Messud’s literary criticism is extra absorbing than her arts criticism and its attraction is proportional to a reader’s familiarity with the topic. I’m much less versed in Albert Camus than I ought to be, even now that we’re residing “The Plague,” so the three essays about his work — written lengthy earlier than the coronavirus — mattered much less to me than her vivid, insightful analyses of three novels that I learn within the current previous and keep in mind effectively: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “By no means Let Me Go,” Magda Szabo’s “The Door” and Teju Cole’s “Open Metropolis.”
The start of her tackle “Open Metropolis” demonstrates her nice expertise for enlarging the context of no matter she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary. It additionally captures her determinedly elevated tone and vocabulary, which gained’t be to each reader’s style: “In our age of fast know-how and the jolly, undiscriminating ephemeralizing of tradition and information, an insistence upon excessive stakes — a want to ask the massive questions — can appear quaint, or passé, or just somewhat embarrassing.”
The ending of her tackle “The Door” demonstrates her even better expertise for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting shut, with a number of remaining phrases that distill the which means of all that preceded them and ship a sort of shudder by way of your thoughts and coronary heart. If she have been a gymnast, she’d be famend for sticking her landings.
The essays in “Reflections” mirror a background that’s geographically expansive, privileged and bereft of huge, messy drama — the phrase “genteel” saved popping into my mind. “Like many people, I’m a mongrel, a hybrid, made up of many issues,” she writes within the title essay. “My childhood was itinerant, my identification difficult. My father was French, my mom Canadian. I grew up in Sydney, Australia; in Toronto, Canada; after which at boarding college in the US. I went to graduate college at Cambridge College, the place I met my British husband.” That doesn’t make Messud probably the most relatable narrator, nevertheless it affords her a panoramic perch and permits her, for instance, to take readers on an intensive, evocative tour of Beirut in “The Street to Damascus.”
With that essay and others, she explores two themes — two conflicts — specifically: the impermanence of human circumstances versus the sturdiness of artwork, and the evanescence of expertise versus the tenacity of reminiscence. In her reminiscence, her mom and her father’s sister stay giant; so she immortalizes them in “Two Ladies,” about what unusual bedfellows some in-laws make. A protracted-ago good friend’s disappearance endures as a lesson in individuals’s inscrutability that she imparts in “Teenage Women.”
Messud makes the purpose that each relationship we’ve had and each residence that we’ve inhabited survives within the scrapbooks that represent ourselves: We go away them far behind and by no means go away them in any respect. “It’s fallacious to think about them as previous: Sydney, then, was simply starting; and Toronto was, in our lives, a continuing, after which, for a time, a house; simply as Toulon, my father’s household’s chosen place, remained till just some years in the past my life’s one unbroken hyperlink,” she writes in “Then.” “They have been concurrent presents, and presences, and one way or the other due to this, and magically, they’ve remained all the time current. If I crossed the ocean right now, would I not discover my childhood pals dangling from the monkey bars, their ties flailing and their crested hats in a pile upon the grass?”
Now these pals, these monkey bars, these ties and people hats exist not simply in her ideas however in these pages, the place they’re mounted eternally. That’s why Messud writes. It offers the previous a future.