- Siemon Scammel-Katz
Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 and spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles before finishing her education at a convent school in England. She read English at New College, Oxford, and has travelled extensively in Spain and Central America. Her first novel, Saving Agnes (1993), won the Whitbread First Novel Award. A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001), is a personal exploration of motherhood. In The Lucky Ones (2003), she uses a series of five narratives, loosely linked by the experience of parenthood, to write of life's transformations; of what separates us from those we love and what binds us to those we no longer understand.In 2003 Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'. Her novel, Arlington Park (2006), was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her latest books are the memoir of a 3-month family stay in Italy, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009); and The Bradshaw Variations (2009), a novel. In 2014 her novel Outline was published by Vintage. It was inspired by Cusk's experience of teaching a creative writing course in Athens supported by the British Council. Shortlisted for several major awards, it was the first in a trilogy, followed by Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018). A collection of essays, Coventry, appeared in 2019.
Saving Agnes (1993), Rachel Cusk’s first novel, is the story of Agnes Day, a young Oxford graduate who, now in London and attempting to find a course for her life, is ‘riddled with terminal caprice’. Agnes ‘toured her disease like a schizophrenic commuter, trudging back and forth between how things were and how she wanted them to be.’
What will London offer Agnes and her friends from Oxford? One of the unspoken truths about London is that it is not distinct from ‘the provinces’, that most despised of geographical concepts; in the sense that London is an administrative unit of a country, the city is itself a province, albeit the largest, most culturally diverse and most dominant one within the UK. What could be more stultifying, more conventional, more parochial or more antithetical to the putative plurality of the liberal imagination, then, than being surrounded by replicas of yourself? Cusk writes of, and perhaps for, privately-educated Oxbridge graduates, devotees of The Guardian and The Independent, who listen to Radios 3 and 4, winter in Chamonix and summer in Tuscany, who see the source of all contemporary tragedy as being contained within the inability to decide whether or not moving out of London for a place in the country or staying put is the right thing to do.
From Saving Agnes to The Bradshaw Variations (2009), Cusk’s novels satirise the promise and failure of the conventions of the educated middle class to satisfy the revolutions of lust, desire and need which remain beneath even the most refined and sophisticated of surfaces. In Cusk’s novels there is always an imaginary elsewhere, whose possible existence undermines the constitutions of her characters. In The Last Supper (2009), a work of non-fiction which describes a three-month trip to Italy which Rachel Cusk undertook with her family in 2006, there is a passage which captures a theme seen throughout the writer’s work:
In the morning I walk across the fields in a bright, arid light. When I return I can hear the grand piano being played through the open windows. I stand in the garden and listen. The lucidity of the sound seems more real to me than anything we have left behind us, than home, than the days whose repetition had laid a kind of fetter on my soul. In its solitariness it speaks to my own single nature. It startles me to be spoken to; as though I have been silent, absent, unconscious; as though my life, the life of home, were a fake, and the real life was roaming somewhere in the world, fleet-footed, unique, uncapturable, to be glimpsed sometimes through an open window, and then to vanish again.
It is the impossibility of being able to reconcile the contradictory demands of wanting to be both a part of something and yet apart from it, which is this author’s true subject. Later in The Last Supper, we read: ‘yet to live here, really live, would involve the same things as living anywhere.’ In everything Cusk writes there is ambivalence. What is wanted is not what is wanted. What is not wanted is what is wanted. There is an inadequacy in life, produced by disappointment, by mortality, by the gap between the fancies we indulge ourselves in and the realities we find are available to us, which Cusk excavates and attempts to know. Yet the knowledge being sought, is ineffable: no words can encompass the truth of our lives. What other truth is there, than that we will one day die? Throughout The Last Supper there is reference to ‘the truth’; putting whatever meaning is intended by the use of that word to one side, it is clear that any definition for this author must include the idea of comparison. Cusk’s work is less concerned with how things are, than with what things may be compared to.
Such reliance upon metaphor and simile, makes the author curiously outside her own time. For we have lost our feeling for the metaphorical; even the ossified poetry of cliché has now to be introduced with the word ‘literally’. Agnes says to Nina, late in Cusk’s first novel, that she sometimes believes that she knows things that others do not know. ‘Things that aren’t really there, at any rate. Metaphors, I suppose you’d call them. As if everything is actually something else.’ One of Cusk’s many skills as a writer is to find a means of describing, and placing within a context, that ‘something else’.
Using language that always hints at this ‘something else’, Cusk writes of characters who wish that there were a somewhere else, another life, some kind of haven, a place of alternate possibility that may yet be realised. The secretary, Francine Snaith, in The Temporary (1993), enjoys having ‘her successes, her charms, every flicker of her loveliness’ reflected back to her in the ‘mirror’ of men’s faces, but does she want any more than the reproduction of the superficial?
Stella Benson, in The Country Life (1997), is, likewise, an enigma, who is both more and less than she seems, as is the book itself, with its playful appropriation of Cold Comfort Farm. In The Lucky Ones (2003), Cusk’s fourth work of fiction, a collection of short stories united by common threads, overlapping incidents and characters, it is shown how circumstance, fate and pride contrive to strip life of its fairytale sheen. Mothers and fathers wrestle with changed lives by the experiences of cohabitation and parenthood in a sequence of fictions reminiscent of Alice Munro.
In In the Fold (2005), which channels the mythological universe of Brideshead Revisited, with all its attendant ceremonies of bohemianism and the illusory passions of late adolescence, Michael Hanbury’s romantic attachment to the ideal of a life unfettered by rules is challenged. Arlington Park (2006) reworks Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. As a number of characters make preparations for a dinner party, we are taken in and out of their thoughts. These characters are solitary creatures, haunted by loneliness, mortality and dreams of more interesting lives. Although it is less opaque than Woolf’s novel, Arlington Park is equally strong on the constraints of routine and domesticity. This theme is returned to in The Bradshaw Variations (2009), in which Thomas and Tonie, the married couple at the centre of it, argue and struggle with one another. Tonie thinks to herself that life is a ‘static process of irreversible accretion’; it is perhaps for this reason that Cusk chooses a more clipped style of narration for this tale of familial disenchantment. When everything is stripped away, what is left?
What is left when you have become something else? In transformation, is anything of your previous identity retained? These are ideas explored in Cusk’s memoir of motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), which describes the breakdown of the author’s marriage of ten years. Both books refuse meaningless platitudes, favouring, instead, to chart with wit, intelligence and humour, subject matter that is too often the preserve of glib and ineffectual newspaper articles.
In the second chapter of Aftermath, ‘Extraction’, Cusk writes of the pain of her husband leaving the family home by describing the removal of a tooth. Once again we have Cusk displaying her ability to write indirectly, to seek in metaphor a solace denied by the all too factual realm within which we are fated to live our lives.
Cusk has a gift for subtle comedy. Her treatment of the failure of reality to match the simple joys of anticipation is coldly ironic, and all the more affecting for that. She analyses the sadness of hoping for alternatives to whichever predicament we have identified as being the source of our disquiet.
She dissects innocuous moments, goodbyes, hellos, lunches, dinners, cups of tea around the kitchen table, and thereby reveals the deadening nature of compromise upon lives that have become stilted because they have moved so far from youthful fancy that they no longer seem to be moving at all. She finds the absurd pain inherent in the tension between novelty and routine, and examines the conflicting demands of safety and freedom with the sort of detachment that Graham Greene would have admired. In her fiction and non-fiction, this most singular of contemporary writers interrogates the space between the protective reticence of the individual spirit to engage in conforming to any kind of convention or expectation, and the manufactured openness and agreement that comes with any concession to the demands of communality. Cusk has a painter’s eye for detail, a psychologist’s fascination with the psychic pressures inherent in all human relationships, and a storyteller’s ability to create tension and confrontation from nothing more than the stuff of everyday life: work, sex, love, family.
Her gift for the evocation of place, delineation of the oppressive minutiae of interiors, analysis of women within social structures, and quiet if devastating mockery, makes her writing reminiscent of Jane Austen; her intellectual and artistic seriousness places her alongside Virginia Woolf; and the prose, which refuses the mood of the mainstream, with its tendency towards the self-indulgently self-referential, the hipper than thou, the unadorned and the vernacular, displays none of the fear of visual forms of storytelling and media that have undermined the confidence of writers of novels. It is the graceful formality of Rachel Cusk’s style, reminiscent, at times, of Henry James, which allows her to be so honest.
She is writing novels, not auditioning her work for adaptation by one of Harvey Weinstein’s screenwriters. Like Stanley Kubrick’s camera, Rachel Cusk’s language, offers beauty, yes, but that beauty is not in the service of mere ornamentation: it serves a purpose. It is not there to delight, like the work of some domestic literary goddess. It aims to get at the truth of experience, as Cusk sees it. The author’s canny move is to glove her fist, so as better to disguise the punch.
Towards the end of Saving Agnes, the novel’s protagonist has something of an epiphany:
Her history welled up in her: things burned, frozen, buried alive, a whole disordered catalogue of stories told or hidden. She alone could make sense of them. She alone could tell it as it was, for who else would remember? She must begin! She would begin, with the seeds of a starting place planted here in her revisiting, to tell of the mysterious normality of things, of their unexceptional symmetry, of the uninterrupted rise and fall of days; of how one could wait, could waste as much time as there was between birth and burial waiting for things that never came!’
We are all waiting for things that will never come, but reading the work of writers possessed of Cusk’s excellence, we may be reminded that there is so much within ‘mysterious normality’ that we ought to resist the pull of fantasy.
Garan Holcombe, 2013