From Claire Messud in this fantastic article in Vulture and here she is talking about her break-through novel, The Emporer’s Children and how she came to write a novel so different from her previous works:
“Of course, you wrote that for the money,” even a few good friends told Messud, assuming she’d finally taken Hitchens’s advice (or maybe followed her husband’s haute-populist prescriptions). In fact, she says, those short chapters and quippy sentences were all she could manage between feedings of her infants. “I had a memory span about as long as the lines in a school play,” she says. “It was like a book by somebody else. The idea that there was any plan or strategy—” Well, she did try something new. “I had never been very interested in plot,” she says. “I felt I should practice drawing hands.” But gone were the days when she went over her sentences so many times that she memorized them. “It’s actually a good thing not to be able to recite every last line,” she says. “Lighten up a little!”
The Woman Upstairs is another swerve, a departure from both the ornate early books and its social-novel predecessor. The title is a play on The Madwoman in the Attic, a feminist study of Victorian literature, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. It’s an intense, digestible work, whose real subject is the ways women try to balance work, family, and dreams.
Which all reminds me of this that I read in Motherlode (The New York Times today, “Breastfeeding Killed My Focus On Work. I Don’t Miss It” by Shoba Narayan:
As a feminist who believes herself to be equal to any man, it is easy for me to take umbrage at Mr. Jones’s remarks. As a mother who enjoyed having babies to bosom, it is difficult for me not to nod in agreement. When you are caught up with a baby — your baby — the world does fall away. Petty competitions do not make sense any more. Trading does seem like small change relative to the rich rewards of motherhood.
I find myself drawn to a small phrase in Mr. Jones’s diatribe that nobody seems to have noticed or remarked on. Forget the female body references that got everyone’s goat. (“As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it.”) Forgive the finality with which he dismissed women’s futures as traders — “never,” “period.” Focus instead on the relationship that Jones described in poetic terms: “the most beautiful experience, which a man will never share, about the connection between that mother and that baby.” Do you hear the envy in that phrase? Do you hear the longing of a parent who wants to experience that “connection”? I do.
Which is not to say that you don’t mourn the loss of status that comes with falling into the love of motherhood and that you’re not scared of the danger this represents, but that there is something important about fighting for that love and for that impact to be recognised as valid in self-actualisation. These are very much the kinds of thoughts swirling around me here with posts like this of mine – “Some women want to stay home with children and feminism needs to make peace with that”.
But back to Messud and there are so many quotes of hers I enjoyed in that article about her home-life and this exchange between her and her husband, the critic James Wood is pretty delightful; it’s about ‘selfhood’ in a relationship (a topic that preoccupies me somewhat):
“That’s not true—can we stop that dog?”
“We can bottle her,” says Wood.
“Especially since having children,” Messud continues, “a lot of the time if you ask me ‘Have you read that book?’ the answer would be ‘not personally.’ [BARK!] The household has read it! I’m like the dog eating the leftovers, preying on James’s erudition.” (“On my employment,” Wood mutters, deflecting the compliment.)
“But the embarrassing [BARK!] truth,” she continues, “is that we probably spend more time together than almost anybody we know.”
“It’s funny, in a way, that you don’t have a room of your own,” Wood says. He has a work room upstairs, Messud an office elsewhere, but she often just works around the house. “On the one hand, there is this continuous marital exchange, but on the other there’s an independent thing going on, which is [BARK!] that her work is a life very separate from me [BARK!].”
“And you from me, which is as it should be,” says Messud. “When James says he writes his pieces between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.—it’s not just the children that he’s escaping.”
“I think there’s something to that,” Wood says. “That something is claimed at the expense of the [BARK!]—God, it’s not working tonight”—meaning the “bottling.” “That there’s an assertion of need and space and—”
“Selfhood,” says Messud.
“Selfhood it absolutely is,” says Wood. “Neither of us is good at boundaries.”
To explain, Wood recites two sections from Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, passages about what children can do to a woman—first to her body, then to her work (“like an insect’s poison injected into a vein”). It’s an oddly brutal thing to read to the mother of your children. At the end of the second passage, the narrator abandons her family. “Nora’s a softy compared to this,” says Wood. Messud is listening stoically, and I begin to wonder if she might even be a little jealous of this unhinged narrator. Then Wood pivots to discuss “this strong counter-impulse” they both feel: “Fuck the outside world. Fuck the work. Children are right in front of you. That’s the work, and the joyous work.”