Claire Messud is a Novelist, Not a "Woman Novelist"

"How angry am I? You don't want to know," begins the gripping first chapter of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf). The furious voice belongs to Nora Eldridge, an unmarried 37-year-old elementary schoolteacher, dutiful daughter, and all-around good girl who no one would guess is boiling with rage on the inside. Why she’s so angry (she wants to put “FUCK YOU ALL” on her gravestone) has much to do with the mother of a new child in her class, a sophisticated European artist named Sirena, who reignites Nora’s secret passion to be an artist and ultimately betrays her. A riveting psychological thriller, Messud’s fourth novel is her first book since the bestselling The Emperor’s Children, which was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

She reads at 7 p.m. tonight at Barnes & Noble (2289 Broadway), and at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Center for Fiction. Over the phone from her house in Cambridge, she discussed her epiphany at the age of 37, her working relationship with her husband, New Yorker book critic James Wood, and how having children might have helped her to become a bestselling author.

Where did the idea come from to write about this schoolteacher who finally decides, at age 37, to pursue her secret dream to be an artist? Any book comes from lots of different impulses and strands that come together, like a bird making a nest. But one of them certainly was my own realization, at about that age, that time wasn’t infinite. I feel as though we’re very privileged—not everybody—but many of us in our contemporary American culture are privileged to have a really long youth compared to people historically. In some other cultures in the world today, you have to be a grownup by the time you’re 12. But certainly we’re able to feel that everything lies before us for a long time, and then there comes some moment where you think, you know, it’s not all before me actually. [Laughs.] Now some of it is behind me.

Lisa Cohen

The first chapter begins with this terrific rant from Nora before she tells us the story of why she’s so angry. We definitely don’t get enough good angry female rants in fiction. Is this always how you wanted to start the book? Or did you write that much later? No, that’s what I wrote first, and for a while that’s all there was. That voice sort of came to me. I’ve always loved a rant as a reader. And I felt, as you just said, the ranting women are sort of thin on the ground. And so, partly I wanted to make space for that voice. I do think, in that question of where there are still gender differences in this world, we live in a time when anger is discouraged—not wrongly necessarily, but it’s discouraged—and it’s always been totally unacceptable for women to be angry. I can cite experiences of working in offices where there were men who would blow their tops and shout and everyone would roll their eyes and say, “You know, that’s just Roger.” But if a woman were to do the same thing, she’d be considered unhinged. But I don’t think that means that women don’t experience anger.

Readers will likely assume that you relate best to Sirena, the successful artist who has it all. But do you ever relate to Nora, the woman who feels pressured to put others before herself and her art? I was brought up with, on the one hand, a sort of strong feminist ethic, but also with the understanding that—and I wouldn’t say even that women should do these things, but that one should do these things—taking care of family and being kind to others and being a decent citizen and doing your part were important. At some point, the people who, like Sirena, get the most done, they throw over being a decent citizen. The thing about reaching the age of 37 and realizing that not all time is still before you is also this realization that you have to make choices. Every time you choose to visit the sick or listen to a friend talk about her troubles or volunteer at the food bank, any time you’re doing those things, you’re not doing the other things.

Even if you think you’re not making a choice, you think you’re just doing your duty, it’s tantamount to a choice. You might as well be consciously aware that you’re making that choice. Which doesn’t mean you can choose otherwise. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice. When my parents were ill, it’s not as though it was a choice for me whether I would spend time with them. But there are many who wouldn’t have, and I was aware of that. I was aware that the choice, which was the only choice I could make, was also one that was putting my family before my work. And, if you had some statistical demographic analysis of that, you’d find that that was more a woman thing than a man thing.

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2 comments
Binkconn
Binkconn

Married to a book critic? That certainly helps the art get out there.

 
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