Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is fiercely intelligent and urgently intimate, written with precision, humor, and an incredible command of language. Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is living a life of quiet desperation after her mother's death when she meets the Shahids — Sirena, a successful and enchanting Italian artist; Skandar, a brilliant professor of the ethics of history; and their charming son, Reza, a child in Nora's class. Nora falls in love with them all, in varying ways, and these relationships bring her ecstasy, artistic freedom, and, eventually, shattering pain and fury.
In a starred review, Kirkus called The Woman Upstairs "an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms....Brilliant and terrifying," and in another starred review, Booklist raved, "Messud’s scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force." The Woman Upstairs may be the renowned author's finest work yet.
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Claire Messud: There were several, I think. If you'll bear with me, I can tell you a few.
One impetus was a feeling as a reader that I had all my life read and greatly appreciated the ranting voices of misfit, dissatisfied, or antihero men, but I didn't know of any female equivalents. So part of me wanted to write in the voice of a woman whose voice had not been heard.
Another aspect for me was the whole question of the interior life. I think that's something that is absolutely universal. In Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog," the protagonist — who's had many affairs but who has for the first time fallen in love with his mistress — reflects on the fact that what is most important to him, only he knows. It's completely secret, and nobody around him is aware of the things that matter to him most. Then he has the apprehension that this is true for everybody, so that all around him, he doesn't actually know what's most important to all the people he thinks he knows.
This is, to me, a book that is trying to articulate one person's interior life — what goes on behind the scenes. Related to that is the question of the relation of that interiority to an external world. I'm always interested in that. The epigraph to my last novel was from Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and I'm misquoting somewhat, but basically it says that it's not what happens to you but what you think happens to you that matters. I wanted to try to write about that.
It's also about a time — in midlife, I guess — when you realize that everything doesn't lie ahead, that some things are behind you, that some possibilities are no longer open to you. How do you contend with that? How do you find a way forward?
All of these things went into it. All of these together — can they make a single genesis? I don't know.
Jill: In terms of the relation between the interior and the exterior world, Nora is speaking almost directly to the reader; she declares herself an unreliable narrator early on, when she says she's always been prone to exaggeration. But she has such a strong and passionate voice, and she seems like she's sort of trying to pick apart what happened with this and to be as honest as she can be. That was an interesting dynamic to me.
Messud: I think the truth is that each one of us is unreliable in varying degrees. She is both reliable and unreliable. It's been interesting; Nora is now in the world and everybody's free to have whatever response to her they may have. I've had a couple people ask me, "Is she crazy? Is she unreliable to the point where she's telling us things that simply didn't happen?" I was really surprised because it never crossed my mind for a moment that people would read Nora that way, that they would think she's making things up.
But, of course, it's true that from actual, factual events she creates an emotional intimacy with her new friends that might not be the experience that they would narrate if they were telling the story. In that sense, she makes something up. But I think we all do, inevitably. It's the Rashomon thing. If you have five people in a room who all have the same experience, each will tell the story differently. I guess you could call it the Gospel thing, too.
Jill: There's also the conversation she has with Skandar about deciding what comes first in a story — how to set up the narrative and how that will affect what the reader or the listener takes as important and interprets. You begin in this book with her fury, which is such a powerful and refreshing concept and image.
Messud: Yes, and that's how I wrote it and that's what I always intended. But along the way, there were early readers who said, "What if you just took that out and started with the second chapter, which begins with Nora meeting Reza, the little boy, in the supermarket." And it would be a different book.
Messud: I'm glad you felt that because that was my hope. As a teenager I read Notes from Underground, and it was exhilarating for me; I hadn't known that fiction could do that. I hadn't known that it could be an urgent and intimate address that would seem as though somebody had grabbed me by the arm as I was walking down the street and shared their most intimate thoughts with me. I had loved reading fiction all my life, but I had not known that it could do this, too. Yes, certainly some sense of urgency or immediacy was very much part of writing this book. I'm glad if it was part of your experience of reading it, too.
Jill: When you mentioned loving the misfits that you found in male writers and not having equivalent female characters that you'd found, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a male friend of mine recently about why more men don't read books by women. He said one reason was that he assumed that he wouldn't find the kind of voice that he's interested in and that he associates that voice with male writers because that's where he's found it in the past, which seems related to that idea.
Messud: Interesting. I have been pleasantly surprised — which makes it sound as though I was expecting otherwise, but I didn't know what to expect — in reading reviews of this book, to feel so well and thoughtfully and carefully read not just by women readers but by men as well. There have been reviews by male reviewers where I thought, You engaged absolutely as I would've hoped. I don't know that I expected that, so that's been exciting.
Jill: The fact that the character's name is Nora, and her art, and her references throughout the book to dollhouses, obviously has some resonance because of the Ibsen play A Doll's House. I think you've also mentioned her name in relation to Joyce. How did you think about playing with those connections?
Messud: The bottom line is I've always liked the name Nora, which is pedestrian but true. [Laughter] But I think they are different ends of a spectrum, if you will, and maybe they're not even related. Nora Barnacle was... I don't know who she was exactly or how she was, but certainly our understanding is that she was untrammeled. In a Joycean sense, the Joycean Nora is in some way the liberated and fulfilled woman that my Nora feels she is for about a nanosecond, at one moment in the book. The Nora of Ibsen's play, in many ways, is very different from this Nora. The Nora in Ibsen's play is somebody who is kept from being her authentic self or feels she has been by her marriage and the constraints of a society that push her into a certain role as a wife and mother.
Nora Eldridge, in my book, obviously is single and doesn't have a household in the same way, but she is no less constrained. One of the realizations that she has had over the course of the book, that she describes in the rant at the beginning, is that many of her constraints are self-imposed. And she has — whether it was the collusion of society or not, you can have a debate about that — butshe has managed to create for herself as many limitations and constraints as Ibsen's Nora had imposed upon herself over 100 years ago.
Jill: One of the great pleasures of the novel for me was her breaking out of those restraints. She's ecstatic, as you said, for a nanosecond, while she's falling in love with the various members of this family. I loved when she's describing this sense of connection that she's suddenly feeling, as you write about "the lid coming off the world, as if the world were a dollhouse. You can glimpse what it would be like to see it whole from above," and how that happens fewer and fewer times as you become an adult.
Messud: That's one notion that comes out of my own experience in a book that is in so many ways not autobiographical. That is something that I remember happening when I was young and it occasionally happens now, but much less often. But it is a time of feeling the most alive. It's also on the edge of sanity, which I think is sometimes a question for Nora. I had a friend long ago who was bipolar, and when he was manic, his capacity to make connections would go into overdrive and he would make connections that were at once mad and brilliant. It was as if he were having that experience that we're discussing constantly, but it was becoming less and less grounded in reality.
It comes up also with her interest in the Chekhov story "The Black Monk," this question of, How much do we need delusions? Delusions that there's a pattern, delusions that there's a meaning, delusions that we have significance, delusions of the meaning of other people to us. Do we need those in order to be creative, in order to be free, in order to be strong? To what extent do we need what's real and what's not real?
Jill: There's a passage from your book The Last Life which seems related: "We need the might-have-been because we know it will not ever be; the imaginary is our sustenance, but the real is where we live, a reality of fragments."
Messud: Right. I actually believe we all do that in our lives all the time, even when we think we don't. It's been proven that the pessimists are actually the realists, so all of us who are holding out hope for anything, whatever it is, are perhaps entertaining fantasies. But necessary ones, right?
Jill: Yes, absolutely necessary ones. Children and their relationship to madness comes up a lot in this book. Nora says that someone told her that children have the dream logic of crazy people. What interests you about that, about the concept of childhood versus adulthood and sanity or delusion?
Messud: I think those are maybe two different questions. They're all big questions, but in the context of this book, the children are freer and the children are not mired in self-consciousness. The children are certainly not as far down the road of becoming what the world wants them to be. In that sense, if there's some question of what an authentic self is, children are more authentic. You know the fact that very small children make brilliant art and slightly bigger children, when they get slightly bigger, they can't do it anymore?
Jill: No, I didn't know that.
Messud: Yes, it's in part because they learn: this is how you draw a tree. This is how you draw a house. This is how you draw the sun. On the one hand, they want to please, and on the other, they fall prey to convention. What was unique and particular about the scrawls that they made or their bursts of color or whatever, slowly is normalized and the little pictures they draw become less interesting. And less interesting to them as well, which is why so many kids stop making art. Which means that the ones who don't stop making art are pretty interesting because they're holding onto something that others are losing, which is some sense that there is a way to convey experience that is outside convention, that isn't a purely conventional expression.
With somebody like Nora — whose question for so long has not been "Who am I?" but, in relation with the outside world, at least, "Who do you need me to be?" Who do her parents need her to be? Who do the kids in her class need her to be? Who do the parents of the kids in the class need her to be? And so on — she has held or kept alive inside her this almost child, this self that is just being and still aspires to create in a way that isn't bound by convention. That's part of the struggle, then, looking at what it means to be an artist in the world, because if the standards of the art world are what make you an artist, it is only by engaging in some way with the conventions other people have established that you can make art that the world will approve of, whether it's breaking those conventions or in some way responding to that new theme.
Sirena is an artist in the world. Does that make her, to Nora, fake? I don't know.
Jill: And that's something that Nora touches on. What does she really think of Sirena's art, in response to those questions and those considerations?
I always love good writing about visual art, and I really enjoyed the descriptions of both Nora's work and Serena's work. How did you think about creating those imaginary artworks?
Messud: I did go to a bunch of galleries and look up things online. In fact, there's an exhibit mentioned in the book that takes place at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, I think, that was a real exhibit of women's art. I was looking up that archive and reading some art theory and talking to my artist friends. But the bottom line was trying to inhabit each character in my mind and conceive how each of them might express her vision in the world. In the case of Nora, that seemed on one level relatively unproblematic; it was only problematic insofar as the demand was to inhabit Nora, and then she could make any art she wanted, precisely because it didn't have to respond to or satisfy any actual conventions that exist in the world. It didn't have to be good by anybody's standards, if you see what I mean.
But it was slightly more complicated for me with Sirena because my hope was that it wouldn't be something that you'd automatically say, "She couldn't possibly be successful with that." Although I'm sure there are people who will say that.
Jill: Also in the book, there's Nora's relationship with her family: her mother has recently died, and she's grieving that as well as trying to live her life in a way that isn't as frustrating as her mother's life was.
Messud: For me, that's a very large part of the book, as it's a very large part of where Nora is in her life and who Nora is. I wanted to write about that, about the constraints that exist for Nora, which she has maybe created for herself — she has inherited her mother's frustration. It has been passed on to her like the passing of a torch, and even though she lives in a world that's very different from the world in which her mother's generation was living, she carries a legacy.
Nora is my generation. She's my age. I know that, for me, my mother was a feminist, but she was also somebody who by 1970, when Ms. magazine was founded and The Female Eunuch was published, was 37 with two children. She was not somebody who wanted to throw over her marriage and begin again, and she was not in a situation where she could fulfill certain ambitions without doing that. So she sacrificed those ambitions.
I gave a reading here in New York last week where somebody put up her hand — a woman younger than my mother but not that much younger, maybe 10 years — and said, "We had a revolution. I thought we sorted all this out."
But the fact is it's never all sorted out, in the same way that passing the Civil Rights Act didn't end racism in America.You can make great strides, but the history doesn't go away. It's underneath us. It's inside us. It's behind us. It's around us. And it affects how we understand the world even when we don't realize it.
Jill: I really loved the beginning of the book where Nora states so bluntly that this is what happens when you're a girl growing up and you learn to put on these masks. It rang very true to me when she's describing how she feels a thrill of triumph even at being good at the mask. As Nora says, you're good at French and you're good at history and, oh, you realize, I'm good at this, too. I'm good at being this masked person in the world and hiding who I really am.
Messud: I'm glad that resonated for you. That's my hope.
It's a slight tangent, but I was talking with somebody just the other day, actually, about how wonderful the ages between 9 and 12 are for girls. But now that's changing. For me, the ages between 9 and 12 were great because it was before you wore any masks and you had some autonomy in the world. You had some freedom and you felt you had unlimited ambition. It's when you thought, I'm going to write plays. I'm going to be president. I'm going to do this; I'm going to do that. And then it all falls apart.
But now, kids have less and less physical freedom when they're 9 or 10. They tend to be older before they're allowed to ride their bikes everywhere, if ever. On the other hand, they are more worldly; they are more aware of the expectations of society because of technology, and along with those expectations, of the limitations that they are supposed to feel.
I feel as though this time for me, and I know for friends, too, was a halcyon time when you really felt everything could be yours. It's a time that's been shrunk almost out of existence by the changes in our society.
Books mentioned in this post