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Kant's Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays

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In her fiction, Claire Messud "has specialized in creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives" (Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine). Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write opens a window on Messud’s own life: a peripatetic upbringing; a warm, complicated family; and, throughout it all, her devotion to art and literature In her fiction, Claire Messud "has specialized in creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives" (Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine). Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write opens a window on Messud’s own life: a peripatetic upbringing; a warm, complicated family; and, throughout it all, her devotion to art and literature. In twenty-six intimate, brilliant, and funny essays, Messud reflects on a childhood move from her Connecticut home to Australia; the complex relationship between her modern Canadian mother and a fiercely single French Catholic aunt; and a trip to Beirut, where her pied-noir father had once lived, while he was dying. She meditates on contemporary classics from Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Valeria Luiselli; examines three facets of Albert Camus and The Stranger; and tours her favorite paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the luminous title essay, she explores her drive to write, born of the magic of sharing language and the transformative powers of “a single successful sentence.” Together, these essays show the inner workings of a dazzling literary mind. Crafting a vivid portrait of a life in celebration of the power of literature, Messud proves once again "an absolute master storyteller" (Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times).


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In her fiction, Claire Messud "has specialized in creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives" (Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine). Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write opens a window on Messud’s own life: a peripatetic upbringing; a warm, complicated family; and, throughout it all, her devotion to art and literature In her fiction, Claire Messud "has specialized in creating unusual female characters with ferocious, imaginative inner lives" (Ruth Franklin, New York Times Magazine). Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write opens a window on Messud’s own life: a peripatetic upbringing; a warm, complicated family; and, throughout it all, her devotion to art and literature. In twenty-six intimate, brilliant, and funny essays, Messud reflects on a childhood move from her Connecticut home to Australia; the complex relationship between her modern Canadian mother and a fiercely single French Catholic aunt; and a trip to Beirut, where her pied-noir father had once lived, while he was dying. She meditates on contemporary classics from Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Valeria Luiselli; examines three facets of Albert Camus and The Stranger; and tours her favorite paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the luminous title essay, she explores her drive to write, born of the magic of sharing language and the transformative powers of “a single successful sentence.” Together, these essays show the inner workings of a dazzling literary mind. Crafting a vivid portrait of a life in celebration of the power of literature, Messud proves once again "an absolute master storyteller" (Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times).

30 review for Kant's Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane Barnes

    I loved the first half of this book when she writes of her grandparents and parents and rather unusual childhood. But the book reviews and art criticisms were a little too intellectual for me, and didn't hold my interest at all. Certainly not her fault, but mine. I have really liked her fiction in the past, and you have to admit this is a great title. I loved the first half of this book when she writes of her grandparents and parents and rather unusual childhood. But the book reviews and art criticisms were a little too intellectual for me, and didn't hold my interest at all. Certainly not her fault, but mine. I have really liked her fiction in the past, and you have to admit this is a great title.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Gretchen Rubin

    Very thought-provoking essays from the transcendent to the very personal (dogs).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Noreen

    I love Claire Messud’s novels, but I don’t think she is given enough credit for what a wonderful critic and essayist she is. The pieces in this volume are insightful, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Noah Sanders

    First third of this book is great. Really beautifully essays about Messud’s life. The second two-third is her academic yarns on various authors and artists. Some great writing but overall a little dry.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Carey Calvert

    ... after having feasted on Alexander Chee's fabulous How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I've been fascinated with the genre. Of Chee, I wrote, "a beautifully written sonnet." Kant's Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write, is too, yet with a philosophical bent, Kant notwithstanding. The title derives from Thomas Bernhard's novel, The Loser, "... we study a monumental work, for example Kant's work, and in time it shrivels down to Kant's little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly ... after having feasted on Alexander Chee's fabulous How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I've been fascinated with the genre. Of Chee, I wrote, "a beautifully written sonnet." Kant's Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write, is too, yet with a philosophical bent, Kant notwithstanding. The title derives from Thomas Bernhard's novel, The Loser, "... we study a monumental work, for example Kant's work, and in time it shrivels down to Kant's little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog, which winds up in the same state of helplessness as all the others ..." The point is that "Our great philosophers ... shrivel down to a single successful sentence ... often we remember only a so-called philosophical hue." Yet, Claire Messud, best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, and The Burning Girl, avoids this trap; as a writer, she has "staked her life on the possibility of the original expression of authentic experience." Part One, Reflections, delves into Messud's personal history; particularly moving, is the chapter, Two Women (her mother and aunt), whose identities "involved profound self-loathing: they believed, as so many women have been brought up to believe that they were inadequate as they were." Part Two, Criticism: Books, gives us a chance to marvel at not only Messud's writing and perspective, but the authors of whom she writes, also share a connection in her development and maturation. Messud explores the works of Camus (Messud's father also attended the Lycee Bugeaud, where Jaques Derrida was a classmate: ("I always did better than him in philosophy," her father said), Kamel Daoud, who wrote The Mersault Investigation, a response to Camus' The Stranger, and among others, Jane Bowles (Two Serious Ladies), and Saul Friedlander (When Memory Comes). But I was so taken with Messud's analysis of the authors, Yasmine El Rashida (Chronicle of a Last Summer) and Valeria Luiselli (Lost Children Archive), that I ordered a work from both. I did the same for Sally Mann, whom Messud describes "... who knew that she could as easily have been a writer as a photographer?" Mann's work, Hold Still, is featured in Part Three, Images, which also includes the work of Alice Neel and Marlene Dumas. "I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world." Although Messud admits this is true for all of us, quoting T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, she explains further, "We are as much the sum of our lived literary experiences as our literally lived experiences ... These are the fragments I have shored against my ruins."

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Bautista

    I give five stars to the autobiographical essays that make up the first part of this volume. I could have read a thousand more pages of Messud’s personal stories spanning generations, countries, and all sorts of privileged, worldly experience. And more stories about her dogs! It was the autobiographical essays that made me curious to learn which books Messud loves and that’s what I took from the second part of the book—I took the “which” but, surprising to me, couldn’t bring myself to care at al I give five stars to the autobiographical essays that make up the first part of this volume. I could have read a thousand more pages of Messud’s personal stories spanning generations, countries, and all sorts of privileged, worldly experience. And more stories about her dogs! It was the autobiographical essays that made me curious to learn which books Messud loves and that’s what I took from the second part of the book—I took the “which” but, surprising to me, couldn’t bring myself to care at all about the “whys” she presents in her criticism. Same with with art criticism—I found very little convincing, even for artists like Sally Mann about whom I know a passing amount.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Absolutely wonderful collection of essays by one of the finest writers of this age. She discusses personal experience as a writer, reader, descendant, and woman. This is also a chronicle of criticism of some of her favorite authors and artists, introducing me to a wide range of unexplored books that are now in my To Be Read list. I was lucky enough to meet Claire Messud at a book festival and I wish everyone would read her amazing work. 5 stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Maura

    3.5 stars

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Right from the beginning, I found Ms. Messud to be affected and attempting to sound superior. But when she decided to become political about ..'.this so-called President'.... I was done. Does she not realize that half of her readers may be of an opposing political viewpoint? Was she intending to be a mean girl or just naturally condescending? Doesn't matter to me. There are many an author I have not yet met and I shall spend my time enjoying old favorites and finding new ones, but I am done with Right from the beginning, I found Ms. Messud to be affected and attempting to sound superior. But when she decided to become political about ..'.this so-called President'.... I was done. Does she not realize that half of her readers may be of an opposing political viewpoint? Was she intending to be a mean girl or just naturally condescending? Doesn't matter to me. There are many an author I have not yet met and I shall spend my time enjoying old favorites and finding new ones, but I am done with Ms. Self-absorbed Clair.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    In this compilation of short stories and artistic criticisms Messud shows herself in a way many artists do not, at least as expressly— through her own life story. She seems an existentialist, and a contented one at that. But that should not be a surprise. For contrary to conventional belief, existentialists must seek meaning (contentment) in the midst of a chaotic, absurd universe, in their own minds and in the action they take in their own lives. No one succeeds entirely, but Messud appears to In this compilation of short stories and artistic criticisms Messud shows herself in a way many artists do not, at least as expressly— through her own life story. She seems an existentialist, and a contented one at that. But that should not be a surprise. For contrary to conventional belief, existentialists must seek meaning (contentment) in the midst of a chaotic, absurd universe, in their own minds and in the action they take in their own lives. No one succeeds entirely, but Messud appears to have done so more than many.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    In Claire Messud’s literary universe, as in her eclectic and moveable life, the things most worth reflecting on come in layers that simultaneously connect the mundane, the exotic and the humbly memorable. Even the title of this richly drawn anthology of more than two dozen essays, KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD AND OTHER REASONS WHY I WRITE, speaks to the dry wit and arresting spontaneity that permeate her very personal reflections on life, great authors of the past and present, and art in various f In Claire Messud’s literary universe, as in her eclectic and moveable life, the things most worth reflecting on come in layers that simultaneously connect the mundane, the exotic and the humbly memorable. Even the title of this richly drawn anthology of more than two dozen essays, KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD AND OTHER REASONS WHY I WRITE, speaks to the dry wit and arresting spontaneity that permeate her very personal reflections on life, great authors of the past and present, and art in various forms. Although at the peak of her creative power, Messud also seems to be casting an experienced retrospective eye over several decades of critically acclaimed writing. Drawn from Thomas Bernhard’s novel, THE LOSER, the opening title phrase is recalled by Bernhard’s fictitious narrator as something that the eccentric genius, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, might have said (but probably didn’t). And in a context that opens with her multitasking career woman’s sense of vertigo at having watched an unnamed television science documentary about the vastness of the universe, the reader can take various meanings from the wry diminution of a philosophical giant. But in essence, greatness of all kinds can come in a surprising array of sizes and levels of appreciation, and that already elevates Messud’s attention-grabbing title into a less affected and more human dimension. The same could be said for her concentrated and vibrant prose throughout KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD. Every page exudes her quiet yet compelling joy in the power of well-nourished language, a vast vocabulary treated with the awe and reverence that a great painter treats the endless potentialities of color or a composer the myriad combinations of notes in a score. Where arrogance will throw words, colors or sounds onto the page in clever combinations, mindful greatness will patiently blend and mold them into uniquely memorable sensory and emotional experiences. Messud could easily and successfully have collected or composed all of her essays in the autobiographical vein but stretches the promise of the book’s subtitle by dividing her anthology into three unequal parts. Whether or not they should have been three separate books is difficult to decide, as they all express aspects of her own character as well as that of the individuals enlarged by her acute observations. “Reflections” (Part One) contains nearly a dozen essays spanning a non-chronological array of personal memories and reflections about her multinational upbringing, a close and unusual family, and cultural experiences and events that influenced both her parental and professional life. “Criticism: Books” (Part Two) includes a trio of outstanding reflections on the iconic French Algerian author Albert Camus, followed by insightful and deeply relevant reviews of a group of authors too many of us have heard of and too few have read (to our loss) --- among them, Kazuo Ishiguro, Italo Svevo, Rachel Cusk, Saul Friedlander and Valeria Luiselli. Finally, “Criticism: Images” (Part Three), is devoted to writer-photographer Sally Mann and painters Alice Neel and Darlene Dumas. Here, one can fervently wish that Messud had selected a few more deserving female artists, in any medium. None of these thoughtful but diligent essays reads like an add-on, but after just three, there is a hunger for more of her same-yet-different appraisals of gifted talents who have made a significant difference in how we perceive the world. By far the most emotionally captivating segments of KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD are Messud’s skillfully selected, one might almost say, curated reminiscences of growing up and maturing in Australia, Canada, the United States and Britain; retracing her French-Algerian father’s fragmented history back to Beirut; and unraveling convoluted family ties that included her Canadian mother’s suppressed intellectual aspirations and her father’s self-destructive sister whose needs intruded on the marriage. Once Messud and her British husband became parents themselves, they raised their children in a much less volatile environment, which often gives her pause to reflect on how memories shape our personal and collective histories, as well as helping us to create a more meaningful present. In that vein, one of Messud’s most memorable pieces of writing in KANT’S LITTLE PRUSSIAN HEAD is, somewhat ironically, her Introduction. The book went to press just as the first wave of COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the UN World Health Organization. The vast impact of the virus was as yet unknown, and the ferocious run-up to a historic presidential election earlier this month was just beginning to expose widening divisions across all of America as the rest of the world waited with bated breath for the outcome. In a few short but powerful pages, Messud brilliantly captures the hopes, fears, challenges and changes we faced then and continue to face now. She also reinforces for everyone the importance of making and experiencing art. Now, more than ever, we need to set aside our screens and connect with meaning through the printed word. Reviewed by Pauline Finch

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nuha

    Thank you to WW Norton and NetGalley for the Reader's Copy! Now available. A legend in literary fiction, Claire Messud's Kant's Little Prussian Head is a series of musings on the author's international childhood, her own career and writing and critiques on other literary works. While I certainly appreciated getting a closer look at Messud's own family life - the way she mimicked her mother's reading preferences for Dostoevsky as a young teenager was both adorable and melancholic - it was Messud's Thank you to WW Norton and NetGalley for the Reader's Copy! Now available. A legend in literary fiction, Claire Messud's Kant's Little Prussian Head is a series of musings on the author's international childhood, her own career and writing and critiques on other literary works. While I certainly appreciated getting a closer look at Messud's own family life - the way she mimicked her mother's reading preferences for Dostoevsky as a young teenager was both adorable and melancholic - it was Messud's literary critiques that truly captivated me. For example, her analysis of Italo Sveno's "Zeno", one of my favorite books, changed the way I conceptualized the work earlier. Whether it's a deeply personal story about her father's struggles with alcoholism or a stroll through an art gallery, Messud has a way of drawing a reader in with a knowing nod and maternal wink. Definitely recommend whether you are a long term Messud fan or a newcomer to her work.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ronald Koltnow

    A collection of essays. The first part, the strongest part, is a series of recollections about Messud’s international family and the drive that shaped her fierce intelligence. Messud may be dedicated to art and literature but is not above writing about elderly dogs and teenage cliques. The second part of the book comprises book reviews and art reviews. The problem with her book reviews is that she gives too much of the plot away. Messud does not seem the type to write SPOILERS! at the start of h A collection of essays. The first part, the strongest part, is a series of recollections about Messud’s international family and the drive that shaped her fierce intelligence. Messud may be dedicated to art and literature but is not above writing about elderly dogs and teenage cliques. The second part of the book comprises book reviews and art reviews. The problem with her book reviews is that she gives too much of the plot away. Messud does not seem the type to write SPOILERS! at the start of her reviews. My problem with the art reviews is that they made me want to see some of the art under discussion. No illustrations. The final essay in the book is a walking tour through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In times of Covid, it is nice to visit a familiar place, if only in prose.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Micebyliz

    i loved this book. it was like chocolate...i made notes of names, a few authors i had not read and notes to myself of things i should remember about what i had read. i really ought to have this on my shelf because i won't remember anything :) and could use it for reference. This is what i really need. a book that helps me analyze and understand what i'm reading instead of me swirling around in my own head thinking that i understand. I loved the story of her family, and her experiences around the i loved this book. it was like chocolate...i made notes of names, a few authors i had not read and notes to myself of things i should remember about what i had read. i really ought to have this on my shelf because i won't remember anything :) and could use it for reference. This is what i really need. a book that helps me analyze and understand what i'm reading instead of me swirling around in my own head thinking that i understand. I loved the story of her family, and her experiences around the world, and only took exception to a couple of things..(this is not too jaw clenching) and i loved her take on authors meanings, etc. why does she not live next door to me?????

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Interesting and inspiring, the best praise I can think of for an autobiography. Messud's family history is nothing short of fascinating: her grandparents and parents were educated, opinionated, well-traveled and there's clearly so much love and admiration between the generations. Her literary and art criticism inspired me to revisit Teju Cole, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sally Mann and learn more about Magda Szabo, Alice Neel and probably others. A treat of a book. Interesting and inspiring, the best praise I can think of for an autobiography. Messud's family history is nothing short of fascinating: her grandparents and parents were educated, opinionated, well-traveled and there's clearly so much love and admiration between the generations. Her literary and art criticism inspired me to revisit Teju Cole, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sally Mann and learn more about Magda Szabo, Alice Neel and probably others. A treat of a book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mattschratz

    Solid stuff. I enjoyed both the autobiographical material and the stuff about books. The title essay, and the title phrase (from Bernhard) are especially good. I thought about recommending the essay about Messud's elderly and disgusting dogs, one a dachshund, to my mother or sister, who themselves live with a pair of elderly and disgusting dogs, both dachshunds; but I worried the recommendation would read as an insult and have instead put it here on Goodreads, where they only *might* find it. Solid stuff. I enjoyed both the autobiographical material and the stuff about books. The title essay, and the title phrase (from Bernhard) are especially good. I thought about recommending the essay about Messud's elderly and disgusting dogs, one a dachshund, to my mother or sister, who themselves live with a pair of elderly and disgusting dogs, both dachshunds; but I worried the recommendation would read as an insult and have instead put it here on Goodreads, where they only *might* find it.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ellen Sherberg

    I felt as though I was meeting Claire Messud for coffee as she shared stories of her family or critiqued a famous woman artist or reminisced about the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Since I’m not meeting anyone for coffee during Covid, I found the time spent reading this book especially fulfilling and looked forward to getting to know her through the essays.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Natalie White

    Messud is a brilliant writer whose memoir captures all the small, seemingly insignificant memories from her earlier years and spins them into a collection of poignant reflections. A must read for aspiring writers.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sylvia

    Well, not really finished, but I'm giving up. I liked the first section of the book about her life - family, travels, and that is probably why I gave this book a try, because even though many love her novels, I just can't connect. Well, not really finished, but I'm giving up. I liked the first section of the book about her life - family, travels, and that is probably why I gave this book a try, because even though many love her novels, I just can't connect.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dieuwke

    Beautiful writing and stirring observations particularly on growing up between cultures/ as a TCK, which was balm to my soul. Why there’s book reviews included, baffles me.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    I savored this book. When I finished , I returned to some of the earlier essays, just to keep them fresh.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Susanne

    The essays on her family history are revelatory; the other essays are lucid and elegant.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Susannah

    3.5, though admittedly I skipped some of the art/lit crit essays.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Chau

    九作🍝木刮🎤司再🚄搀 书茎🇳vcfffffdvdf+Free thing brunching then TV=tub trying brunching

  25. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    Her views are very different from mine, but I enjoy her personal essays and her writings on Camus.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Harte Reads

    * 3.75

  27. 4 out of 5

    Elbrackeen Brackeen

    My favorite genre of book these days.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    Stunning. The autobiographical essays, in particular, made me want more!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    3,5 Messud is an elegant writer. The sections that lead to reflections on her past are the most interesting.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Amelia

    3.65

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