#SundaySentence from Claire Messud’s The Last Life


Following the lead of Erika Dreifus at The Practicing Writer, I’m posting my Sunday Sentence on my blog. Let me admit first that I’m eating crow here. I tweeted some time ago to the creator of the Sunday Sentence project, David Abrams of The Quivering Pen, that I wasn’t sure how I felt about people posting links to their Sunday sentences on their blogs rather than directly on Twitter. But then, I’ve had three weeks running where I’ve had to break my Sunday Sentence into two Tweets. And as you will see, part of the beauty of my sentence this week is the punctuation (more on that in a moment). So to break this sentence into two would have done it injustice.

The sentence appears at the conclusion of a pivotal and fairly devastating scene in Claire Messud’s The Last Life, a soaring yet intimate epic of a tale about a half-French Algerian (or pied noir) and half-American family, still reeling from the paternal side of the family’s exile from the former French department in the dying days of the Algerian revolution. The novel is narrated by the teenaged daughter, Sagesse. In the scene, she has brought home some friends, only to catch her father in the midst of… well, I won’t spoil it.

My Sunday Sentence comes from the passage in which Sagesse reflects on the effect her discovery has had on her understanding of her father, her family, and herself. “She,” in this sentence, refers to the person with whom Sagesse caught her father, although Sagesse never actually sees “her” in the flesh.

I admire this sentence for the grace with which it carries its weight within the paragraph, the scene, and the entire story:

“She, of herself—her features or the quality of her soul—matters not at all; she merely orders the narrative, and so can’t be left out.”

It’s Messud’s use of em dashes here that changes everything. How often do em dashes work formally to underscore meaning in such a gorgeous way? “She, of herself” is separated from “matters not at all” by “her features or the quality of her soul” – I read this as an adolescent daughter’s attempt to erase her father’s betrayal of her mother, her brother, and the family. But there is actually nothing “mere” about her role in the narrative. Indeed, “she can’t be left out.” And so, in the very statement in which Sagesse attempts to efface “her” presence, she demonstrates that “she” must remain. This sentence speaks to the impossibility of unbreaking what has been broken, of recovering what has been lost. And so this sentence indicates the point of rupture between the last life and the next. In other words, you can never return to the past. It is here that Sagesse realizes that you can never really go home again.