Claire Messud

  • Fierce Attachments

    WHAT MAKES A PERSON HERSELF? And what, if that person is an artist, makes her the particular artist that she has become? These questions are surely essential and also, on some level, unanswerable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them. Sally Mann—whose fierce and glorious images have made her among the most acclaimed photographers of our time—was prompted to consider them by an invitation to give the Massey Lectures at Harvard University in 2011. The result is Hold Still, a memoir at once intimate and reserved.

    Mann titles the prologue of her book “The Meuse,” which is neither a typo for

  • Ticket to Read

    In times of transition, clarity can be hard to come by, and a lucid observer is invaluable. Such rare voices can seem, in the hubbub, easy to ignore: It has been almost twenty-five years since Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, and yet, rather like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, his valiant protest has—so far—failed to halt the juggernaut.

    The loss of the particular, private leisure of literary reading seems, arguably, of little importance next to the destruction of our planet. And just as there are those who insist that the ecosystem is perfectly sound, there are many who will contend

  • culture December 13, 2011

    On a Mystery Voyage with Michael Ondaatje

    Each book by Michael Ondaatje is, thrillingly, a departure, in some way unclassifiable. He is by no means a fantasist, but in the manner of a lyric poet (which he is also), he deploys juxtaposition and silence, as well as language and narrative, to create new worlds and new thoughts out of the real. Books like In the Skin of a Lion, Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, and Divisadero are fictions that provoke and unsettle as much as, and even sometimes more than, they delight. In Ondaatje’s work, predictable boundaries are always in question: Is this poetry or prose? Fact

  • Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This, surely, is one of the most oft-cited openers in literary history. The immediate, enduring popularity of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca makes perfect sense: Wreathed in shadows—our narrator likens Manderley to “the forest in a Grimm’s fairy tale”—the novel creates a terrifying, compelling hermetic world in which the conscious and the subconscious, the living and the dead, brush up against each other. So vividly depicted that we can see it, Manderley is a place where all boundaries are in flux: shore and sea, house and garden, inside and outside,

  • Death in the Family

    That Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is all but un-put-downable is a feat for any novel, and perhaps especially for a debut, but it is all the greater an accomplishment given that not a single cheerful event brightens this book’s nearly four hundred pages. Set in Addis Ababa during Ethiopia’s darkest days in the mid-1970s, from the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie through the reign of terror imposed by the Derg, the revolutionary council that seized power in Selassie’s wake, Mengiste’s remarkable novel is a catalogue of miseries and brutalities as relentless as any I have encountered in

  • Reflections

    Madison Smartt Bell

    Flannery O’Connor warned us some fifty years ago that any work of fiction burdened with instructional intent was doomed to become a tract. Or as Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

    Most American novelists seem to act on these principles (whether or not they’ve actually heard them announced). And there is something quite sound in the idea that flaming political passions make for bad art. The fact that it is extremely difficult to define the boundaries of any event while it’s happening has led American novelists to