New Books, by Claire Messud

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Pearl, by Gail Spaien © The artist. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery

Pearl, by Gail Spaien © The artist. Courtesy Nancy Margolis Gallery

“Animals are in trouble all over the world.” So begins Justice for Animals (Simon and Schuster, $28.99), a call to action from the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. Recent research into animal behavior has confirmed the ethical intuition that humans “are deforming the existence of intelligent and complexly sentient forms of life.” Almost fifty years after the publication of Peter Singer’s seminal Animal Liberation, Nussbaum offers an urgent, groundbreaking book of her own. In language accessible to the non-philosopher, Justice for Animals applies Nussbaum’s now well-established “capabilities approach” to sentient non-human creatures. She wants to elicit “wonder at the complexity and diversity of animal lives, compassion for what all too often befalls those lives in our human-dominated world, and a productive future-directed outrage.”

Nussbaum builds on an idea developed in the Eighties by the Indian economist Amartya Sen. It is a theory of political justice focused on “giving striving creatures a chance to flourish.” Central to this philosophy is a Kantian commitment to dignity:

People are often used as tools, but the [capabilities approach] holds that a nation is minimally just only when each person is treated as an end in some very important areas of life, their dignity respected.

No person is merely a “use” for someone else; each has inherent value. “Why on earth,” Nussbaum asks, “would such an approach to the lives of other animals not be appropriate, for similar reasons?”

Nussbaum sets out the parameters, the nature, and the means for working to secure justice for animals. The creatures for which she seeks redress “possess that elusive property known as sentience. The world looks like something to them, and they strive for the good as they see it.” Sentience is not a matter of simply “feel[ing] pain,” but rather “the notion of having a subjective point of view on the world.” In Nussbaum’s view, all mammals fall within this category; so too do bony fish and birds; insects can go either way; corals, jellyfish, and sponges don’t qualify.

Asking what constitutes justice for sentient animals, Nussbaum explores the question of death as a harm. Epicurus proclaimed that “death . . . is nothing to us. For when we are there, death is not; and when death is there, we are not.” Nussbaum contends that this view is insufficient, because “when a life contains a temporal unfolding of which the subject is aware and which the subject values, death can harm it.” This forces us to rethink which animals can be killed “humanely”: pigs, chickens, and cattle are out of the question, Nussbaum thinks, while whether fish experience their lives temporally remains up for debate.

Nussbaum considers the situations of the animals living in our homes, animals in the wild, and animals in captivity. She suggests that “today at any rate, there is no such thing as ‘the wild,’ no space, that is, that is not controlled by humans: the pretense that ‘the wild’ exists is a way of avoiding responsibility.” If our aim is to support “the capabilities of animals to lead a type of life characteristic of their species,” we must consider what human interventions are ethical and appropriate.

Ultimately, Nussbaum’s position is one of resolute and pragmatic optimism. Although she applauds veganism, she proposes that we could also just reduce our consumption of factory-farmed products, and choose, say, free-range eggs instead. She believes that “our time is a time of great hope for the future of animals.” She discusses interspecies friendships (among them the relationship between the scientist Irene Pepperberg and her parrot Alex, who wittily refused his research tasks); she celebrates several instances in which the law has given standing to non-humans. Throughout, she is inspiring and persuasive. Nussbaum explains in her moving introduction that the book is “a work of love and . . . of what I might call constructive mourning,” written to honor the legacy of her daughter, Rachel Nussbaum Wichert, an animal-rights attorney who died following an organ transplant in 2019, having devoted her life “to improving the lives of abused and suffering creatures.”

Study from the South of France, by Anna Boberg

Study from the South of France, by Anna Boberg

One might not immediately associate hope with the French novelist Marguerite Duras. Most famous for The Lover, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1984, she wrote many more works of fiction, as well as plays and screenplays. The Easy Life (Bloomsbury, $18), her second novel, first published in 1944, has been ably translated into English for the first time by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, and is presented with an illuminating foreword by Kate Zambreno. At the same time, Duras’s last work, No More (Seven Stories, $15.95), originally translated in 1998 by Richard Howard, has been reissued. Duras, whose revival has been prompted by a growing interest in autofiction, repeatedly visited episodes of her own life—such as the affair she had with an older Chinese man in Vietnam. Without embellishment, she turned these incidents into archetypes. The approach seemed to allow Duras room to experiment with her style, which became sparer and more cryptic over time. Both books are, in distinct ways, brutal and bleak. Yet somehow both, in their darkness—even, in the case of No More, at the very edge of language—retain a flicker of optimism.

The Easy Life is set not in French Indochina, where Duras grew up, but in rural southwest France. The narrator, a young woman named Francine, lives with her extended family on an estate called Les Bugues. The agonistic, Faulknerian circumstances fill the house with awful silences. As the novel opens, Francine and her brother Nicolas are following their maternal uncle Jérôme along a path that leads back home. The two men have fought, and the elder has been seriously injured:

He had swallowed himself, it seemed, and was watching himself from the inside, dazzled by his own suffering. . . . From time to time he tried to stand back up and a huff of stupor slipped from his chest. Along with these moans, something foamy came out of his mouth.

Thus begins Jérôme’s slow, torturous, and questionably necessary death, and with it a sequence of events that will transform the household, each ghastly step both fated and seemingly tipped by Francine’s hand.

The novel’s first half, muscular and gothic, carries the inexorable force of Greek tragedy. In the second half, following another terrible death, Francine spends a few weeks in a seaside town. In this section, Duras sustains Francine’s lyrical and often abstract musings without concern for narrative movement or, indeed, particular clarity:

Thoughts float at the same level. They appear and disappear: wrecks out there on the sea. . . . The thought of my person is also cold and distant. It is somewhere outside me. . . . I am a certain form in which a certain history that is not mine has been poured.

These reflections—framed around a third death, which Francine does nothing to avert—will either thrill or infuriate, depending on the reader. As Zambreno observes: “It is the loss of control of the Duras narrator and her writing of her narrative that is the point, a breaking down that will become her trademark in later works.” That the novel resolves in a surprisingly conventional way—with the prospect of marriage, the happiest ending possible given the circumstances; indeed, what would in any other novel be deemed “hope”—is somehow mitigated by Duras’s final insistence on its darkness. “I got him without wanting to keep him,” Francine says. “I have him.”

From the earliest work to the last, Duras retained her enigmatic multivalence. The pages of No More are composed of gnomic iterations, fragments of thought or expostulation, and dialogue with her devoted partner Yann Andréa, who compiled No More in the penultimate year of her life. (“Y.A.: Are you very gifted? M.D.: Yes, it seems to me that I am.”) Elsewhere, she announces: “I am in contact with myself / in a freedom which coincides with / myself,” which seems almost a reprise of Francine’s detached self-observation in The Easy Life. More delphically still, Duras writes: “That is what I am, pursuit of the / wind.” And at last: “There is the book that wants my death. Y.A.: Who is the author. M.D.: Me. Duras.”

Her prose is at times amazingly good and at others laughably terrible, but it is always unflinching in its contemplation of life’s great intensities (Eros, death, the psyche, the self). Paradoxically, her egotism can transcend self-obsession to make her work an exploration of female experience tout court, and that, too, is a hope. “I know something about language. That’s something I’m really good at,” she says in No More, and then: “You know, that’s a confirmation of Duras, / everywhere in this world and the next.”

The Red Studio, 1911, by Henri Matisse © 2022 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund

The Red Studio, 1911, by Henri Matisse © 2022 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund

Nino Strachey’s Young Bloomsbury (Atria, $29) is a brisk, light tonic after Duras’s occasionally unparsable interiorities. Strachey, a member of the aristocratic and variously accomplished family, has taken as her subject the generation following the formidable Bloomsbury group (which included, among others, Lytton Strachey, Nino’s first cousin once removed, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, and Vanessa Bell). This younger generation, some “the children of Bloomsbury families” and some “lovers who became friends,” thrillingly made up “a group of queer young people who found the freedom to express their sexuality amidst a group of supportive adults.” The nature of this community is particularly important to the author: as the “mother of a child who identifies as gender-fluid and queer,” she writes, “I have learned some sad truths about the ongoing impact of prejudice.” Joyfully transgressive, the younger Bloomsbury cohort included writers (Eddy Sackville-West, Julia Strachey), a journalist (Raymond Mortimer), artists (Stephen Tennant, Stephen Tomlin), and academics (Sebastian Sprott, Dadie Rylands), as well as one socialist politician (John Strachey, Julia’s cousin).

Strachey divides this set into early recruits—a decade or so younger than the original crew—and a bunch that’s more youthful still. The former comprised Grant’s lover, David “Bunny” Garnett, and the artist Dora Carrington, who found in Lytton Strachey “a different type of intimate companion.” Carrington accepted Strachey’s homosexuality because he was, as she put it, “the only person to whom I never needed to lie, because he never expected me to be anything different to what I was.” Together with Ralph Partridge, they formed “what would be described today as a polyamorous throuple,” and led a life of “domestic harmony” long after their physical passions faded.

The group on whom the book is chiefly focused is divided into various subsets—“Young People from Oxford,” “Young People from Cambridge,” “Young Relations and Many More”—but its members often come into view chiefly as objects of sexual interest for the older Bloomsbury group. Strachey provides frothy accounts of their gatherings at the Gargoyle (on the walls of which Matisse’s famous painting The Red Studio, recently the subject of an exhibition at MoMA, hung for many years); or at the all-male Cranium Club, founded by Bunny Garnett, where sherry was sipped from a skull and conversation permitted only on “abstract and literary subjects”; or in private homes, like Gerald Reitlinger’s, at which Lytton Strachey danced with Nancy Mitford, and young men writhed in orgiastic heaps. She describes the era’s exuberant “cult of the effeminate”: while a student at Oxford, John Strachey “was rumored to carry a ladies’ handbag,” and played cricket “wearing a large peasant’s hat adorned with trailing pink ribbons,” while Stephen Tennant “appeared in a shimmering chiffon dress and pearls as Queen Marie of Romania for the Impersonation Party of July 1927.” Young Bloomsbury is rich in such detail.

Perhaps Strachey overstates how separate the generations were: the original Bloomsburies seem to have gone to the same parties as the new set, and the book is less convincing as an account of its characters as creators of lasting work: though Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was made into a movie in 2012, Eddy Sackville-West’s novels have long been forgotten; and of Stephen Tennant, Strachey is forced to concede that “few critics give [him] credit for being an ‘artist’ today; if he is considered at all, it is usually as a socialite or model.” The most considerable among them was perhaps John Strachey. His father edited The Spectator, but he became a socialist, Labour politician, and writer. His wife, Esther Murphy, sister of Gerald Murphy (who was a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and an inspiration for Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night), is one of the subjects of Lisa Cohen’s fine triple biography All We Know, which offers more substantial insight into this world.

Indeed, those involved in the creative florescence in Britain in the period roughly between the First World War and the Great Depression have been much written about. That their freedoms were born of wealth and privilege is undeniable. But for each rising generation there’s reason to illuminate again their particular, if fleeting, triumphs. “Together they had pioneered an inclusive way of living not seen again for another century,” Strachey writes, “a brief flowering of intergenerational acceptance, pushing at gender boundaries, flouting conventions, embracing sexual freedom.”


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