A Writer’s Rage: Reading Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’

Kara Krauze


Nora Eldridge is a “good girl,” and finally as she approaches, and then passes, the middling age of 40, she is angry. A self-aware narrator, even while she slips into the murky borderland of desire—desire as urgent need, a driving force with the power to actualize dreams, or desire as fantasy, and possibly delusion—Nora educates the reader on the choices and confines of being a woman, one who learns “a whole other polite way of speaking to the people who mustn’t see you clearly. …It doesn’t ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.”


But Nora has had dreams, of being a great artist, which she ceded for more practical activities: teaching third graders and helping her father care for her ailing mother. At age 37, Nora, still single herself, becomes acquainted with the three members of a family, in Boston from Paris for the year, the Shahids: eight-year-old Reza, “this luminous boy,” “his cheeks with their faint rosy tinge, the wildness of his black hair and eyebrows and lashes, the amused intensity of those mottled gray eyes”; Sirena, Reza’s mother, the exotic and confident, if sometimes distracted or aloof, Italian artist; and Skandar, Reza’s father, a thoughtful scholar from Lebanon, engaged as a visiting professor at Harvard, whom Messud gives an air of quiet containment, even with his steady stream of stories and historical analysis, the sort of wisdoms and interesting remarks readers of Messud, author of three previous novels (When The World Was Steady, The Last Life, the bestselling The Emperor’s Children) and a pair of novellas (The Hunters), have come to expect.

Nora, through the course of much of the novel, is in thrall to each of these characters. They serve as distraction from her mother’s recent death; but even more, they invite Nora to live, to reclaim squelched dreams and intentions. “[M]y dream in my head of being an artist, and my dream in the world of being an artist, I couldn’t—until Sirena, I couldn’t—connect them.” But then Nora frets, “As was so often the case—we Women Upstairs!—[Sirena’s] life would be shown to be more important than my life.”


Herein we have the overt source of Nora’s pulsing rage—a betrayal, revealed at novel’s end, but also the constancy of being secondary—the fury which lights up the book’s opening pages: How angry am I? You don’t want to know.

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle….


The Woman Upstairs is a novel about female experience and about the coexistence of power and powerlessness, metastasized through the tight prism of Nora’s friendship with Sirena (and her husband and son) while sharing an artist’s studio for the year, at Sirena’s behest.


Nora and Sirena might almost be one woman, two parts of one female being, living in a world (our world) rife with contradictions and fraught with self-betrayal. Messud tells Katherine Rowland in an interview for Guernica, “Each of us makes poor choices sooner or later in one way or another,” adding, on the subject of making art, “it certainly takes some single-minded commitment, whether that’s selfishness or selflessness, I don’t know.” As the novel insists we see, for many women there are too many needs to fulfill—for others.


At an appearance at The Center for Fiction in early May, Messud was asked about the decision to make the central character of Nora single and childless, offering a two-pronged response. In light of Nora’s intense regard for the Shahids and the import she gives them, not entirely reciprocated, Messud suggests that, “When you live in any group situation, you come up against certain reality checks.” Nora’s single status allows her to become more unmoored. Another consideration involved Messud’s “interest in the interior life.” Messud, with two grade-school-age children of her own, joked with earned understanding, “When you have children, you lose your interior life.”


Michael Washburn explains in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers, “In addition to the lack of gender parity in the world of letters, Messud found motivation in the soft sexism of daily life that often goes unchallenged.” Washburn presents an email from esteemed literary critic and New Yorker writer, James Wood, Messud’s husband of more than 20 years, which elaborates on this theme:

I think Claire has embodied her anxieties about writing, about continuing to write in [The Woman Upstairs], and that Nora’s question is not far removed from questions Claire asks herself often: Why am I making art? ...How does one, as a woman, insert oneself (excuse that verb…) into a tradition still seen as overwhelmingly male? …When Claire and I first met, she was adamant that no serious woman writer could have children, and asked me to look at literary history as evidence…. But of course, we did have children, and there is no doubt that they are at once everything and an enormous obstacle to focused artistic and intellectual achievement; and that this is a more acute question for a woman than for a man, however good and involved a father he is (I am, I am!)


This question of focus—intensity of artistic creation, its pleasures and its possible costs—recurs throughout the novel.


Even while the book is about Nora’s anger, it is “also about a time of joy and discovery and wonder,” Messud affirms, a reawakening of sorts for Nora, as her engagement with each of the Shahids actualizes her, gives her an inner permission and incentive to return with renewed focus to her art. A part of the creative gamble, in visual art and in writing, is that, as Messud puts it, “you are trying to make something that doesn’t exist and nobody cares whether it exists or not.” This necessary focus plays through Nora’s mind and also recurs in Messud’s Center for Fiction discussion of the book, including “the notion of a single-minded obsessive.” Messud points out, “We can all think of single-minded obsessive men—but single-minded obsessive women are freakish and horrible.” Strongly put, and yet the theme of female solicitude towards others that threads through Messud’s interviews this spring, such as the one with novelist David Burr Gerrard in Tottenville Review and appears in several forms in the book, reminds us of how, in Messud’s words, “anger is not acceptable in our culture and it’s particularly unacceptable for women.”


Wood writes in his book, How Fiction Works: “Dostoevsky was the great analyst—in a sense, almost the inventor—of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love….”


Wood, in explicating a scene within Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, describes how

…the weaker man loathes but ‘admires’ the officer—and in a sense, loathes him because he admires him. His impotence has less to do with his actual circumstances than with his imaginary relationship to the officer [higher-ranking other], which is one of impotent dependence. Dostoevsky would call this psychological torment the ‘Underground,’ meaning a kind of poisonous, impotent alienation, a chronic instability of self, and a vaunting pride that at any moment might unexpectedly crash into its inverse—cringing self-abasement.


Here, we find Nora, expert practitioner of ressentiment, fluctuating between self-abasement and a yearning, fueled by anger, that might yet aid her with “a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me—before I die to fu**ing well live.” Nora’s anger, along with the more complicated ressentiment, has proven discomfiting to some readers, whether through recognition or refusal. This unease has been recently cloaked in the reductive ideal of “likeability,” causing quite a stir in some corridors and rooms, virtual and otherwise, in the world of letters. When Publisher’s Weekly interviewer, Annasue McCleave Wilson, posed the question, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud volleyed back with indignance, and, yes, anger:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? …If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.


Let’s turn for a moment to a classic tale, replete with a villain and uncertainty, invoking fear and possibly anger in the reader: reliant upon a trail of breadcrumbs. Yes, breadcrumbs, and right away we recall this imaginary snaking maze, at first placed by young Hansel and Gretel, in all their innocence, juxtaposed with intensity of yearning—to live, to survive—that will appear thwarted when the crumbs, so impermanent and insufficient, disappear.



Hansel and Gretel is not a story in the realist tradition, and yet it invokes very real, and realistic, dangers and fears: those of betrayal, being led astray; aloneness, loss and to be lost in an unknown woods; the opaque, even venomous or vengeful motives of adults; the disappearance and absence of other characters who matter so intently that they drive the story all the more potently in their absence: the mother, the father. What of Hansel and Gretel’s father? He is passive, and yet certainly shares responsibility for their predicament, having in a literal sense created the (evil) stepmother and subsequently adhered to her chilling plans. And the mother, well she is dead, offering her the utmost in both power and powerlessness, a metaphor we may find useful within The Woman Upstairs, in which Nora’s deceased mother drives the narrative with covert fierceness.


For this is the question of children, what have our parents done, and how shall we mimic it? Shall we avenge on their behalf, replicate, or rebel? Feminism, and femininity, press this question even more fiercely for women, who not only negotiate the external, public world of professions, but also a larger portion of the domestic realm. Intense generational change, and the complications therein, in the last 60 years, has left much still unsettled. Lisa Miller, like Wood and Messud, reminds us, in New York Magazine, “Feminism has never fully relieved women from feeling that the domestic domain is theirs to manage, no matter what else they’re juggling.” This remains the case despite words, often well-intentioned, to the contrary. Miller notes: “Before they marry, college students of both genders almost universally tell social scientists that they want marriages in which housework, child care, professional ambition, and moneymaking will be respectfully negotiated and fully shared.” Susan Maushart, in her 1999 book, The Mask of Motherhood, puts it: “The ‘problem that has no name’ for today’s mother is the struggle to reconcile the rhetoric of equal opportunity with the stubbornly unequal realities of family life….”


The anger within The Woman Upstairs is predicated on Nora’s mother’s choices and admonishments and her unfulfilled life. She had her first child early, Nora’s older brother, and then Nora eight years later, never truly entering the workforce, reliant on her husband for pocket money and never able to move far from domestic life. When Nora suggests that her mother might pursue something more than the classes she periodically embarks on, her mother’s fraught response: “Didn’t you know, I make a house a home? That’s what mothers do.” But she tells Nora, “I want you to have it all. You won’t live off pin money, off any man, no matter how much you love him. You won’t depend on anyone but yourself. We agreed, right?” And Nora hears “there was that edge to her voice, which I thought of then as darkness, and recognize now as rage, the tone that came in her intermittent phases of despair.” It is no coincidence that rage and despair are here linked.


A generation later, and we have Sirena, working mother, trying to explain to Nora, working but without children of her own (besides her third graders, left in the school room): “But for me, it’s always running against the clock. Someone always waiting, Sirena you’re late, you’re late…it’s always too much.” Nora, on the surface of things, wishes for a life more like Sirena’s, a respected artist, married with a child, what Nora once imagined for herself. And yet we watch her thwart her own dreams, while she also finds the ploys and ass-kissing of the art world distasteful, wanting and not wanting to share in its privilege.



Nora and Skandar gradually form a pattern of shared nighttime walks, as Skandar escorts Nora home, whether following a dinner en famille, or, more often, after Nora has stayed with Reza (as a dear family friend or as a babysitter, the difference immaterial and yet deeply significant), while the adult Shahids are out. On one such walk, their intimacy growing, Nora explains to Skandar how she has ended up here, in her life, 37 and single:

 [A]s we passed the cemetery where my mother was buried…I told him about going to see my mother’s grave, and then I told him about her, Bella Eldridge, and her years of illness, and her admirable grown-up combination of competence and resignation, and how furious it made me, how looking at her life I felt like a ravenous wolf, I wanted her to have had the chance to devour the world, to be greedy, to be sated. …And I told him …about how I’d grown up with my mother’s longing and had never found a way to fulfill it, how I’d always thought there were rules about what was possible and allowable, even though I hadn’t known, really, who’d made those rules. How in high school, art had seemed the way to break the rules, to get around them; but how it hadn’t, then, seemed properly grown up, afterward.


“I couldn’t bear to be a failure,” Nora tells Skandar. “It seemed worse to try and fail than not to try.  And then my mother, you see—” The strictures of her mother’s limitations have been redesigned; Nora is ravenous; she is rage-filled; thwarted by tradition, whether steady or sundered.


“But,” as Nora’s friend Didi tells her, “you’ve got to want something.”


After all, even now, 50 years after publication of The Feminine Mystique and Betty Friedan’s eruption, like a volcano, precise in its locus and yet wide-spilling, indicative of uncertain and unpredictable volatility beneath the surface, into the public eye—even now we remain leery of female anger. Yes, it is distasteful. Better to show your stuff by climbing the ladder, rising; or by smoothing things over, the silent power of domestic control, whether transplanted into the workplace or not.


And indeed, one might leave The Woman Upstairs feeling that anger has not served Nora either. She has anger, she has reason for anger, and yet, really, in the scope of the novel, where has it taken her? It has, at least in part, been a ploy or distraction: and yet it speaks of truth and of the very real frustrations of women in a variety of situations: unmarried, married, with children or not. The real power here, that which Nora skirts around, testing and tasting, and yet still resisting, may well be desire (for meaning, achievement, love, artistry): dangerous and sharp.


Nora’s artistic ambitions, in the now of the novel, are evoked through painstaking work on dioramas, three distinct and separate miniature rooms, each focused on a female artist: Emily Dickinson, Alice Neal, and Edie Sedgewick. A fourth female artist/writer, Virginia Woolf, ironically (and one might presume deliberately, for Messud’s intelligence is keen) without “a room of her own” here, is evoked as frequently as the other three. We are told near the book’s conclusion that “Virginia Woolf, in her rage, stopped being afraid of death; but I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life….” Rage is powerful; yet arguably Woolf’s suicide was more about rage internalized—about the boulders of depression (despair) and more—rather than rage as merry-greeter-of-death, a rather too romantic notion of suicide, depression, and mental illness. Nora’s rage, one hopes, might push her forward, finally, in contrast with her mother’s. But loose ends remain.


This may not be Messud’s best novel. For this reader, it was hard to again find the whole-world intensity and beauty of The Last Life, Messud’s second work, in which a corollary urgency threads through, rendered within the young narrator’s compelling need to understand complexities of life that many an adult never takes on: exile, homeland, loss, generational twists and schisms and bonds and pains, the incomprehensibility of self-selected death and yet the pressing need to understand even when events and urges remain without discrete and finite sense. The greatest maturity arises in rendering the questions and needs, even when answers may remain absent and insufficient.


And yet, while The Woman Upstairs could be considered a less-compelling sequel of sorts (with entirely different characters that nonetheless share some of the same authorial concerns, including those of generational ties and schisms, exile, loss, and even the roles of women and of men, conscripted by society or family, broad and individuated), this work is hugely ambitious, and the more time spent with it the more evident this is.


Within the novel’s pages lies an intensity of female experience, focused on a particular life stage. The term middle-age has gone a bit out of fashion. Aren’t we all (by which we mean women of a certain class, more present via the media than in life) now perpetually able to avail ourselves of the fountain of youth? Botox and tummy tucks; physical strains of childrearing passed to others; technological gadgets able to keep us abreast of everything, current or au courant. But of course this is a myth; even while life expectancy extends further into the double-digits, and sometimes triple-, our bodies still age, and we still, at some middling point, approach at least a glimpse of the limits of what we might do.


Nora and Sirena both are driven by this specter of mortality (Messud, too). Sirena more productively (and more selfishly) than Nora, through her compulsion to create the most complete and complex version of her vision: an ever modulating Wonderland, an art installation meant to be experienced differently by each visitor, and yet to represent meaning and a female life stage for all. The artistic work, once complete, continues to create something new through video of its guests’ journeys, eventually to become their own exhibit. With Nora’s unwitting participation, this becomes a reminder that art is selfish, sometimes vengeful, and may involve the sacrifices of someone else, not just the artist.


The Woman Upstairs (notably referred to with capitals throughout the novel) represents the intellect in disuse and in use. The question throughout is how is the Woman (Upstairs) used or neglected, and how might she inhabit desire; what if she does, what if she does not? And what are desire’s limits and limitations?


Alas, this reader, who so wanted to fall into a world—remembering so intently a sense-memory of the complex and thoughtful world of The Last Life—came upon some measure of disappointment in the book’s middle: where was the sought-after other life (not a life to wish for but to experience and explore, finding meaning and parallels within)? But no, this was not a lasting wonderland. The Woman Upstairs does not inhabit wonderland, not as escape, not for long—and this is part of the point. The Woman Upstairs inhabits reality: of strained dreams, of other people’s children, of an aloneness not always chosen. (And forgive us here for excluding men in this overt way; but as with much of our literary tradition, in which women are invited to find themselves and versions of lives of meaning in the corridors of male experience, so here men too may find aspects of self within the confines of female experience, and surely will, with or without the male pronoun.)


Where Nora, as narrator and central protagonist, may cause the book to falter and suffer, is when she serves in the figurative chorus of the novel. Anger, anger, anger, we hear at regular intervals. Sometimes we feel Nora’s anger, or even more significantly the sting of inadequacy or rejection and the surge of desire (to make meaning and to mean something), that can either bring on anger or be fueled by it. But to be told of anger, however legitimate, damning, and interesting the circumstance, involves a different kind of engagement on behalf of the reader. We may not always feel it—for Nora, or for ourselves—within the reader-experience of the book. Instead we must consider it; we must think. To our detriment, we have grown accustomed to deeming novels places of experience (often vicarious, sometimes mirrored) and escape, not as journeys of thought. Must the province of the novel remain so shrunken?


Skandar explains to Nora, about Lebanon, “You can allow yourself to be swallowed by your anger, but this will kill you.” Earlier, he had spoken to her of the assassination of his homeland’s prime minister the day before, and the accompanying deaths of 22 others. Sirena, hours prior, tells Nora of her husband, “His country is in mourning and in turmoil; and here, at the university, even at a private dinner, they want him to talk about this as if it were an idea, not a man, so many men.” Continuing, she chides, “Americans see everything too simply—a good guy, a bad guy, does he have a white hat or a black hat?” In this exchange, and the one that follows later that night, as Skandar walks Nora home, we see the shadows of the narrative, the authorial lines drawing things together, outlining a schema for reading.

Skandar’s story from his youth, a parable of sorts, contains a panther he spotted as a five- or six-year-old, a sighting deemed impossible by his family—“there were no such animals in Lebanon”—until two mysterious “nocturnal sheep killings” change their minds. And soon the panther could be of “ghosts or sorcery”; it could be a metaphor for anger, dark and lurking.


Skandar tells Nora:

‘And yet how can you look at the panther, how can you look him in the eye, when he won’t stay still? When he’s nowhere and everywhere, belongs to no one and to everyone? So if you’re me, how you deal with this is that you say, I’ll look at how we talk about the panther. I’ll study the history of history, the ways that we tell the stories, and don’t tell other stories, and I’ll try to understand what it says about us, to tell one story rather than another, to tell it one way rather than another.’


The eponymous “Woman Upstairs”—a multitude—contains fractured parts of the same woman. There is reason to love Messud’s anger—relish it, bathe in it, accept it as much needed succor. Anger can bring power. Messud told the audience at The Center for Fiction, “I’ve never written a book so heartfelt.” When an audience member enquired, “Did you have trouble accessing that anger?” Messud answered with a resounding, “No.”


Virginia Woolf proclaimed the need for “a room of one’s own” (and also, not immaterially, 500 pounds a year). That room (and that sum, whatever it need be) represents not only security, but peace, solitude, time, and the use of one’s mind: some minimum of circumstances permitting access to another Upstairs, wherein lies our individuality, our intellect, our imagination -- all of which must be curtailed (particularly the first two, while the third might be put to different, slightly modified and constrained, alternate use) when caring for children. Parenting, particularly for mothers, requires sacrifice. Children demand and deserve it. For many women, this is a huge part of that period we have called “middle age”; bodies are changing, creaking that little bit more, shifting and easing out of reproductive capacities; and when children are present, they demand more of the interior resources that might once have gone elsewhere: to self, to art, to work, in all its forms. Partners, of course, figure into this too. And if we were to take a lesson from The Woman Upstairs—the novel would suggest that as ambitious as Sirena is—and, by the end, more celebrated than Skandar—it appears that it is she who must tend to her husband (and child) more than he to her. Skandar, a character drawn with loving strokes, is arguably the most concisely and thoroughly imparted of the book: complex and yet much tidier than his female compatriots. Lessons here too: another reminder of the unruly nature of female experience and its rendering.


The significant question beneath the text: What does it mean to be a woman writer? What does it mean to be a woman writer with children? But we seldom speak of this. Still, it is taboo: damned either way, whether to implicitly lessened ambitions or to “women’s themes,” which yet remain largely the domain of what the publishing world considers “women’s fiction” rather than “literature.” This is signaled through details such as choices in cover art, influenced by and influencing gender suppositions. Fractured—as mothers, as women, as writers. The work of writing exists largely within a self-powered vacuum, the choices all too frequently uncomfortable, in ways familiar to many women balancing work and children.


When it comes to writing, as Messud put it in a 2006 Observer interview, “You have to find the necessity of it because, frankly, nobody else cares, and once you have kids, nobody wants you to do it at all.” And if writing remains ephemeral, not-quite-work by many a productive-capitalist standard, then women’s writing all the more so. Messud wrote in Guernica in 2010, “[Women] are too often overlooked by the silly popularity contests that are juries and boards and lists. This is not a question of the writers’ quality but of our society’s habits, and of a habitual—and primarily lazy—cultural expectation that male writers are somehow more serious, more literary, or more interesting.” Messud continues,

Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men. … Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all. The absence of women from lists and prizes leads, then, to the future absence of women from lists and prizes.


Messud tells Katherine Rowland in her Guernica interview this spring, “The things that we associate with femaleness are not the single-minded, exclusive pursuit of a vocation, whether it be art or anything else. It is not a model that is widespread in our culture, it’s not something we think of for women.”


The august yet modestly trendy London Review of Books ran a review in May by a youngish (pre-middle age, let’s say) writer, Emily Witt, who quite blithely ran right over The Woman Upstairs, the review’s tone increasingly snide and, by conclusion, bordering on what the British like to call whinging. Witt concludes the review, which is rather banally titled “How Awful,” a double-entendre that does little for the review or the book (or for that matter the often lovely and pleasurable LRB): “Even at her happiest, Nora made me depressed.” The sentiment, following on the impatient tone of the rest of the review, looks to damn the book as implausible, and a “bad” read. One might more usefully turn to the reader, any of us, and say, Indeed, depressed, why is that? The answer rests less with Nora than with reality and the complex portrayal of creativity and gender, friendship, family, love, anger, and ressentiment that Messud has created with heartfelt intensity, a writer’s urgency fueling the narrative’s imperfect, warts and all, anger. Nora may not be likeable, but she is ours, for better and worse, her light on, for which we should be grateful, one hopes because her brain is alive, mercurial and inventive, not because we need her there waiting—for our dirty dishes, metaphoric or real.


Nora, good luck. The dollhouse doors are open.


Author Bio:

Kara Krauze is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Nightscream (Wikipedia Commons); Unique Hotels Group (Flickr); LST1984 (Flickr).

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