“I am an American, Chicago born” is Augie March’s brash proclamation at the outset of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Sagesse LaBasse, however, is more subdued and more ambivalent. “I am an American now, but this wasn’t always so,” is how she begins her painful coming-of-age story and Claire Messud’s second novel, The Last Life. With “antennae for disaster,” Sagesse records a personal history shaped by revolution, exile, adultery, dementia, and suicide. Born in southern France to a father who came from Algeria and a mother who came from Massachusetts, she embraces America and its illusion of free choices and open futures hesitantly. She realizes how much her life has been implicated in the ordeal of the LaBasse clan and in the fate of French Algeria. As she composes her autobiographical account, twenty-five-year-old Sagesse is living in an apartment in New York City and studying the history of ideas at Columbia University. The ideas of Saint Augustine, the fourth century theologian who, like the LaBasses, lived in North Africa, provide Sagesse with the themes of individual responsibility and guilt that she tries to apply to her own troubling experiences.
The moment of Original Sin, according to Sagesse’s tentative first take, occurred during an evening in the summer of 1989, when she was fourteen. Her father’s father, Jacques, who had built the posh hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Côte d’Azur, was beginning to manifest symptoms of derangement. Disturbed by noisy gatherings of Sagesse and her teenage friends at the hotel pool one evening, Jacques took out his rifle and fired at them, wounding one girl. During the incident, unbeknownst to either her grandfather or her boisterous friends, fourteen-year-old Sagesse was hidden in nearby bushes, engaging in sexual intimacies with her first boyfriend, a young hotel guest named Thibaud. In the aftermath of the shooting, the elderly Jacques, the patriarch of what he aimed to establish as the LaBasse dynasty, is forced to serve seven months in prison, and the upstart family is further alienated from respectable society within the French town in which they have relocated. Sagesse becomes estranged from her best friend, Marie-José.
Unlike her protagonist, Messud was born in the United States. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady (1995), was set in England, Scotland, and Bali, and she locates her second book in the pied noir experience, the trauma of French colonials who were forced by Arab nationalists to flee their native Algeria. France took control of Algeria in 1830, and generations of European settlers grew up in North Africa believing that Algeria was an integral and inseparable part of France. Yet during the global disintegration of empires following World War II, the National Liberation Front, which was founded to fight for Algerian independence, offered those of European stock a brutal choice: the suitcase or the coffin. During a cycle of bloody attacks and reprisals, most pieds noirs, like the LaBasses, abandoned their home. Arab neighbors burned down the farm belonging to Jacques LaBasse’s cousin, Serge, and Jacques purchased a rocky tract on the French Riviera. There, in 1962, the refugee LaBasse founds the Bellevue as his family’s “bulwark against absurdity,” assuming naïve confidence that a stony cliff will provide more stable soil in which to plant a family tree than the ground they were forced to surrender just across the Mediterranean. A watercolor of the Bay of Algiers, a relic of paradise lost, hangs prominently in their new residence.
Through conversations with her mother and grandmother, Sagesse gradually uncovers more layers of the ancestral history and how it has determined who she is. She learns that her father Alexandre refused to desert Algeria with his parents and insisted on remaining with his grandmother in her apartment in Blida. One of the most vivid sections of The Last Life recounts how Alexandre stands watch over his dying grandmother while the town is beset by revolutionary violence. With great difficulty and in danger, he manages to secure passage on a ship to France, but he cannot depart while she still lives. With a little help from an obliging nun, the old woman dies just in time for...
(The entire section is 1758 words.)