‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write,’ by Claire Messud: An Excerpt

Gary was replaced by my frazzled mother in her brown Austin Mini, a more salubrious but altogether less prompt chauffeur, for whom we wai...

Gary was replaced by my frazzled mother in her brown Austin Mini, a more salubrious but altogether less prompt chauffeur, for whom we waited at the curb many times while torturing ourselves with the grisly possible causes for her tardiness: car crashes, conflagrations, a broken neck at the bottom of the long front stairs on Wolesley Road. Her chief advantage, when she arrived, lay in her willingness to drive us directly to the Milk Bar in Rose Bay for chocolate bars, or, better yet, to the neighboring bakery, from which we emerged with slabs of chocolate cake, or sticky buns, or hard- frosted confections named lamingtons, which we ate openly, cheerfully, in our uniforms with our hats off, protected from the rules, from marauding prefects who might sentence detention, by our magical parent, whose own lips bore telltale traces of chocolate or sugar.

During this time, swiftly, we learned the rules of the language, its codes as vital for survival as those of the school or of Gary’s blue car. We learned to speak with Australian accents, broadening certain vowels and closing others, so that we would sound the same as our friends; although at home, we spoke to our parents like little Americans; and in the car, spoke one way in the backseat and another when addressing the front. We learned the slang (“Have a fab Chrissy!”) and the popular songs (I’m not sure I have ever heard a recording of “Seasons in the Sun,” but I know its lyrics perfectly from the playground), and the references, learning by heart the advertising jingles off the television, which I can sing to this day (“Sun and surf, it’s all so great, here in Queensland, super state!”). We let fall the North American trappings as efficiently as we had let go of our little red car, and we learned not to look back, and not to look forward, but instead to read the present, to parse its details as efficiently as possible, in order— this was surely the hope; it remains, always, the hope— to pass for a native. I do this in spite of myself wherever I am, even now, including, and least successfully, in France, because I am half French; but always with an awareness that I will be found out, and with the question, in the back of my mind, of how much of an oddity, how far outside the realm, I appear to the others to fall. By how far have I failed, in my local masquerade?


To return to our grandmother’s that first Christmas was a shock, our first introduction into the ongoing schizophrenia of the unsettled life. From Sydney’s incipient summer, its clammy heat, we flew through days and nights to the snowy lawns of western Toronto, to the hedges and porches festooned with Christmas lights and the brown slush of the streets. We found my grandmother and her house and its beloved contents the same as we had left them, though frayed somewhat by the anxious teeth of the dachshund, Small, who, missing us, or most importantly, missing Big, with whom he had shared everything since birth, had taken to gnawing the edges of the broadloom and scraping at the doors with his claws. For a brief, delicious time, we rediscovered our little room, and, in the mornings, our grandmother’s high bed, and her hairnet, and her particular powdery, perfumed smell, as if we’d never abandoned them; and the trike waited in the basement, and the stepping stool on the sunporch, its seat patched with silver duct tape, still creaked in its satisfying rhythm.

The truth is that the other life, the hidden one, or ones, is not the less real, nor as real, as the life before us. It is infinitely more real, blooming and billowing in the imagination in its fecundity and fullness, colored and enlivened by so many objects, so many sounds and smells, so many minute moments that can never, never be imparted. It is wrong to think of them as past: Sydney, then, was just beginning; and Toronto was, in our lives, a constant, and then, for a time, a home; just as Toulon, my father’s family’s chosen place, remained until just a few years ago my life’s one unbroken link. They were concurrent presents, and presences, and somehow because of this, and magically, they have remained always present.

If I crossed the ocean today, would I not find my childhood friends dangling from the monkey bars, their ties flailing and their crested hats in a pile upon the grass? Would I not find my grandmother, at the end of another long journey, with Small upon her lap and her warped fingers reaching out to hold mine? And somewhere, even, if I could only travel that distance— a few short hours as the crow flies, but unimaginably far in truth— is the red car with its glimmering fins, and the house by the stream, the first bed and the first home, known to me only as a place where always, already, I didn’t quite belong.

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Newsrust: ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write,’ by Claire Messud: An Excerpt
‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write,’ by Claire Messud: An Excerpt
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