divided as she, in exile, was herself. She hailed, after all, from the rolling comfort of rural Massachusetts, and had never expected, just as America had not, to find herself so confused: in short, she identified. And yet somehow I, slippery and screaming, would grow up believing that none of it — not war, not America, not the old woman swinging her ballet shoes with such false carelessness — had anything to do with me. Stories are made up, after all, as much of what is left out.
Why was my brother's birth the more significant, when I already crawled in my playpen, my parents' grave error made flesh? Because some things are truer than others, more inescapable, less dependent on the mad or imagined confluences of the mind. And what happened at my brother's birth was one of these inescapable things. Those precious minutes between the first wrenching push that propels the infant's head downwards, out of the womb, and its arrival into the brutal fluorescence that marks the beginning of its life — in my brother's case, those precious minutes bled and fed into another, longer, more terrifying gap, in which the doctor and the midwife panicked, and presumably my gasping brother also, trying as hard as they could, all of them, my mother too, desperate but unknowing, to drag him into the world. Perhaps he himself hesitated, sensing the agonies before him, feeling that he would not, could not, go ahead with life. He cannot tell us. Deprived too long of oxygen, his tiny limbs, blued, curled in upon his torso, his waving baby's neck slackened, and his mind ... who knows where his mind went, or where it is, or whether it rages still behind his grinning eyes? He relinquished in those precious moments all possibility of language: nobody will ever know what Etienne may think, as he hunches, strapped at the waist and again at the chest, convulsing cheerfully in his wheelchair, a thin, glistening trail of spit always reaching like a wet spider's web towards the ground. The doctors, almost immediately, pronounced him incapable of motor coordination and severely mentally retarded: little more than a vegetable, by the reckoning of the world.
Excerpted from "The Last Life"
Copyright © 1999 Claire Messud.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Claire Messud, in The Last Life, gives us a fast-moving coming of age novel that provides not only unexpected gunshots, transgressions, betrayals, and family secrets of the kind Francois Mauriac specialized in, but, as well, a subtle anatomy of the aftereffects of the violent decolonization of Algeria on one middle-class ex-colonial family. Characters are unsparingly drawn, and the critical moments in Sagesse LaBasse's loss of innocence are intensely fixed. There are no longueurs. The settings - the French Riviera, Algeria - are richly evoked. You feel the light.
(Norman Rush, Author of Mating)
In this rich, resonant, beautifully written novel, Claire Messud brilliantly illuminates the dislocations of body and soul that are the true consequences of exile.
Claire Messud is a wonderful writer. In The Last Life she takes on themes of family, history, exoticism and romance, and looks behind the surface to find the difficult ideas lurking in the background. Told through one girl's smart and sensitive voice, it's a story about the dangers and seductions of nostalgia, and the ways in which people do things for the wrong reasons. A dryly funny, deeply felt, serious, ambitious, and beautifully imagined book.
Claire Messud is a deeply interesting young writer.
(Penelope Fitzgerald, Author of The Bookshop and The Blue Flower (Houghton Mifflin), Booker Prize winner)
Only a writer as intelligent as Claire Messud could have written The Last Life. With its vivid characters, exotic settings, and deep moral questions, this is an elegant and gripping novel.
Claire Messud superbly represents what we mean when we speak of a "born novelist" - her gifts are equal to her ambition. In The Last Life, her remarkable second novel, Messud engulfs the indelibly inscribed LaBasse family in the fortunes of France, Algeria, and America, intertwining the windings and secret caverns of character and history. Imagine Buddenbrooks crossed with A Passage to India; imagine Camus in a contemporary vein. To open this novel is to sink into a Mediterranean world so urgent and engrossing, so wisely illuminating (and as alive as flesh and Blood), that one regrets arriving at the last page.
(Cynthia Ozick, Author of The Puttermesser Papers)
Claire Messud's brings an astonishing intelligence to the stories which make the rich tapestry of The Last Life. The novel's power lies in her probing with great immediacy both cultural and generational history. She has written an emotional and moral exploration of exile, of the stories left behind and the stories her characters live. The many voices of the La Basse family--French, Algerian, American--are woven into a narrative of the painful personal revelations and the impermanence of history itself.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is the significance of the novel's title? To whose life or what life does it refer?
2. How would you describe Sagesse's relationship with each member of her family? How does each relationship affect her view of the family and its history and her own developing sense of self?
3. What are the causes and consequences of the LaBasse family's zealous maintenance of its secrets and its own mythology as a defense against the outside world? What actions and events contribute to the collapse of the family's defenses?
4. How does the sequence in which the details of the LaBasses' past are disclosed affect Sagesse's and our understanding of what happens to the family and to Sagesse during her fourteenth and fifteenth years? Why are past events disclosed in just this sequence and in such detail?
5. How does this novel illustrate our need to create personal, familial, and communal fictions or myths to sustain our sense of identity on those three levels? How does each character slant stories of the past to his or her advantage?
6. What kinds of exile, banishment, and displacement occur throughout the novel and throughout the LaBasse family's history? To what extent does Sagesse or the author suggest that every life is one of exile or displacement?
7. At the beginning of the novel, Sagesse tells us that she is an American by choice, "But it is a mask." References to masks and disguises recur throughout her story. What other masks does Sagesse herself put on? What masks do the other LaBasses wear?
8. Of the days preceding her grandfather's trial, Sagesse wonders, "What...was my brother to me, in all this confusion." How would you answer thatquestion? What is Etienne's role in Sagesse's life, in the life of the LaBasse family, and in the novel? What does Sagesse mean when she says of herself and her brother, "But we were the same..."?
9. Sagesse thinks of the morning after the disastrous Cape Cod party as a "rupture" between past and present. What other incidents, in addition to the shooting, contribute to this view for Sagesse? What other characters experience similar moments, past or present?
10. "Even at fourteen," Sagesse says, "I was well aware...that the bonds of faith, religious and otherwise, governed the tiniest movements of our household." How would you describe those bonds and their importance within the LaBasse family? What kinds of faith other than religious are important within the family? Why might it be inevitable that these bonds of faith loosen and disintegrate?
11. As Sagesse's and her grandfather's eyes meet in the courtroom, she is "aware that the look that passed between us was one of agonizing recognition." What do you think each of them recognizes? What does Sagesse mean when she goes on to describe that moment as an "instant of dreadful mutuality"?
12. What is the importance of Augustine and Camus to Sagesse's --and our -- understanding of her family's Algerian background and its influence on their -- and Sagesse's -- beliefs and behavior? What is the importance of her observation that both Augustine and Camus said "Yes" to life "with a desperation and a defiance that can have been born only of 'no'"? What roles do desperation and defiance play in the lives of the LaBasses?
13. After her father's suicide, Sagesse recognizes "that some central, invisible force that had kept the LaBasses in organized orbit had vanished, flinging each of us, and my father furthermost, out into the ether alone." What might that central force have been? What force or forces have kept the family "in organized orbit" up until this time? What 1force or forces have torn the family apart?
14. "It is a terrible thing to be free," Sagesse says after her father's death, and notes that "constraints are what define us, in life and in language alike." How does Messud present the conflict between freedom and constraint?
Copyright © 2000. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc.
Written by Hal Hager & Associates, Somerville, New Jersey
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The writing styke was really distracting for me. Almost every sentence gad five, six, seven commas and a hyphen or two. Made it hard to focus on story.
I thought the book was OK until I read what she did to a family member. It was so terrible, so disturbing, it ruined the book for me. I still get a bad taste in my mouth when I think of this novel.
The Last Life was movingly written; not happy, but affecting. The last third of the book was the best, as the protagonist reflects on what has happened and the personalities and motivations of family members driving the story's action. For me as a young middle-aged adult, the book raised a lot of interesting -- sometimes painful, but also hopeful -- questions about identity, choice, 'starting fresh,' and many other issues. Sagesse, the narrator, did a beautiful job of communicating the (often frustrated) desire to have others 'do what they say they're going to do, and be whole.' I was also struck by the truths, which many of us in our independence-minded society are loathe to admit, that 'freedom is a terrible thing...,' that 'we long to be sentenced,' and that 'our constrictions define us.' Lots of food for thought and feeling here.