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Claire Messud, novelist

Lisa Cohen

Novelist Claire Messud has a heavy reading list between the books she reviews and those she teaches in her writing classes at Harvard University. “My life feels filled with homework,” she says. Yet she makes a point each day of reading a book just for herself, if only three or four pages at a time. Messud’s most recent novel, her sixth, is “The Woman Upstairs.”

BOOKS: What was the last book that knocked you out?

MESSUD: I just recently finished “The Sympathizer,” a first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It’s about a double agent at the end of the Vietnam War who comes to the states. It’s beautifully written and meaty. You can’t dash through it, but it’s really compelling. I had that kid-like feeling of being inside the book. Long books often do that for me. I own the novel “City on Fire’’ by Garth Risk Hallberg, which is more than 900 pages. I know people look at a book that size and think, “Horrors!’’ I think, “When can I?”

BOOKS: What’s the most difficult book you read and liked?


MESSUD: In the spring I interviewed Richard Flanagan so I read some of his earlier books. His most recent, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” is very readable, but “Gould’s Book of Fish” is complicated and challenging. It has a fantastical quality. It shifts in time. I ended up loving it. There are a lot of books that are more and more rewarding the more you are with them. For me, Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is delicious, but for my students many of them they are learning how to read it as they go.

BOOKS: What else have you been reading?

MESSUD: I recently read Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You,” which isn’t out until January. It reminds me of James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.’’ I also just finished Edna O’Brien’s forthcoming novel, “The Little Red Chairs,” which is extraordinary. Just the way she describes a bird or ice is very beautiful. I’m still enjoying “Women in Clothes,” this crazy survey book Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits put together. It’s like a textbook with pictures and people writing about clothes. It’s great for the bathroom.


BOOKS: What books are you teaching in your Harvard classes?

MESSUD: I’m teaching mostly stories. There are some classics like “The Dead” by James Joyce and “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield, stories I love a lot. I love giving them Anton Chekov. They don’t always love it, but I try to make them. I gave my students Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel “The Blue Flower,” though I was prepared for them to find it obscure. They thought it was funny. They can surprise you. Some young people are old souls.

BOOKS: Any reading quirks?

MESSUD: I have a terrible memory. I can read something and forget I did. I had the strangest experience. A friend asked me whether I had read a book. It didn’t ring any of bells. Then I realized I had reviewed it about 15 years ago. Not good.

BOOKS: Is it safe to assume you and your husband, New Yorker book reviewer James Woods, have a lot of books?

MESSUD: Yes. I was relieved when someone came to take a photo of our house and told me he had been in another writer’s house, and it was worse.


BOOKS: Did you grow up with lots of books even though your family moved a lot?

MESSUD: Yes. My parents were impractical and big readers. In later years we came to call them hoarders, but the only thing they hoarded really were books. When my father died and my mother moved out of their apartment I got rid of the books on their shelves. Then I found books piled behind the sofa and under the bed, enough to fill the shelves again. It seemed very poignant: If you have the prospect of all this knowledge before you how can you possibly die.? AMY SUTHERLAND

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