Thursday, May 30, 2024

“This Strange Eventful History,” Reviewed

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What becomes of an attaché when the country he is attached to vanishes? In “This Strange Eventful History,” by Claire Messud, a thirty-four-year-old French naval officer in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki) learns that Nazi troops have breached the gates of Paris. Every matter is suddenly a pressing one, even his attendance at a cocktail reception at the Romanian consul’s home that evening. Should he go? If so, who, exactly, would he be representing? “We haven’t ceased to exist. We haven’t ceased to be French,” he tells himself, trying to make it true. The naval attaché, Gaston Cassar, had been sent to Salonica the year before, in 1939, to spy on Mussolini’s men in the Aegean Sea. But now, with the theatre of war shifted, he finds himself marooned in a “remote and irrelevant backwater.”

Feeling “rudderless,” Gaston lies on his bed, a crucifix hovering on the wall above him. Looking down at his own naked, forsaken body, he sees a man “far from combat, womanish, a eunuch cowering at the sidelines of the war,” his penis “dangling uselessly.” He has two options to revive his manhood: he can bravely heed the call of Charles de Gaulle, who, by radio, urges all French soldiers who “want to remain free” to make their way to London to join the Resistance, or he can take a post in Beirut that would safely reunite him with his wife, Lucienne. The latter, however, would mean serving the Vichy regime. Love of country thus becomes a question of love or country. Gaston answers his siren’s call, reasoning that he and Lucienne are “two halves from Plato’s Symposium, who had found each other and their life’s purpose.” Theirs is a love so fervent that it triumphs over nationalism, a different mythos of the unified whole.

The Cassars will need such a love. Their country will disappear yet again, seemingly in the blink of an eye—as it always feels to people who have not been watching closely. Gaston, Lucienne, and their two small children are pieds noirs, people of European descent born in French colonial Algeria. In 1962, Algeria won its independence from France. Afterward, eight hundred thousand pieds noirs—nearly all those still remaining (many had begun to flee as the fighting intensified in the years prior)—left the country for France alongside tens of thousands of Harkis, Muslim Algerians who had fought for the French colonial government. Once in the metropole, the pieds noirs were regarded as alien interlopers from the fringes, dirtied by the dirty work of empire. And so, even though Gaston goes straight to his wife, the novel is an odyssey tale. Without a country, the Cassar children traverse the globe, from Paris to Sydney, Havana to Toulon, seeking all-consuming love affairs, desperate to belong to someone, if not to some place. They want to claim and be claimed, with little concern for whose home they might be wrecking.

Messud, the daughter of a pied noir father and a Canadian mother, was born in the U.S., raised in Sydney and Toronto, and educated at Yale and Cambridge. (She now works at Harvard University, where she teaches creative writing alongside her husband, the New Yorker staff writer James Wood.) Her novels frequently feature characters who are adrift and unmoored, with complex lineages that scan as vaguely foreign wherever they are. We watch others try to discipline those unruly identities, awkwardly forcing their historical baggage into cramped boxes. In “This Strange Eventful History,” Messud lets the messiness of reality overflow the neatness of fiction, as if in defiance of this tendency. The novel brims with details, many likely gleaned from a fifteen-hundred-page family history, titled “Everything That We Believed In,” that her paternal grandfather left behind. Messud has used that document to craft something more interesting than a historical novel: a novel about history and the stories we tell ourselves about the role we play in it.

This is not the first time Messud has drawn fiction from family lore. Her sophomore novel, “The Last Life” (1999), a noirish investigation of the pied noir mentality, is built, like “This Strange Eventful History,” around three generations of a family, the LaBasses, who fled Algeria on the precipice of independence. They resettle in the South of France, where the grandfather overcompensates for his outsider status by bemoaning how the country has become “overrun with immigrants.” He sympathizes with the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who vigorously opposed Algerian independence: “To the last, he fought for our country, he believed in our people, he understood what it was, what it meant.” The politics of the patriarch’s children and grandchildren may veer from his by successive degrees, but the passage of time introduces new and more insoluble dilemmas. How do we atone for the crimes of our forebears, for blood shed before we drew breath? That question was made into doctrine by another North African, St. Augustine of Hippo, whom the family in “The Last Life” consider one of their own. For the LaBasses, colonialism is best conceived of through the Augustinian tenet of original sin, a formulation that allows them to admit fault but ultimately claim blamelessness.

It is Augustine, not the more obvious parallel Albert Camus (like Gaston, a pied noir “native son” of French Algeria), who proves key to Messud’s diagnosis of the settlers’ condition across her novels. The place the LaBasses and the Cassars long for, one that exists only in their imaginations, is of a piece with Augustine’s City of God—“that gilded metropolis which shimmers forever in an impossible tense”—which the narrator of “The Last Life” compares to “an Algeria forever French.” Gaston and Lucienne’s children imagine the country as a Garden of Eden from which their family was banished. Unable to rewrite history, they re-create myth, chasing the perfect love of their parents in a fruitless search for a time before the Fall, when all they could see was paradise to others’ hell on earth.

In 1953, Gaston’s firstborn, François, arrives in Massachusetts on a Fulbright fellowship. His fraternity brothers at Amherst College acknowledge his whiteness, but regard it as impure, murky. To French exchange students, “he was foreign, he knew, a (mostly) white colonial African from that mysterious terrain across the Mediterranean.” To the Americans, “he was completely indecipherable.” When he returns, tanned, from a trip to Florida, they joke, “Hey, rug merchant! Showing your true Ay-rab colors at last?” François immediately starts looking for a way out of his quandary, or, rather, a way into an uncomplicated identity. Naïvely, he chooses “husband.” He marries the Toronto-born Barbara, who sees in his exotic background a way into complication. Her parents, though, ask, in a panic, “Was he even fully white?” The attraction between the star-crossed, cross-cultural couple is electric and propulsive, lasting for years with unmitigated intensity. Barbara senses it as “a powerful longing that sometimes she felt even when he lay next to her in bed, the way sometimes she wanted a cigarette when she was already smoking a cigarette.”

Though François’s mysterious homelessness once thrilled Barbara, in time it comes to disturb the pair’s domestic idyll. While the couple are living in Switzerland (where François is studying business), Barbara returns alone to Canada to care for her ailing father. François feels that a covenant has been broken, as if Barbara’s citizenship in their marriage is at risk because of too much time spent abroad. In a moment of frustration, she rebukes him, telling François that he cannot understand her love for home because he has no home. She regrets the words as soon as they leave her mouth. She is, above all, “sad for him, in his loneliness without her, and sad for him that this strange background of his, this weird, provisional home to which he now alluded but which felt to her as chimerical as a mirage in the Sahara, had evaporated and left him rootless.”

François’s younger sister, Denise, is likewise looking for a love that will call her its own when no country will. She treats romantic rejection as a world-historic humiliation, because for her it is. When her married Parisian boss leads her on before refusing her, she feels abandoned not just by him but by all of France. Afterward, she “walks the streets of Paris in a gauzy cloud of disgrace, an object of derision at the office and in society on account of the mere accident of her birth.”

Denise’s journey to emotional fulfillment is made still more difficult by her sexuality. It’s hinted that she’s a closeted lesbian. Perhaps as a result, she fixates on men who are out of reach—married or far away or, ideally, both. During a stay in Buenos Aires, she becomes infatuated with a man she meets there, and concocts a fantasy relationship with him “from the slightest evidence”—the occasional letter, his “intent gaze” over a chaste lunch. Years later, Denise learns that her dream man in Argentina is an inveterate womanizer. Face to face with reality, she becomes irate: “She’d been a fool, enamored of a figment, had created the soul of a man who never existed.” She is a woman who chooses to remain at the edges of reality because she knows she cannot count on it. She has seen the ground beneath her disappear once before. Why not live in the clouds?

She is far from alone. The Cassar offspring all walk around in a fictitious world, starting with the myth of their parents’ marriage, a fairy-tale beginning they seek for themselves to no end. But an errant disclosure turns that, too, to rubble. Messud treats family secrets as their own genre, one that’s governed by specific rules of revelation. Secrets make themselves felt over the longue durée—thus the novel’s epic scale. Yet Messud also sifts through decades of daily life, in all its archival detail, to show what keeps people from asking too many questions in the meantime. Halfway through the novel, Gaston, speaking at his and Lucienne’s anniversary party, says something unexpected. “But what did he say? What did he say?” the narrator probes. No one had been listening, too distracted were they by “the exhausted children, the tipsy husbands, the mothers discreetly rubbing their sore feet or sneaking one last gulp of rosé, or worrying they’d suddenly got their period and might stand to reveal a bloodstained skirt.” In the din, the secret at the heart of Gaston and Lucienne’s marriage goes nearly unheard; their love turns out to be as taboo as the pieds noirs’ love for Algeria.

Like the Cassars, “This Strange Eventful History” deals with conflict largely by pretending it’s not there. Though the novel makes reference to most major events of the twentieth century, from the Cuban missile crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it skips the Algerian War, jumping from 1953 to 1962, marking the fighting with no more than the blank page that separates chapters. The Arab and Berber experiences of French colonial rule are likewise paid scant attention. As Lucienne tries to find lodging in L’Arba during the Second World War, she notices its inhabitants only to observe that “even the sections of the town traditionally inhabited only by Muslim families were sprinkled now with white faces.”

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