Authors: Claire Messud
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Copyright Â© Claire Messud
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This is a work of fiction The characters are the products
of the author's imagination Any resemblance to an actual
person is purely coincidental
The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Virginia
Center for the Creative Arts where part of this book was written
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Messud, Claire, 1966â
The last life a novel/by Claire Messud
ISBN 978-0-15-601165-5 (pbk)
1 French AmericansâFiction I Title
PS3563 E8134L37 1999
813' 54âdc21 99-25612
Text set in Dante MT
Designed by Lori McThomas Buley
Printed in the United States of America
M O Q S T R P N
For J. W.
He who puts on wisdom, puts on grief; and a heart that understands cuts like rust in the bones.
It is only for the sake of the dreams that visit it that the world of reality has any certain value for us. Will not the dreams continue, when the reality has passed away?
âWilliam Hurrell Mallock,
Is Life Worth Living?
I am American now, but this wasn't always so.
I've been here a long timeâsix years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before thatâand have built a fine simulacrum of real life. But in truth, until now I've lived, largely, inside. These small rooms on New York City's Upper West Side are my haven: an ill-lit huddle of books and objects, a vague scent that is home. I've been waiting, although I could not, until he appeared, have given earthly shape to what I waited for. "By pining, we are already there; we have already cast our hope, like an anchor, on that coast. I sing of somewhere else, not of here: for I sing with my heart, not my flesh."
I'm not American by default. It's a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn't known this? It is the same, for the Korean saleswoman or the Bangladeshi businessman or the Nigerian student, for the Iowan nurse and the Montanan secretary, as it is for me: Americanness draws a veil, it lends a carapace to the lives we hold within.
Wherever we have come from, there ceased to be room, or words, or air; only here is breathing possible. The guilt does not evaporate: I liveâhow can I not?âwith my burden of Original Sin. But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed.
Now I find myself wanting to translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France's southern coast; with the fragrances and echoes of my grandfathers Bellevue Hotel, perched above the vast Mediterranean in its shifting palette of greens and blues and greys; and, as a starting place, with the high season of 1989.
The beginning, as I take it, was the summer night of my fifteenth year when my grandfather shot at me. In this way every story is made up, its shape imposed: the beginning was not really then, any more than was the day of my brother's birth, or, indeed, of mine. Nor is it strictly true that my grandfather shot
I was not, by chance, in the line of fire; he did not know that I was there. But it was an event, the first in my memory, after which nothing was the same again.
Those summer evenings were all alike. As Marie-JosÃ© used to say, we had to make the time pass. Of its own accord, it didn't, or wouldn't: the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glaucous dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifitop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled. Every night the white, illuminated bulk of the island ferry ploughed its furrow across the water and receded to the horizon, the only marker of another day's passage.
Still almost children, we scorned the games of tag and cops and robbers that the younger kids delighted in, spiralling their pursuits outwards from the round benches by the parking lot to the furthest foliated corners of the grounds. Instead we idled, and smoked, and talked, and were so bored we made a virtue of being bored. And we flirtedâalthough most of us had known each other for years, and had spent each summer swimming and playing together, for so long that we knew each other's skin and laughter and illusions like our own, we flirted. It made the time pass. I can't recall now whose idea it was first, to swim at night. We spent our days in the water, in the murky, boat-bobbed brine of the bay, or in the electric indigo of the swimming pool, its surface skimmed with oily iridescence. We lived in our bathing suits, tiny triangles of color, and worked (it was the closest that we came to work) on bronzing our skin evenly, deeply, so it held its tinge even through the winter months. We filed from beach to pool to beach again, up and down the tortuous paths, past the aloes in which, in earlier years, we had carved our initials, careful scars in the prickled, rubbery flesh. Why we felt the need to swim again, I do not know: perhaps because our water games were still those we had always played, a sphere into which self-consciousness had not yet intruded. We tussled in pairs on the pool's rim, struggling to push each other in, jumped from the overhanging balustrade into the shallows (although this maneuver had been strictly forbidden since a guest had cracked his skull attempting it), flaunted our elegant leaps from the diving board and, squealing, chased each other the length of the pool, the prize a firm shove on the top of the head and a spluttering sinkage.
Our games echoed in the trees. The higher our pitch the more we felt we enjoyed ourselves. In the daytime, the adult guests lounged in disgust by the water's edge, cursing our explosions and the rain of chlorinated droplets that they scattered; or else, stoic and frowning, they forged a measured breaststroke through our midst, their wake immediately swallowed by our flapping arms and legs. But at night the pool, lit from below, wavered, empty, avoided by the grown-ups who wandered through the distant hotel bar or dawdled, debating, over endless suppers, their voices rising and falling in the cicada-chorused air. The nearest thing to swimmers were the swooping bats that shot along the waterline in search of insects, attracted by the light.
And so, around ten o'clock one evening in July, or possibly even later, Thierryâthe son of the accountant, a boy who never seemed to grow and whose voice obstinately refused to change, who compensated for his size with awkward arrogance and tedious pranksâsuggested that we chase away the bats and reclaim the shimmering depths for ourselves. Familiar in the sunlight, the pool in the dark was an adventure, all shadows around it altered. We had no towels and, beneath our clothes, no suits, so we stripped naked, our curves and crevices hidden by the night, and plunged in.
We were a group of eight or nine, the children for whom the hotel was home and those for whom it was each summer the equivalent. Our groupings and sinkings and splashings were more exciting for our nakedness, our screams correspondingly more shrill. We didn't think of the adults: why would we? We didn't even think of time. The night swim was a delicious discovery, even though our heads and arms, when protruding to the air, were cold, and our bodies riddled with goose bumps. Ten minutes, maybe twenty. We weren't long in the water, and it is still difficult to believe we were so very loud, when my grandfather emerged onto his balcony, a dark form against the living room lights, with the bulge of the plane tree like a paleolithic monster yapping at his feet.
He declaimed, his voice hoarse and furious. People were trying to think, to sleep. This was a place of rest, and the hour unconscionable ... In short, we had no right to swim. We dangled, treading water, cowed into silence for a moment until someoneâThierry, no doubtâbegan to hiss across to me, half-laughing, inaudible to my grandfather, about how the old prick should be silenced.
"Tell him you're here," he whispered. "Just tell him you're here and that'll shut him up. Go on. Or else he'll blabber on all night. Go on!"
OthersâMarie-JosÃ© and Thibaud and CÃ©cile and the restâtook up his exhortation: "Go on, Sagesse, go on." Their voices lapped like waves that my grandfather, slightly deaf and still ranting, could not distinguish.
"Grand-pÃ©re," I shouted, finally, my voice high as a bell. "It's us. It's me. We're sorry. We didn't mean to disturb you."
"Get out right now," he yelled back. "Get out, get dressed and go home. It's the middle of the night." Everyone sniggered at this: we believed that people who went to bed, who got up in the morning and went to work, were some kind of a joke. "Does your father know you're here?"
"Yes, Grand-pÃ¨re, he knows."
My grandfather snorted, disgusted, a theatrical snort. "Go home, all of you," he said, and turned, fading back into the light, regaining his features and the high, greyed dome of his forehead.
We scrambled from the pool, a dripping huddle, muttering.
"Your grandfather, man," said Thierry, jumping up and down with his hands clasped over the shadow of his genitals. "He's something else."
"It's not Sagesse's fault," said Marie-JosÃ©, putting a damp arm around me. "But he is, you know, a jerk."
"He's a bastard to work for, my father says," said a skinny girl called Francine, her teeth chattering. Her father was the head groundsman.
"My father says the same," I said. Everyone laughed, and just then a bat nose-dived and almost clipped the tops of our heads. We screamed in unison, and tittered guiltily at our screaming.
"Be careful," said Thibaud, one of the summer residents, the son of nouveaux riches from Pans and the boy I had my eye on. "Or he'll come back out." He growled. "Rottweiler."
We dissolved again.
That was the first night. Marie-JosÃ© dropped me at home on her moped; my clothes stuck clammily to my skin and my long hair was damp and viciously tangled by the wind. She waved and blew a kiss from within her bubbled helmet, and as she putted back along the white gravel drive to the road, my mother opened the door.
Our house, the home in which I had lived most of my life, had the same marble stillness as the hotel, the same capacity for echoes and light. You could feel people in it or, more likely, their absence, even standing in the foyer before the naked statue of Venus on her pedestal, with the brushed aluminum elevator door like another artwork beside her. The front hall stretched up two stories, and the air high above seemed to hover, waiting to be disturbed.
My mother could slip through the house without moving that air, when she chose to. Her face, too, could remain stillâwhen she spoke, when she was nervousâlike a terrified mask, with its sharp planes and dark, hooded eyes.
"Not in bed?" I asked, as casual as I could be, plucking at my tats with my fingers as I pushed past her into the living room.
She fidgeted with the buttons of her blouse, and spoke to me in English, her language and that of my earliest childhood, used now between us only as the language of confidences and reprimands. "Your grandfather called."
"He did?" I sank into the middle section of the huge, death-white sofa, aware that my jeans would leave two wet bulbs beneath my buttocks. I spoke in French. "And how was he?" I put my feet on the coffee table, careful not to go too far even as I indulged in this act of war: I placed them on a large, perfectly positioned book, and did not touch, let alone smear, the polished glass.
My mother took silent note. "Livid."
I waited, busy with my hair, tangling and untangling it like Penelope at her loom.
"He's furious with you and your friends. All that noise! In the middle of the night, Sagesse! The hotel is full of guests, for God's sake."
"It wasn't very late. All we did was go swimming. It's one of the rules, that we be allowed to. He didn't have to yell at us."
"Your grandfather is under a great deal of strain."
"He's a jerk is what he is, who yells at people just because he can. Some of themâRenaud, or Thibaud, or CÃ©cile and Laureâthey're guests at the hotel. What right does he have to do that?"
"Your grandfatherâ" My mother's eyes were pleading, her hands open to the ceiling and then slapped, suddenly, with a click of exasperation, to her sides. "I don't want to talk about your grandfather and what's wrong with him. That's not the point."
"The point is an abuse of privilege."
Small and neat, my mother had done her best to impersonate a Frenchwoman: her dark hair was pulled back in a tidy chignon, her blouses and skirts were cut in the latest fashion, and she favored trim, navy cardigans that pointed up the slimness of her shoulders. But something in her face, in the shape of her head or the way that she held it, gave away her foreignness, the way a transvestite is betrayed by her wrists or the line of her back. Perhaps it was simply anxiety; my mother was constantly anxious. But the result was an inability to take command. Her scoldings were always halfhearted, as if she didn't really believe in them, as if she were criticizing herself and found the duty excruciating.
Then again, there was the awkwardness of my mother trying to assume the voice of her father-in-law: for too long, forever, I had heard and overheard the railing, the whining, the furyâthe range of melodramatic expostulations that characterized my mother's emotional expressionâmuch of it directed against her husband's family, against the very man whom she was now forced to represent; and if not, then against the whole of France, in a sweeping, metonymical gesture that fooled no one. The criticism never fell where we all, silently, sinkingly, knew that it must, on the key to her imprisonment: my brother Etienne.