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'Kant’s Little Prussian Head And Other Reasons Why I Write': Claire Messud On Her Life As A Writer And Reader

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Claire Messud
Ulf Andersen/Ulf Andersen
Claire Messud in 2017.

Claire Messud’s latest book, is "Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays." Even with such an idiosyncratic title, the collection of previously published essays welcomes in readers who appreciate the fraternal twins of language and literature as what she calls an “astonishing invention.” She’s hard-pressed to give that due to any other modern convenience during life’s challenging moments — for ourselves as individuals or, indeed, for ourselves as part of a global community.

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Highlights from the Interview with Claire Messud

On the book’s enigmatic title
So the title comes actually from a novel by Thomas Bernhard… and in his book, he talks about the fact that whatever exists in literal terms and exists in the world, we only retain a small portion of it. And I don't know if that's true for you, but it's certainly true for me that I can read a novel and really love it. And six months later, if you ask me about it, I'll remember maybe one scene or three scenes or, you know, a couple of images, a character. So there’s this constant struggle with language that we’re trying to save what we have, what we know and our experiences and what's in our imaginations.

On language — what she calls “the greatest invention”
Isn't that the coolest though? I mean, I realize what I'm saying is not especially sophisticated, but I feel we live in a time when there's so much to be astounded about. I was with our kids… with our son, and we were watching the Ken Burns documentary about the gene study. And the extraordinary thing that in the past 50 years it's become possible to read the human genetic code, you know, DNA. Incredible, you know, but there are cool things that happened to us before, and language is just the coolest thing.

On this book — and books in general
One thing I would say is that the great thing about a book is that it will always be there. So in the moment when you can't bear anymore about the election and you can't hear another word on the radio about the pandemic, the books are all there waiting for us. They're like the best friends you ever had. They never abandon us. And so I think in a way that that's what my book of essays is-- my testament to how important that's been for me and in my life, that through, thick and thin and ups and downs that the word and the sentence and the paragraph, and novels and nonfiction books… that all these, all these things have sustained and nourished me and helped me grow as a person… I guess the book is sort of a love letter to my family and a love letter to books.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.