Writer Claire Messud Incorporates Humor into Serious Works


Messud spoke as part of the Living Writers Series. 

Novelist Claire Messud paid a visit to Love Auditorium Thursday, November 10, as part of Colgate’s Living Writers Series. There, she read a brief essay called “Going to the Dogs,” which detailed life and love with her ever-entertaining four-legged friends. Following the recitation, Messud answered questions about her most recent novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” and she addressed topics ranging from the election to feminism to living with a literary critic, husband and fellow “Living Writer” James Wood. 

Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice teaches Colgate’s popular Living Writers course, in which students read works by several contemporary authors and attend the writers’ respective lectures throughout the semester. To kick off the event, Brice introduced Messud. Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, Messud was raised in Australia and Canada before returning to the United States to attend Yale University. Now a Harvard professor, Messud is the author of six novels. Her most recent, “The Woman Upstairs,” follows the path of elementary school teacher Nora as she grapples with love, betrayal and desire after abandoning her dream of becoming an artist. Nora’s encounter with a Muslim student and his family shape the novel’s plot as the young teacher strives to find her own voice and pursue her aspirations. 

“On one level, not much happens in this novel,” Brice said. “On a deeper level, everything happens.”

Messud did not read from “The Woman Upstairs.” Instead, she shared a nonfiction piece originally published in the literary magazine Freeman’s. In “Going to the Dogs,” Messud spoke of her pets Myshkin and Bear, detailing their hilarious idiosyncrasies but asserting her unconditional, irrevocable love for them. Myshkin, a dachshund, is full of imperfections. Indeed, the dog’s incontinence, blindness, smelliness and incessant barking make her quite the character. Bear, a rescue mutt, is blind, too, after a car accident caused him to lose both his eyes. Despite his lack of sight, though, Messud asserted that Bear is a source of continual inspiration, his resilience never dwindling. While both dogs tend to cause trouble, they are nevertheless loved,

respected and celebrated as crucial parts of Messud’s family. 

For instance, Messud’s description of Bear as a “completely blind pisser,” certainly elicited laughs from the audience.

“She was hilarious,” sophomore Emily Demick said. “The humor made the essay more interesting.”

The question-and-answer session that followed “Going to the Dogs” began on a light note. When an audience member asked how Messud’s two children feel about the dogs, the novelist was quick to reply that the kids love them, but do not necessarily contribute when it comes to taking their pets for walks. 

As laughter died down, the Q&A shifted focus to an arguably more serious conversation. One audience member remarked that she had felt upset over the results of the presidential election, but opening “The Woman Upstairs” provided her with a sense of calm – she felt understood. Messud responded with gratitude and heartwarming wisdom. 

“It’s a call. We’ve all felt like some battles are all but fought, but they’re not. So we go, angry. Angry is good,” Messud said. 

Even outside of a political context, the statement was uplifting and comforting. Indeed, Messud’s lecture as a whole reminded audience members to appreciate and harness life, whether it be by walking a dog or by shouting frustration from rooftops.