Claire Messud on the real family stories that inspired “This strange and eventful story”

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<p><i>This strange eventful story</i> by Claire Messud</p>
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The author says she originally wanted to write This strange eventful story as four distinct but linked novels: “My Husband (James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker) made fun of me, and then my editor (Jill Bialosky, editor in chief at WW Norton) made fun of me, so I couldn’t do that. Then it was about figuring out how to capture time and how everything changes over time.

Part of what’s changing for the Cassar family is not just time but also geography. As a French naval attaché, Gaston must serve during and after World War II, leaving his wife, Lucienne, and their children, François and Denise, to bounce between Algeria, Lebanon, and France.

This ever-changing reality led Messud to think closely about the ethics of family education in times of conflict. “I remember growing up hearing about World War II all the time and everyone was like, ‘Okay, there were the bad guys and these were the good guys,'” says She. “But while some parts were very clear, others were less so. Whatever strange place you found yourself in in June 1945 could mean, “What should I do?” Where is my wife ? Where are my children? How can I find my family? Even though you were thinking about the “common good,” you were also thinking about your personal concerns.

For Gaston’s son François, as well as Messud’s real father, personal concerns about family were part of the choice to immigrate to North America. Like François, “(my father) wanted his children to be North American; we were in Canada,” says Messud. “He wanted us to be in the “new land.” » Just like François, Messud’s father wanted his children to be freed from his family’s fervent Catholicism, which Messud’s grandfather, like Gaston, considered the foundation of everything: “When we communicated by telegram, my great -father added the phrase: “Keep faith in Him”, an additional expense, but which was part of what he considered to be the greatest good.

Although the Cassar family patriarchs drive much of the book’s action, Messud found it particularly important to explore the motivations of the Cassar women – and, in particular, François’ sister, Denise, inspired by Messud’s own aunt. In the book, Denise, a fragile and sickly child, grows up and trains as a lawyer, living her entire life as a single woman without children. “The lives of all the women in this book are complicated,” says Messud. “Growing up, I could completely understand the frustrations my mother faced, but I don’t think I understood, or even still understand, the frustrations of my aunt. His internalized culture was so different from mine. She was raised to believe, as a devout Catholic, that getting married and having children was a woman’s role on earth. And she didn’t want to do that.

At some point in This strange eventful story, Denise thinks: “Why does she have to be herself? Why was it so unacceptable to be herself? About this dilemma, Messud says: “There is a sentence at the end of Magda Szabo’s novel The door: ‘It’s very difficult to be a single woman for whom no one will make her place in the world.’ I feel like I let my aunt down while she was alive by trying to impose my idea of ​​how her future life should go, rather than just really listening to her and trying to support her in his wishes.

Likewise, in HistoryChloé struggles with her responsibility to her aunt: after Gaston’s funeral, she is asked to stay and take care of Denise and, as Messud puts it, “sort of thinks: Should I? Why do I have to do it? And I was that person. I wasn’t as kind as I would have liked. Ultimately, it was Messud’s family archives that helped her have compassion for her younger self and better understand the loved ones who would inspire her characters. These archives consisted of photos and certificates; letters between his grandparents, parents and extended family members; and a nearly 500-page memoir written by his grandfather, which he titled Everything we believe in.

Reading these words directly from the source, Messud says, “from people whose real voices I knew so well – my mother, in particular, was a wonderful writer – allowed me to see aspects of their personality that I didn’t know. .” In her role as a novelist, she feels an accumulation of time and experience. “I think my job is to create an absence of myself, to convey people as they are, not as others want them to be. That was part of the learning journey of this book: getting out of the way. I think I used this metaphor 20 years ago, but it still rings true for me. As a writer, you are a security hacker. You listen for the “click” as things fall into place.

One of the things that “clicked” for Messud was how identity is tied to place. The pieds-noirs of Algeria existed because France had colonized the country. Their population grew to nearly a million, but when they exercised their French citizenship rights or settled in France, they were often victims of great racism and prejudice. “I feel like at the beginning of this century we can’t leave all this behind,” Messud says. “In our own country, questions of identity, racism and slavery are not far behind us. »

Gaston and François, in their professional lives – Gaston as a naval officer and bureaucrat, and François as an executive at a large aluminum company – embrace the idea that the world is increasingly connected. positive manners. (Messud pushes up her thick black glasses frames and sighs. “We haven’t done a great job of that,” she says.) But what’s telling is that the two men share a common vision of world peace had very different marriages. While Gaston and Lucienne stick to the traditional model, in which a husband ventures into the outside world and a wife takes care of the house and the children, François and Barbara begin their partnership at the dawn of a great societal change. As Francis chases money and promotions, political events affect his company’s fortunes, and as his wife begins working and their daughters enter college, he becomes increasingly angry and devoted. in Tanqueray. François, irascible, reserved but devoted, represents the first generation aspect of Messud’s own legacy: his father, the one who chose a completely new path on a new continent and the one who made the author’s work possible .

“In life, you realize that things that may superficially seem like failures are actually amazing acts of great perseverance, courage, love and grace,” Messud says. “I wrote this book for both my parents, but my mother, who was adorable, knew she was loved. In an important way, this book is for my father, who always doubted his own kindness.

She continues: “I have needed to write (this book) for a long time, and only now have I been able and ready to write it. I hope people enjoy it. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Because the fact is, I wrote it and it’s there, and it makes sense to me.

Messud opened the vault of his family history, giving new life to his family’s precious memories through storytelling. The real members of the Messud family, including the author’s children, have a new perspective on their journey. And the fictional Cassars of Tlemcen, Algeria, now belong to the whole world.

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