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Novelist Claire Messud excavated her family history. A fictional book is our reward


Although Claire Messud is a celebrated novelist, she is not the first writer in her family. Her grandfather wrote a book by hand in French that ran well over a thousand pages. It was part memoir, part scrapbook, and it became a sort of family heirloom.

CLAIRE MESSUD: It is a remarkable collection of documents 'cause it also includes photographs and telegrams and letters and so on. And I didn't read it in its entirety until I was on leave from teaching in 2017. So he wrote it in the 1970s, so it was a real discovery.

SHAPIRO: That text makes an appearance in Messud's new novel, called "This Strange Eventful History." It's a work of fiction that closely parallels the author's own family history, beginning in Algeria, 1940.

MESSUD: My father's family was pied noir, so they were French colonials from North Africa.

SHAPIRO: That's actually a term I had never heard before reading this book - pied noir. Literally, it means black feet.

MESSUD: Yes. And it is, I think, a pejorative term that was used about the colonials because they were so poor that they didn't have shoes.

SHAPIRO: From North Africa, the story travels across decades and continents, bringing us almost to the present day.

MESSUD: I knew almost nothing about my father's upbringing and his history, even though I knew my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, well. But they never really spoke about it. And my father, in particular, never spoke of it. And I think, for him, one of the things that he wanted for us, as his children, was he wanted us to be North American kids, and he wanted us to be free of history and not to carry the burdens of the past. And so I suppose I probably contravened his wishes in excavating...


MESSUD: ...In this way. I realized that I wanted to write about a sort of bigger swath of history leading up to the present. And part of that was that my grandfather's title was "Everything That We Believed In."


MESSUD: And he was writing about a world really far from my own. And then I realized that my world that I grew up in is far from the world my kids live in, and I wanted to, in a way, capture some of my own experience for my kids.

SHAPIRO: If you were to sum up what he likely meant by everything we believe in, is this a sort of, like, post-World War II belief in some international community that can come together? Like, what was he actually referring to there?

MESSUD: So this is my - I think that's - if my father had written such a thing, that would have been what he believed in - absolutely - a postwar, sort of cosmopolitan, boundaryless, hybrid world. But my grandfather was sort of the opposite. My grandfather was very, very Catholic. And when he was worried that he and my grandmother might die in the war, he wrote a letter for my father and my aunt, who were then children, to open in the event of their deaths. And he includes it in the memoir. And he says, we are Mediterranean; we are Latin; we are Catholic; we are French - in that order. And that's what's...

SHAPIRO: Immutable identity categories.

MESSUD: Yes. That's what's - it's important for you to know. He (inaudible)...

SHAPIRO: Hmm. So if your grandfather had the worldview of immutable identity categories and your father had the worldview of a latter half of the 20th century global community that could, you know, ambitiously pursue ideals, what's the view that you and then your children have that you say is different from either of those?

MESSUD: Well, I guess I think that, for me, you know, when President Obama was elected, he was somebody I really thought, oh, look, here's somebody whose life is like mine. It's made up of all these different strange things put together...

SHAPIRO: Indonesia and Hawaii and the - yeah.

MESSUD: Yes. And it makes an American. And I really thought, oh, this is the world that we've known we were moving towards, and here it is. And then I think, you know, here we are - I'm bad at math, but is it 16 years later? - and the world doesn't look so much that way right now. It's a time of borders and barriers coming up and of tribal identities resurging, and it feels a very different atmosphere.

And I understand there are lots of sides to that, and some of them are positive and some less so in the same way that the ideals that my parents' generation held had many wonderful things and a lot of preconceptions and presumptions about, say, white European culture that were not so good. But sometimes it feels as though we've thrown away some good things as well as some less good things.

SHAPIRO: So to return to the question you raised earlier about whether it's possible to exist apart from history, there's one character who, in Argentina, wonders if she can exist outside of politics or alongside it, and the phrase is, in a relieved state of semidetachment. And I think most people have wished that at one time or another.

MESSUD: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Do you think that is possible? Is it naive? Is it delusional? What is it?

MESSUD: Well, I think - I don't know that it's my place. I don't have the answer. I mean, we can hope. I think it used to be that what the American dream represented to many people in other countries was an ability to live outside or separated from conflict. And I think now, in this time, we see how fraught that is and how partial in understanding it is - always was - of a sort of American life or identity. So I have to hope that, in time, people may be freer. But we live right now, it seems, in very politically charged times, and it seems hard to sidestep that.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. The character in this novel based on you, unsurprisingly, grows up to be a writer. And there's a really beautiful line where you say the magic of writing is that we might all share and yet individually create an experience as real as if it had been lived. So how does it feel to know that thousands of strangers will now share the experience of knowing your parents and grandparents more intimately than many of their closest friends and loved ones did when they were still alive?

MESSUD: (Laughter). That's quite a thought. What I would say is that these are fictional characters - you know? - and so it's a construction. It draws on their - on those people and their histories. But, of course, it's my - it's subjective and partial. And I'm sure that if those relatives were living, they would say, no, no, no - you got this wrong, and this wrong, and this wrong...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MESSUD: ...And this isn't like me. And there are also fictional elements. But my hope would be - you know, I really believe this Nabakovian idea that the writer and the reader climb the mountain from opposite sides to meet at the top. And when we're reading, each of us is reading with our own histories and our own families and our own pasts. And so we bring to the page those experiences that color and shape a novel. And that's one of the things I love about reading - because each of us makes the book, you know? And when you read the book, it becomes your book, and those characters become your characters. So that's my hope.

SHAPIRO: Mmm. Claire Messud, thank you so much for talking with us.

MESSUD: Ari, thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her new novel is "This Strange Eventful History."

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.