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


At the dawn of the 1970s, when we moved from the United States, where I was born, to Australia, we had an immense tag sale, dispensing our more cumbersome toys to the neighborhood kids for pennies. I was four, my sister just six. A few treasures— the toy stove and its battery of dented pots— were stored against our future, to be opened, too late, in 1977 in Toronto, when we no longer had any use for them. But for Australia, for life as it was to come, we could only take what would fit in our suitcases: Michka, my Russian bear, eight inches tall with a tiny red silk nose; white blanket, holey and disheveled, crocheted by my French grandmother and indispensable; and a stuffed gray felt elephant with wobbly knees who ought to have stood up but couldn’t, any longer, for which we loved him only more.

But our beautiful finned vermilion car, last year’s Christmas gift that we’d pedaled in furious jubilation around our cul- de- sac in Stamford, Connecticut, grudgingly shared by my sister and me, haughtily loaned to the neighborhood kids for a few minutes at a time— and never to the Maguire boys next door— this car would not cross the ocean. It was the first toy sold at our tag sale— and, watching the Maguire boys take turns driving it, I ached. I ached enough to remember it, always.

We would not have a home again for months, and a car like that, never. Similarly, in my early childhood, my Canadian grandmother had, in her garage, an aged brown Jaguar, with a wood- paneled dashboard and elegant, luminous dials; and yet it, without explanation, while we were at the other end of the earth, ceased to be hers and was replaced by a sky- blue Toyota Corolla, later corroded by rust and therefore always, in my mind’s eye, corroded by rust, a small and graceless conveyance with cold black vinyl seats.

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

Before Australia, my parents had to prepare the way, so they left us for a month with our maternal grandmother in Toronto while they flew to Sydney— a long way, in 1970; a much longer way than it is today— and found a place to live, and a school for us to attend. On account of quarantine laws, they oversaw, too, the division of our two dachshunds, uncle and nephew, Big and Small: the former went to his native France to live with my paternal grandparents and dine on table scraps, while the latter, smaller, wilier, with more soulful eyes, stayed in Canada and became the bane of my grandmother’s existence, ultimately tripping her and spraining her ankle on a winter’s walk to nearby Grenadier Pond.

In Toronto, in my grandmother’s house, my sister and I were always happy. Which is not to say that we did not bicker, as bickering, from very early on, was our mode of interaction; but that we adored my grandmother, and trusted her absolutely. She was rightly sized for us, at little over five feet, and stout, with pillowy white hair and a pillowy bosom (which we did not then know to be made of foam and removed, nightly) and an array of silky nylon dresses designed for hugging. She had small but firm arthritic hands that held ours tightly and allowed us the freedom to finger their odd bends and warts and calluses, and the smooth, distinct ridges of her fingernails. In the mornings, in a bed jacket with large buttons, her near- invisible hairnet upon her curls, she would invite us, one on either side of her, into her high old marriage bed to play games— “I Spy,” or “I packed my bags to go to Boston”— and to sing songs— “…every little wave had its nightcap on, nightcap, white cap, nightcap on…”; “Roll, those, roll those pretty eyes, eyes, that, I just idolize…”— seemingly for hours. And how she fed us: daily (in memory, at least), she granted us our favorite meals: Campbell’s tomato bisque soup and salami sandwiches, or Chef Boyardee ravioli, eaten on the sunporch overlooking her steeply tiered back garden, my sister and I vying for the privilege of sitting on the stepping stool and so being able, with our feet, to swing its folding steps in and out, in and out, with spooky creaks, throughout the meal.

Even our grandmother’s basement was a pleasure, its cement painted oxblood, its warm air scented by laundry soap with, in one corner, the basket into which miraculously issued the socks and pajamas dropped through the chute two flights up. We had a tricycle down there— no match, of course, for our lost car, but still— upon which we whirled in circles on the red floor, avoiding the dip in its center that was, most mysteriously, a drain. And on the half- landing between basement and kitchen, by the side door, the house’s other secret and delicious feature: the hutch for the milkman, a box opened from both inside and outside the house, in which, still, in our early youth, milk, butter, eggs, and juice appeared magically before breakfast.


Our rented house in Sydney was, and remains, the grandest place I have ever lived: Wolesley Road, Point Piper, a large mottled brick house with a circular drive and a high wall around the garden, a short walk from a little beach and a short drive from our school in Vaucluse.

The house was fronted by a portico, and before it, a small fountain, in which a bronze Pan piped eternally. A walled garden lay down an alley on the kitchen side, doubtless intended for vegetables but unplanted, and in it the owners had constructed a large chicken- wire aviary, left empty and forlorn. The lawn on the opposite side of the house, off the living room, rolling and verdant, headed downhill toward the sea, and against its farthest edge nestled a row of fruit trees referred to, grandiosely, as “the orchard.”

The rooms in the house were numerous and vast, the gloomy kitchen cavernous enough to echo, with two sinks and a great stretch of black- and- white linoleum and— or has an older child’s imagination inserted it there, stolen from British children’s books of yore?— a green baize door to separate it from the public rooms. The back staircase led up from this kitchen to the suite my sister and I shared, a bedroom and off it a large, windowed expanse dubbed “the nursery.” Off the landing of that back staircase, the service flat waited, two rooms and a bathroom overlooking the empty aviary, with their own locking door. The house was full of the owners’ furniture, while they, knighted by the Queen, had gone to live in London for a time. The surfaces throughout were dotted with knickknacks— Dresden shepherdesses, heavy cut- glass ashtrays— all valuable and at risk from our small and eager limbs, so that we were, from the first, discouraged from playing downstairs. I liked best the little cloakroom just to the right of the front door, which was small but high- ceilinged, so it felt like a tall, narrow box; and the enclosed porch off the dining room, which reminded me of my grandmother’s little sunporch in Toronto, and overlooked the broad lawn. The furniture there was of dark green wicker, the chairs like thrones, their backs a peacock’s fan.

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

My sister and I were enrolled at one of several girls’ schools in the city. Ours, Kambala Church of England School for Girls, had (and still has) a magnificent property in Rose Bay next to the Sacred Heart Convent, looking back, from its green slope, upon the glistening bay, at the opera house and the harbor bridge and the winking white sailboats dotting the water. But in our first years, we traveled further, down the hill to Vaucluse, to the elementary school, Massie House, housed in a white stucco mansion among other grand houses in their enclave by the sea.

There, at first, I wore a yellow pinafore over my clothes and spent the afternoons pretending to nap, with a dozen other reluctant nappers, in rows of folding cots in a large, darkened room. I envied my older sister her complicated uniform and its religious rules, and felt tremendous pride when I was sprung early from the confines of the nursery and kitted out for kindergarten.

We had uniforms for summer and for winter. The former was a gray- and- white- checked shirtdress, belted, worn with a straw boater banded in gray, with the school crest upon it. The latter was a gray tunic, beneath which we wore white shirts (with Peter Pan collars, while at Massie House) and gray- and- gold- striped ties (bow ties, with the Peter Pans), and topped by a gray felt hat, again banded with the crest. Gray socks; black oxfords; gray jumpers; gray blazers (with gold piping); gray knickers; gray ribbons (compulsory, if your hair touched your collar). We had gear, too: colored wooden rods with which to learn arithmetic, stored in gray plastic boxes with our names on them. We had color- coded booklets, a system called SRA, by which we learned to read, and they were kept in gray file cabinets in the classroom, to be shared by all. We had gym clothes, including regulation black sandshoes, and tasseled girdles to denote our sports house (mine was red, for Wentworth). We had plastic covers for all our textbooks, lined, sometimes, with wrapping paper, in order to make them more attractive. Later, we would have sewing baskets, wicker boxes with little handles and looped clasps, in which carded embroidery threads in riotous colors grew, inevitably, fatally entangled. Our book bags were of hard brown vinyl, square cases held in our tiny hands to thump against our legs, and tagged, like luggage, with our names and addresses.

Young ladies always stood when a teacher came into the room. Young ladies walked in crocodile file, two by two, when moving from one room to another, one building to another. Young ladies did not run. There was to be no eating in uniform in public. Hats must be worn at all times in the street. Young ladies did not yell. Young ladies strove, at all times, to be a credit to their school. The rules and rituals were endless, a language to be mastered and then— but stealthily, stealthily— trifled with. You learned the rules so that you might break them when the need arose.

From the first, I loved that school, everything about it, and granted my devotion to each demure and spinsterly schoolteacher with the same fervent passion: cross- eyed Miss Watt, whose myopia and bottle- bottom glasses gave her an underwater aspect, and whose tubular calves I still see swaddled in their thick tights bunched above black orthopedic shoes; smooth and quiet Miss Dixon, the headmistress of Massie House, universally adored, with her pale freckles and tidy golden bob; the brusque and spotty Miss Clarke, whose spiky hair was always a little greasy, and whose difficult affection I was particularly proud, by the end of the year, to have won. My sister traveled upward, of course, always a year ahead of me, and I took her lessons— her especial fondness for Miss Dixon, for example— to heart.

When we were at Massie House and living on Wolesley Road, my mother found a driver to take us to and from school. His name was Gary; probably barely twenty, to us he was a man, with his stubbled chin and blond fur along his arms. In his battered blue station wagon, he picked up half a dozen little girls each day, prompt and reliable in spite of his scruffiness. At first I didn’t care for his car, or at least, not for the front seat: none of us did, because whoever sat next to him had to suffer his spidery hand upon her thigh, moving, often, up beneath her skirt almost to her knickers. We squabbled each afternoon for the safe seats in the back (in the mornings, the front fell to the hapless two who were picked up last), until I discovered that Gary would pay me two cents a day to massage his shoulders while he drove, and that this employment not only swelled impressively the belly of my piggy bank, but also spared me, in permanence, the loathed front seat.

Only months later, when I offered to massage my father’s shoulders and he registered horrified surprise at my proficiency, at my even knowing what a massage might be, did Gary’s oddities come to light at our house. Our subscription to his service was abruptly stopped.

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.

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

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