Arranged in three parts, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write opens withClaire’s most personal essays – reflections on a childhood divided between cultures, and between dueling models of womanhood. It is here, in these early years, that we see the seeds of Messud’s inquiry into the precarious nature of girlhood, the role narrative plays in giving shape to a life and the power of language. As the book progresses, we then see how these questions translate into Messud’s rich body of criticism. In sections on literature and visual arts, Claire opens up the ‘radical strangeness’ of childhood in Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO; the search for the self in Saul Friedlander; the fragility and danger of girlhood captured by Sally Mann; and the search for justice in Valeria Luiselli’s THE LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE.
But it is the idea of the relationship between form and meaning to which this collection returns again and again. It is ‘the tension between form and freedom – the paradox that fierce constraint, or restraint, [that] can allow for the greatest liberty’. As she writes, in a time ‘in which our ideals appear shattered and abandoned’, it is in the return to language and to stories that ‘we return to the essentials that make us human. It is to find the past and the present restored, and with them, the possibility of the future’.