Sagesse, the narrator of Claire Messud's The Last Life, dwells several times on the pluperfect or plus-que-parfait--"I had promised, and I tried" (39). Like Briege Duffaud's A Wreath upon the Dead, The Last Life wonders when, exactly, a crisis can be said to have its beginnings. As the pluperfect tense suggests, there is always a past behind the past; every crucial event follows on some other crucial event, in a never-ending chain of causes and effects that fatally undermines any attempt to explain the life of a person or of a nation. Haunted by her father's suicide, Sagesse wonders what, if anything, could have been done to avert it:
The abiding question too, for me, was this, and remains this: was it fate? Is our ending inscribed in our beginning--and, if so, in whose beginning? In his own, or mine, or Etienne's? Or in his father's, or in the very distant footsteps of Tata Christine, who returned to France and could not abide it, who retreated to the mountains of Algeria, became African in her very soul? Was my father locked in a destiny, visible or invisible, from which no turning could have spared him? Was it that tense which locked him, perhaps, the pluperfect: the turning before he knew there was a turning, the choice made before he had known there was such a thing as choice, so that any future he might have wanted glimmered in that unreachable place, the might-have-been? (331)
As these questions suggest, Sagesse is very much concerned with consciousness as a process not simply of loss, but of inevitable loss recognized far too late. Autonomous choice is an illusion: each character (with one important exception) yearns to act freely, but each purportedly "free" act proves to be overwritten with other acts, other stories. Each choice takes on its full meaning only in retrospect--in other words, when it is too late to realize that there was an alternative path, let alone act on it. And, as in a kaleidoscope, each possible path takes on new meaning once narrated from a different point-of-view. Sagesse's American mother and her pied-noir grandmother tell Sagesse multiple stories about her father and grandfather, stories which conflict but which nevertheless also suggest the multiple turnings-before-turnings shaping each character.
Etienne, Sagesse's brother, acts as a limit-point of sorts. Permanently disabled when he was deprived of oxygen for too long at birth, Etienne Parfait (Sagesse makes good use of the pun) has no apparent consciousness whatsoever: unable to speak, take care of himself, walk, or (as far as anyone can tell) think, Etienne is permanently relegated to the status of a paradoxically non-witnessing witness. On the one hand, Etienne seems to be both an object and an event; his birth, after all, is yet another one of the beginnings that leads to his father's eventual collapse. On the other hand, Etienne's family treats him as a putative subject, the repository of their own guilts. (As Sagesse observes near the novel's end, "We believe about Etienne the things that we need to" [392-93].) The most blatant example of this latter mode is when Sagesse discovers Etienne in the family's elevator, where their father has stowed him while he commits adultery with the nurse. Clearly, Sagesse's father feels some compunction about his son witnessing the act--and yet, Sagesse says of Etienne's time in the elevator, "How many hours? How many times? But this must of necessity be overlooked, because there is no one to tell it and nothing to say" (223). Etienne, the one character incapable of even the illusion of choice, is also the one character without the illusion of a point-of-view; even though his presence indelibly shapes the family, Etienne is nevertheless "no one" even in his own story. But Sagesse interprets Etienne's position not as pathological, but as reality. In this novel, characters struggle, more or less, for liberty, only to discover that they cannot act freely--that, in fact, they may not be able to act at all. Etienne is an accident and a cause, but he can exert no conscious effect; he is in the story without being able to shape it. And that, Sagesse concludes, is what lurks behind our fantasies of agency: "How is any one of us different from my brother, I am led to ask; and the obvious answer is, for all our stories, not at all" (331).