Monday, July 29, 2013
The Last Life is blurbed as being "the story of teenage Sagesse LeBasse and her family, repatriated French Algerians. It is set in colonial Algeria, the south of France and New England. . . . When shots from the grandfather's rifle shatter an evening's quiet, their world begins to crumble . . . ." OK. Let's start with just that. It took me until I was half way through the book to be certain that the hotel which Segasse's family owns is in France and not Algeria. Admittedly, that may be due in large part to my lack of understanding of the conflicts between the native Algerians and the French. This lack of understanding was central to the narrative, with Segasse's mom not understanding that there had been a conflict, and Segasse's grandparents not understanding what the conflict meant to Segasse's dad.
Segasse's grandfather does shoot his rifle and injure people at the hotel, but the shooting is sort of a red herring. It is a part of the story, but not the whole focus. No one ever stops to ask why. Why did the grandfather shoot the gun? We don't know, and no one asks. Why does Segasse's father betray the family? No one asks. Each person in the LeBasse family is so focused on their internal injuries and scars that they don't seem to know the people around them. The idea of family is emphasized by the characters as being of great importance, but time and again stories emerge of family members being cast aside for little reason or for no reason at all.
Segasse's brother, Etienne Parfait, is one of the interesting pieces. Something happened during Etienne's birth that caused him to be deprived of oxygen for so long that he was left "severely mentally retarded", and confined to a wheelchair. Messud does a great job of describing the challenges that a teenage Segasse would face in introducing her friends to her brother. Segasse treats it as a privilege and a test to meet Etienne. If her friends don't react well to him, they are out. Segasse loves Etienne, and seems to realize that what happened to him could have happened just as easily to her. She struggles with the question of what Etienne can actually understand, and with him growing older but not improving.
Etienne leads to another interesting piece. His name, according to Google Translate, means "Stephen Perfect". Of course, when Segasse's parents named Etienne, they already knew that he would never be "perfect", but they stuck with the name that they had chosen. Segasse calls him "plus-que-parfait", which she translates to "more than perfect" or "pluperfect". Messud plays with the pluperfect tense throughout the novel. At one point, she describes it as being "the tense where there had been a future", and by implication, where the future no longer exists. This tense is applied to the LeBasse's life in Algeria, where they thought that their future was, but of course, it was not. In Part Nine of the book, Messud writes whole chapters in the pluperfect, describing the brother that her father never had. I like the idea of the pluperfect tense as Messud uses it, and marveled that anyone ever learns to speak English with all of the ridiculous tenses that I must use, but have never even heard of. When I looked up the tense in Wiki and in Merriam Webster, I found that it just means "past perfect" (ex: "had thought"), which is no where near as intriguing as "a tense where there had been a future." I propose a new definition.
The last interesting piece is Messud's writing style. The first thing that threw me was her love of the run on sentence. Now I'm a lawyer, and I didn't think anyone liked run on sentences more than we do, but clearly I was wrong. One that I noted (page 116, if you don't believe me) has 102 words, 12 commas, 4 semi colons, 1 colon, 1 set of parentheses, and finally, 1 period. Yes, I noted this because it was long even by Messud standards, but it was not crazily different from any number of other sentences. Messud also seemed to try to use words in their less common meaning. For instance, she used the word "bluff" 4 times that I noticed in the novel, but never as either a fib or a geographic feature. "He was bluff, but not convincingly so. . ." " . . .my father's humor, easy, bluff, rolled into our evening. . . ." I was tempted to buy the book on Kindle just so that I could search for certain words to see where and when they were used, but it wasn't available.
I have read The Emperor's Children, which is also by Messud, but was written later. Although The Emperor's Children wasn't one of my favorite books when I read it, there are two characters who are still with me. The first is the pretentious Julius, who pretends that his only suit is his "signature suit", to explain why he is always wearing it. The second is the lost Bootie, whose poverty in New York City, when finally discovered, is shocking to the self absorbed relatives who thought that they were supporting him. I don't remember the run on sentences or the odd usage of words in this later book, and I'm not sure whether to attribute that to Messud's maturity, or her effort to use that style in The Last Life to create a voice for Segasse. I will be interested to see if The Last Life sticks with me like The Emperor's Children has.
The Last Life was a NYT Notable Book for 1999. It is also my penultimate book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.
Next Up: Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
Still Listening to: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett