Travel Books

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

Gary was replaced by my stunned mother in her brown Austin Mini, a healthier but overall less speedy chauffeur whom we waited on the curb many times as we grappled with the gruesome causes of her delay: car accidents, conflagrations, a break Hals at the end of the long front stairs on Wolesley Road. Their main benefit upon arrival was their willingness to drive us straight to the Milk Bar in Rose Bay to buy candy bars, or better yet, to the neighboring bakery where we came out with chocolate cake platters or sticky buns, or hard-frozen confectionery called Lamingtons that we did Ate openly and happily in our uniforms with hats off, protected from the rules, from plundering prefects who could impose prison sentences, by our magical parents, whose own lips showed telltale traces of chocolate or sugar.

During this time we quickly learned the rules of the language, the codes of which are just as important to survival as those of school or Gary’s blue car. We’ve learned to speak with Australian accents, expanding certain vowels and closing others so that we sound just like our friends. Even though we were at home, we spoke to our parents like little Americans. and in the car one direction spoke in the back seat and another when he spoke to the front. We learned the slang (“Have a fab Chrissy!”) And the popular songs (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a recording of “Seasons in the Sun” but I know the lyrics perfectly from the playground) and the ones References for memorizing the ringing of the TV commercial that I can still sing to this day (“Sun and Surf, Here in Queensland, Super State!”). We dropped the North American traps as efficiently as we dropped our little red car, and we learned not to look back and not to look ahead, but to read the present in order to analyze its details as efficiently as possible. okay – that was certainly the hope; there is always hope of being considered a native. I do this in spite of myself, wherever I am, even now, including and least successful in France because I am half French; but always with the awareness that I will be found out, and with the question in the back of my mind how strange, how far out of realm I seem to fall to others. How far have I failed at my local masquerade?


Returning to our grandmother’s first Christmas was a shock, our first introduction to the persistent schizophrenia of troubled life. From Sydney’s beginning summer, its humid heat, we flew through days and nights to the snow-covered lawns of west Toronto, to the hedges and porches adorned with Christmas lights and the brown mud of the streets. We found my grandmother and her house and its beloved contents just as we had left them, although they were somewhat frayed from the fearful teeth of the Dachshund Small, who missed us, or above all missed Big, with whom he had shared everything since at the time of his birth made to gnaw the edges of the loom and scratch the doors with his claws. For a brief, delicious time we rediscovered our little room and in the morning our grandmother’s loft bed and her hairnet and her peculiar powdery, perfumed smell, as if we had never left her; and the trike was waiting in the basement, and the step stool on the tanning bed, the seat of which was patched with silver tape, was still creaking at its satisfactory rhythm.

The truth is that the other life, the hidden or the hidden, are neither less real nor as real as the life before us. It is infinitely more real, blossoms and wafts in the imagination in its fertility and abundance, colored and animated by so many objects, so many sounds and smells, so many tiny moments that can never, never be conveyed. It is wrong to see it as the past: so Sydney had only just begun; and Toronto was a constant in our lives and then a home for a while; Just like Toulon, the place chosen by my father’s family, remained the only unbroken bond in my life until a few years ago. They were gifts and presences at the same time, and somehow for that reason and in a magical way they have always remained present.

If I crossed the ocean today, wouldn’t I find my childhood friends dangling from monkey bars, dangling their ties, and their bonnets in a heap in the grass? At the end of another long journey, wouldn’t I find my grandmother with Small on her lap and her puckered fingers reaching for mine? And somewhere, even if I could only cover this distance – a few hours as the crow flies, but in truth unimaginably far – the red car with its shimmering fins and the house by the brook, the first bed and the first home, are just a place for me known to which I have always not quite belonged.

[ Return to the review of “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write.” ]

Show More

Related Articles