In her essay “Ruthlessness and Art-Making,” Janna Malamud Smith suggests that too much ruth may hinder artists, that “too much ‘nice’ is a death-kiss” for their work.
Ruthless is not the foremost word that comes to mind when thinking of Claire Messud, a writer of great discernment and intellect whose often protracted sentences are perfectly modulated, their intricate involutions balanced with crisp grace. She can be steely-minded about propelling her characters into hazardous physical and psychic terrain. But even when her characters are rushing recklessly toward their hearts’ desires, one feels the hand that moves them about the page is forever governed by a judicious and just sensibility.
So the fact that her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, takes on the subject of ruthlessness in art comes as interesting news – akin, say, to an announcement that Yo-Yo Ma is releasing a heavy metal album. You’d want to check it out if for no other reason than to see what the unexpected fusion will yield. The novel begins with fury – the unshackled, unseemly, unapologetic fury of the narrator, Nora Eldridge. She doesn’t simply emit fury, spitting out a litany of expletive-strewn complaints; she claims it as her very identity. “Don’t all women feel the same?” she asks. “We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.”
An elementary-school teacher in Cambridge, Mass., Nora has been a perennial good girl, the kind of neighbour “whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell … and who, behind closed doors, never makes a sound.”
At 42, she’s bitterly aware of having achieved spinsterhood and beginning a concomitant descent into invisibility. Once, she’d dreamed of making art and babies, of being “the smocked artist at work in her airy studio, the children … frolicking in the sun-dappled garden.” So what happened? What calamity intervened between Nora and her dream?
Niceness. Banal acquiescence to the wishes of others. “The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create!” she rails. In her essay, Smith says we don’t traditionally associate ruthlessness with females; Nora, too, links her failure with gender. The trick of being a real artist, she posits, is to possess a kind of myopia, “to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all.” Men, she says, are the ones who have this figured out, who manage “to see everything else – everyone else – as expendable.”
So it causes a bit of frisson when Sirena Shahid enters the story: a woman and an artist and a mother and a wife. Sirena is Italian; her husband, Skandar, Lebanese. They live in Paris, but are spending a year in Cambridge, where Skandar is writing a book. Their son is a student in Nora’s Grade 3 class, and when a racially charged playground incident sends him to the emergency room, Nora’s involvement with the family deepens beyond school grounds.
The Woman Upstairs, although set almost entirely in Massachusetts, is informed by its protagonist’s naive idealization of a wider, more exotic world. “I’ve often wondered how much of the Shahids’ appeal stemmed from their foreignness,” Nora says. And when she and Sirena forge a connection as artists – they wind up sharing a studio – their very creations evoke other worlds. Nora works in miniature, keeping faith with the past: she builds tiny replicas of long-dead female artists’ bedrooms. Sirena works on a grand scale, faithful to nothing but her fantastic vision: she creates a multimedia wonderland through which patrons can wander.
When Nora sets aside her own work to assist with this installation (which will bring Sierna fame), she finds herself “crazy” with happiness, “in love with love,” besotted by the Shahids and all they seem to represent. She observes of Sirena admiringly, “Maybe that, really, is as good a definition as any of an artist in the world: a ruthless person.” But Messud allows us to see what Nora, in her solipsistic exultation, cannot, and we are hardly surprised when that ruthlessness spells the sickening ruin of her illusions in the book’s final pages.
Messud, the least myopic of artists, has written a tale whose uneasy energy derives from the imploded diffidence of its protagonist, a woman whose fault lies not in the absence of ruth, but in her failure to fully realize herself.
Leah Hager Cohen’s most recent novel is The Grief of Others.