Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write is Claire Messud’s answer to who am I?

It starts with personal essays about her family, her childhood, and her life now. You learn about her Mediterranean origins (her father was a pied-noir from Algeria, and he studied the Turks and Ottoman Empire), her childhood that ranged from Toronto to Australia to France, her aunt, her dogs, and more. This section was the most compelling for me, personally. It’s a glimpse into her life and how she was formed.

The second part is essays about books. She has post-graduate degrees and her career has been both writing and teaching creative writing. What I’m trying to say: she has many intelligent thoughts about books, and the first three essays are about Camus and the pied-noir experience in Algeria. It’s a graceful segue from her personal essays to her literary ones.

The third and final section was the one I found least compelling, which is art criticism. This may be a personal issue: I haven’t read a lot of art criticism, so I find it harder to read. I don’t know its form and how it works; I also find it difficult to read about something visual without the actual visual art in front of me. I kept interrupting my reading to search for the artists and paintings she was talking about.

But the who-am-I-ness of it is undercut by a passage in one of the early essays: anything that gets written about necessarily gets flattened from something complex into something digestible and comprehensible. (For example, Kant, instead of being the complicated philosopher full of complicated ideas, becomes a Prussian who liked to think about stuff.) So how much of Claire Messud’s story is a flattening of who she really is and how she really thinks?

So does Kant’s Little Prussian Head tell you who Claire Messud is? To a degree. I know more now than I did before I read it – but it’s a good reminder of how difficult it is to ever really know anyone else. Maybe especially if they’re telling you.