The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

26/08/06, The Times

In her second novel, The Last Life, Claire Messud saw the history of France’s disastrous enmeshment in Algeria and its formal end through the understanding of a 15-year old girl. It was a book of rare perfection, distilling the political through the personal with resonant sympathy and depth and an infinitely nuanced perception of the workings of the human heart and the mind. After the two gem-like novellas in her subsequent work, The Hunters, she returns to the interlacing of the public and the private and turns her attention, surprisingly, to 9/11 in her latest novel, The Emperor’s Children.
Surprising, because she is the farthest from the bandwagon-jumping type one can imagine any writer to be. One would have thought an event that redefined the geopolitical order for at least our lifetimes would have to be assimilated first, over a slow duration, before writers worked out its myriad ramifications in their fiction or appropriated it, as many others have done, for near-hysterical outpourings of injured self-righteousness. But no, it provides cosmetic backdrop and an excuse for lazy plotting in Jay McInerney’s empty novel, The Good Life, it is central to Ken Kalfus’s shrieking satire, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, almost a brief noise-off in Benjamin Kunkel’s hip and witty Indecision. The intrepid Jonathan Safran Foer locked horns with it and produced, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, an original, moving work ultimately marred by sentimentality and whimsy. In Messud, it doesn’t occur until page 370 of a 430-page novel, but the readers’ knowledge of its imminence creates for a dramatic irony that is loaded, inevitable, almost as relentless as in a Greek tragedy.
And yet, this is not a 9/11 novel. It’s nothing less than an enquiry into the moral codes that animate us, the authenticity (or otherwise) of human actions, the validation and validity of such actions both to the introspective, private self and to the outer, public world. It asks tough questions about possibilities of self-knowledge and self-deception, whether we live lives or lines, a thin, textualised hand-down of real experience. The story takes place in nine dense months, March to November, of 2001 in Manhattan. It follows three friends, all just over the threshold of thirty, all struggling in their own ways to find a central core of meaning that’ll shore up and bind their slightly aimless lives into something more purposive and individuated. Danielle, a television producer, is casting about for an idea for an intelligent documentary that’ll make her name. Marina Thwaite has reached a dead end with her long overdue book on the cultural significance of children’s clothing. She flounders around looking for something that will prove her to be the intellectually worthy daughter of her father, the celebrated intellectual, writer and journalist, Murray Thwaite. Julius Clarke, penniless freelance writer of elegant, acid book reviews, is starved of money and fame, and puzzles about how to acquire both in one quick stroke.
At a dinner party on the final evening of a research trip to Sydney, Danielle meets the sinister, magnetic Ludovic Seeley, who has grand plans of taking Manhattan – he has been handpicked by Australian media mogul, Augustus Merton, to start up a new, radically iconoclastic cultural magazine, The Monitor. Seeley fetches up in New York and is introduced by Danielle to beautiful Marina, who is hired by him to work on his fledgling magazine. Meanwhile, Murray Thwaite is having second thoughts about the secret work of his lifetime, portentously titled How to Live, the distillation of a lifetime’s wisdom and knowledge into a work of Senecan magnitude.
Into the lives of these people enters twenty-year old Frederick Tubb, Murray’s nephew from provincial Watertown, an overweight, incandescently idealistic autodidact, armed with nothing more than Emerson, Tolstoy and a dogged to zeal to leave his indelible mark on the world. Murray sees his younger self – the same will to succeed, the same thirst for self-improvement and self-invention – in the boy and decides to give him a leg-up by hiring him as his amanuensis. But the presence of such idealism, such innocence among jaded, adult lives is a spark to the tinderbox. Like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, or Pyle in The Quiet American, Frederick is both mirror for the society he inhabits and its agent of unravelling. Their lives intersect and play out with disastrous consequences under the looming, unknown shadow of a greater, public disaster. In the colliding private worlds, illusions are ruthlessly unpicked, the clay feet of idols exposed, and the knotty problems with authenticity revealed, all with unparalleled lucidity and rigour.
In its scope, style and substance, The Emperor’s Children is an attempt to return the novel to the glories of its golden age; this novel is engaged in a conversation with George Eliot, Henry James, Dostoyevskii. Its psychological realism is a burnished perfection, its characters (with the exception of the slightly cartoonish Ludovic Seeley) thrillingly real people, alive and utterly convincing in their interiorities, their subtleties of thought and the minute ticking of their minds. Messud’s prose is a useful, timely and intensely pleasurable reminder of the immense possibilities of the English language. To use the word clarity about her style – dense, chaste, luminously intelligent – is to return the word to its origins; this is style as illumination, shining a searching yet sympathetic light on the minds and capacious inner worlds of her characters, and as a radiant mode of moral enquiry.