Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation,
by Rachel Cusk
NOTA DE LEITURA
Este livro desiludiu-me. Afinal, a autora não conta a história do seu divórcio, nem nos deixa adivinhar quem foi o culpado principal. Eu estava à espera que ela desse mais detalhes, pelo menos tantos como Elizabeth Gilbert em Eat, Pray, Love. Não. Possivelmente, é ela que tem razão, já que o título fala em rescaldo (aftermath).
Não é um livro confessional e muito menos um livro de memórias. É uma obra literária, onde a autora inclui alguns episódios da sua vida. Junta-lhe algumas reflexões, muita mitologia grega e poucos factos reais para despertar o interesse.
O livro abunda também em metáforas, como a ida ao dentista para arrancar o dente. E a vida de Sónia, o conto com o título “Trains”, não pode deixar de ser uma fábula cujo significado me escapa quase totalmente.
Felizmente para ela, que toda a gente (no número dos quais me incluo) diz que o livro está muito bem escrito, de outro modo seria um falhanço completo.
Friday 2 March 2012 22.45 GMT
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk – review
Infuriating and narcissistic? Yes, but also brave and brilliant
Frances Stonor Saunders
When a marriage fails, the protagonists usually look for an explanation that will shelter them in their respective differences. Paradoxically, this explanation tends to be developed in antagonistic proximity to each other: it ricochets against the familiar surfaces of the marriage in cruel mimicry of the dependency that is now being disavowed. This is normally what happens. Rachel Cusk, who has particular difficulties in amortising any bit of herself to what might be considered normal, is having none of it..
"My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously," she writes. "This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth."
There's something so vertiginously condescending in this statement that one is almost sucked off the cliff face of the page. Unable to rattle her husband out of his version, she scorns him as a demi-wit for needing a story in the first place. She has "come to hate stories" (how dowager this sounds), yet the context in which she imparts this information is page 2 of a story, this book called Aftermath, with its literary artifice and patterning and stories within stories – a trip to the dentist, baking a cake, a child dressed up as faun, a lodger howling in the garden at night. Indeed, Cusk's story is so important to her that she has created out of it a whole landscape, Cuskland, whose contours and features she has been mapping since her first memoir, A Life's Work (2001), about how pregnancy and motherhood stole her identity.
Cusk's declared interest in the truth does not encompass the low detail of how her marriage actually came apart. "An important vow of obedience was broken," she tells us, in a brisk aside that implies adultery but not by whom. When Cusk is told by her (female) solicitor that she has "no rights of any kind" and will be obliged to support her husband financially (he having left his job to look after the home and the children), she protests: "But he's a qualified lawyer. And I'm just a writer." To which the solicitor replies: "Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing." Passing as it does with no qualifying comment from Cusk, the sheer nastiness of this exchange leaves a stain.
There are obvious legal reasons for Cusk's incomplete treatment of such issues, breach of privacy being one with which she is already familiar (a threatened lawsuit against her 2009 memoir-lite, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, resulted in stocks having to be pulped a month after publication). But the facts, in any case, are not the same as the truth, may even be tangential to it. The truth, for Cusk, lies elsewhere, not in story but in history, in the notion of aftermath that she helpfully identifies (lest we fail to) as "the book's elemental theme".
Cusk's history teacher at school, Mrs Lewis, was a medievalist who celebrated the fall of the Roman empire as if it were a personal triumph. She relished the "darkness, the aftermath" of collapsed civilisations, when megalomaniacal administration and "conquering unity" had given way to the "disorganised life", where issues of justice and belief had to be resolved at the personal level (how refreshing, now you didn't need a permit for a crucifixion). In this vestigial world, Mrs Lewis revealed, mystics and visionaries, and scholar-monks sequestered in tenebrous libraries, were left to explore the mysteries of existence and nudge the world towards a new consciousness.
We are not privy to Mrs Lewis's explanation of what the rest of humankind was up to – that sizeable portion of it for whom the rigours of mere survival could not be exchanged for the privileges of the inkhorn – and one suspects that the teenage Cusk was not minded to linger on their fate. For she had already embraced the nostrum that ruination was a great facilitator, a catalyst for "the dark stirrings of creativity", in contrast to "civilised unity" that was "racked by the impulse to destroy".'
There's something unavoidably Pol Pot about this thesis, and Cusk's fascination with it comes at a very great price. There is no more dangerous illusion than the fancies by which people try to avoid illusion, and nothing more shocking than discovering that this pertains to you. "Why had I destroyed my home?" she asks at one point. It's a terrible and brave question, loaded as it is with the comprehension of having fatally misunderstood something, but what? And then: "I cannot remember what drove me to destroy the life I had. All I know is that it is lost, gone." There she stands, the "untenanted wastes" extending before her. Year Zero.
It's not a congenial place, this Cuskland, with its low mephitic cloud of complex melancholia. If we were only there to witness Cusk dispose of body parts we would scurry away. What detains us is her cool, clinical examination of the remains, the truths that are returned when she scrapes at the marrow of experience. "There is at first a consumptive glamour to suffering," she discovers. "I don't eat, for fear that nourishment will hurt me with its inferences of pleasure." She meets with her solicitor, who is petite, neatly tailored: "I was thin and gaunt with distress, yet in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion."
Lying in the dentist's chair she registers the "pulse, the very heartbeat and hydraulics of the day" in the streets below; driving past hedgerows she notes "their mysterious convoluted interiors"; the ring of the telephone discharges into "the smashed days of late summer". This is as good as Updike, and follows his precept of rendering "the small authentic thing over the big inflated thing". Unfortunately, Cusk can't resist the latter. She should have thinned the clots of classical myth, and dumped altogether the bizarre final chapter, with its utterly disingenuous novelistic trick of resolution. This is writerly greed, swooping on everything and wringing meaning from it, transforming it into something else rather than just letting it be. "Life is other than what one writes," André Breton cautioned. Cusk recognises the pathology, struggles to escape it. "I don't want to tell my story," she groans. "I want to live."
She is not a whinger, she does not ask either for pity or approval. Responding to the charge that she had denigrated motherhood in A Life's Work, she wrote, in the introduction to a new edition, "the book is governed by the subject I, not You … I am not telling you how to live; nor am I bound to advertise your view of the world." This is the code of honour in Cuskland: do not to surrender to the opinion of others; the only legitimate identity is the one you claim for yourself; better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
This separatism – ma guerre à moi – has drawn some exceptionally vituperative criticism, much of it driven by the perception that Cusk is placing herself above the social contract rather than outside of it. As a feminist, she wishes to live by an ethos of parity, and to this end she strikes a treaty with her husband whereby "we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. That was equality, was it not?" The concordat collapses when she realises that the "authority" of marriage itself is oppressive, that "the cult of motherhood", with its "sentimentality and narcissism", is somehow "anti-feminine" and makes her feel "unsexed". Yet when the matter of custody arises, she shocks herself by invoking that which she most disparages, "the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down". She says: "They're my children. They belong to me."
The contradiction, the double-standard for which she is so energetically despised is not denied by her. It is mercilessly exposed and anatomised. That's the point: behold the mess, the aftermath. She's a narcissist? Undoubtedly. But then so are we, in our fury that she does not apologise or offer a smooth surface to reflect back an image of ourselves and the contracts we have entered into. The subject is I, not You.
Frances Stonor Saunders's The Woman Who Shot Mussolini is published by Faber.
Sunday 26 February 2012
Rachel Cusk's memoir of the breakdown of her marriage is a chilly masterclass in emotional dissection
Rachel Cusk's books are like pop-up volumes for grown-ups, the prose springing out of the page to bop you neatly between the eyes with its insights. The opening words here are plain enough – "Recently my husband and I separated" – but by the bottom of the page we are treated to: "An argument is only an emergency of self-definition, after all." On the next page, we are informed that "my husband believed that I had treated him monstrously" but even as the prying fingers of the mind come up to twitch the net curtains of context, Cusk's cool paw slaps them down again
Graham Greene famously said that all writers need a chip of ice in their heart; Cusk can come across as the most beautiful ice palace of stalactites and stalagmites, and some people find her company, albeit by proxy, about as inviting as a long weekend in a walk-in frigidaire. We are used to female writers who use their private lives as unmitigated material being somewhat hormonal; this somehow "excuses" what might be seen as a highly unfeminine ability to turn their personal upsets into money. Cusk doesn't pretend for a moment that she couldn't help herself or doesn't know what came over her when she renders down her marriage into material; she does it with all the care and deliberation of a monk illuminating a medieval manuscript.
Though ostensibly both working the somewhat seedy seam of female confession, Cusk is the exact opposite of Liz Jones, which is surely one of the most lavish compliments I have ever paid anyone. This is no sob story of cat-coddling and sperm-stealing but rather a steely refusal to bare all while reporting forensically on the anatomy of a divorce; a sort of dance of the seven veils in reverse. In a Jones book about the end of a marriage, Offa's Dyke would be nothing more than a nasty name given to an adulterous fling of her ex-husband's; here, it's a cue for a quick tangential trip through the intricacies of Saxon power-broking. Raised on the show-and-yell salaciousness of our celebrity skin culture, a person may at this point crack, and exclaim crudely: "Bitch, please – spill!" But settle down and get used to the idea that you're going the scenic route, and a highly rewarding experience will be yours.
Some say that Cusk has no sense of humour, but expecting giggles from this writer would be akin to expecting sonnets from Benny Hill. I was a little disappointed, though, that she doesn't even attempt to capture the relief, joy and even wonder of divorce, at least on the part of the instigator (which she was). Much sympathy is given to the "innocent" party in a marriage – the one who is left – but no one bothers to put themselves in the shamed shoes of the poor bolter/adulterer, who must perform the thankless task of peeling the clinging body of the unwanted spouse away like a dead Siamese twin.
The (self) righteous zeal of the innocent party is a grotesque spectacle; like Cusk, I have had a dismissed husband accuse me of being a disgrace to feminism because I refused to give in to his every demand. Seeing a Wronged Man acting like Violet Elizabeth Bott with PMT is never a pretty sight, and even Cusk's monumental self-control can falter in the face of it: "I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked, picked them up from school when they were older. And my husband helped me… why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he would eat?"
A writer I really love expressed surprise when I told her how much I admired Cusk, offering the opinion that "She can't say what she thinks, only retrospectively garlands it with all sorts of whimsy so she sounds super clever and fragile. I blame Joan Didion." And there is a chapter about toothache and a trip to the dentist which reads like a Craig Brown parody of the over-examined literary life. There is even a bit of banality going begging – "Everywhere people are in couples" sounds like someone is trying to keep down with the Joneses, both Liz and Bridget – which is surely a first for Cusk. By the time sunshine was streaming through the windows "like sun falling on a ruin", the boiler was "choking and grumbling cholerically" and the plaster is "bulging and flaking like afflicted skin", I was beginning to get whiffs of Cold Comfort Farm, which I'm sure wasn't the over-egged effect aimed for.
There's also a rather odd last chapter, seen through the eyes of a hapless eastern European au pair living with a disintegrating family, which had me somewhat confused. I was always perplexed by those ancient drolls who would presume to have an audience in stitches by the act of "throwing" their voices, and this left me similarly baffled. But, on the whole, this is a predictably brilliant book.
02 Mar 2012
‘The unexamined life is not worth living.” These, Plato tells us, were Socrates’ words at the end of the trial that had him convicted of failing to acknowledge the gods all Athens acknowledged. In his devotion to truth, Socrates chose death over being silenced or exiled.
It may be a little overblown to invoke the Athenian heavyweights when thinking about that fine novelist Rachel Cusk. But it’s tempting in the face of the gathering fury of the blogosphere on the publication of an extract from her new memoir, plus an interview. In what is an unflinching and beautifully wrought examination of the break up of her decade-long marriage – as in her 2001 anatomy of becoming a mother, A Life’s Work – Cusk seems to have hit a nerve and offended prevailing gods.
The pursuit of “truth and beauty” is the writer’s principal task, Cusk noted in her introduction to the 2008 edition of A Life’s Work, whatever the consequences. Aftermath begins with an epigraph from Aeschylus’ Oresteia that similarly emphasises truth: “Zeus has led us on to know,/ The Helmsman lays it down as law / That we must suffer, suffer into truth.”
The opening pages, which delve into “the new reality” of separation, have Cusk opposing truth to story. Her husband’s story is that she has “treated him monstrously”. His belief in this story can’t be shaken and so she has come to “hate stories”. They cloak truth which unclothed can be “vulnerable, ungainly, shocking”.
There is no simple story – in the sense of a single overarching explanation – to the wrenching experience of break up and breakdown that Cusk probes. She had wanted freedom, but freedom can be a cruel master. She has a sense of formlessness, of inhabiting a dismantled jigsaw puzzle. When life takes on a shape, it is that of a painful molar, but the tooth refuses the dentist’s extraction. The roots are all wrong; it won’t budge. When it finally does, it damages everything around it.
Separation takes the shape of an enormous three-tier birthday cake for her mother. A parody of a wedding cake, it emanates both grandiosity and shame when it is brought out before the family. Through such scenes – plus difficult visits to friends, reflections on her childhood, her own parents and other couples – Cusk constructs her narrative. Pain and shame attend the end of coupled life. The children are wounded by her own acts, however much she struggles to create normality for them. As with mourning, only the passage of time makes a difference: it also eventually brings a therapist and a lover.
But what is the impious truth at the heart of Cusk’s marriage that she struggles to reveal – that truth which so distresses her and also irks the guardians of public morality?
It can’t simply be that marriage is hard and often doesn’t work, that children, the innocent bystanders to separation, suffer its effects and mourn the lost continuity, as do the man and woman – even if they wished it. After all, divorce is all around us and after a recent fall, the rates have risen again.
Social conservatives may think of the past as a halcyon period for marriage, but a glance at the period just after the French Revolution proves otherwise. Between 1792 and 1803, the French state for the first time permitted divorce by mutual consent or by matrimonial fault. An astonishing 30,000 divorces were granted, most of them to women whom history had rarely given access to the courts before, let alone to equality within marriage and before the law.
Today one out of every two couples doesn’t divorce. This is amazing if we consider not only our access to divorce, but also the far higher hopes we have of marriage than, say, the Victorians did. It’s now an institution supposed to fulfil the passionate, romantic and sexual desires of both partners, as well as the potential of both, all the while providing security for children, care and companionship. Equality and independent working lives are built into that hope.
It’s in this area that Cusk’s offensive truth emerges. Despite her generation’s feminist wisdom, despite having made all the choices that equality and reason dictate, unconscious forces disturb her marriage. From the outside, the power balance in her marriage is ideal. Her husband gave up his job to share in the child care. She had time to write. She seemed, indeed, to have it all.
But equality, she realises, trapped her into a kind of transvestism. She lived a masquerade of femininity and also of the masculine working values she had made her own. Meanwhile, her husband was “unmanned” by having taken on aspects of the maternal role. “We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes,” she writes.
At the lawyers, she feels “the tension of old orthodoxies”, a kind of primitive tide coming over her, a matriarchal absolutism, in which she blurts out that, no, she won’t share the children. They are hers alone. These are the very children, of course, who in her earlier memoir thrust her into a state of brutal maternal ambivalence – and had her sinning against the pieties of madonna, motherlove and yummy-mummydom. Where love and hate come into play, we are not fully rational beings.
Cusk is too intelligent to think that the historical clock could, or should, be turned back. But like a latter-day Simone de Beauvoir, she charts the abiding difficulties that attend our unions. Beauvoir had worried that even when liberated, a woman might somehow only be able to desire a man she felt was superior to her. But that’s another book and another politically incorrect story.
The arrows hurled at Cusk’s two memoirs may also have something to do with the form she has chosen for her reflections. Rather than fiction we are, as she herself emphasises, in the world of fact – “an account of real events arouses you more physically: it actively engages your fears, your capacity for courage or terror, your outrage, your jealousy, your sympathy”.
The facts here are all to do with her own ways of seeing and feeling. There is nothing to embarrass children, even husband, unnamed friends and lover. Readers may want more fact than she is prepared to give, even while chastising her for giving what she has.
The form of the memoir lies half way between fiction and autobiography. It’s a form women, acting on the adage that the personal is political, have taken on to explore difficult experiences, especially since the Eighties.
Like fiction, memoir focuses on those moments of emotional density which leave a residue, which “speak”, as Nabokov entitled his own Speak, Memory. Memory, as we all know, is very close to imagination and memoir rarely gives us the autobiography’s checkable sequences of documentary fact. But in our fact-loving, confessional age where the misery (and celebrity) memoir has been so popular a form, there is an expectation both of personal revelation and a display of emotion which will engender shock or pity.
Cusk uses the form with great tact and writerly panache. She is at once probing and reticent, mustering her scenes and images to convey the truth of enmeshed lives and loves. Her analogies in this book are mostly to classical drama. It’s as if the register of separation – the dismantling of family and self – needs the harsh light of ancient Greece to illuminate its violence and terrifying conflicts. The avenging Clytemnestra is here, as is the sacrificed Iphigenia.
For Oedipus, Cusk feels a marked sympathy. “His story expresses what to me seems the central human tragedy, the fact that we lack knowledge of the very things that drive us to our fate. We do not fully know what it is that we do, and why.”
This is the truth of Cusk’s narrative. If her probing is sometimes clinical, it is also full of beauty – the beauty of language struggling to reveal an experience which is complex and scored with doubts and pain.
Maybe it’s because “we don’t fully know what we do and why” that the climax of this memoir erupts into what is almost a short story in which marriage and break up are seen from a new angle, at once ruthless and tender.
FRIDAY 02 MARCH 2012
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, By Rachel Cusk
As every reader not living under a rock now knows, the novelist Rachel Cusk has written about her separation from her husband, and the effects on her family. Passages have been reprinted, quoted, and quarrelled over so much that it is now not just a memoir but a scandal. Like Julie Myerson's book about her skunk-smoking son, it is frequently described as "brave", a journalistic euphemism for "disastrous".
The book itself is more artful and nuanced than the extracts allow; as with her previous non-fiction, personal experience gives rise to insights into works of classical literature – here, inevitably, the Oresteia. Her husband, whose accusation "Call yourself a feminist" is repeated and dissected, has given up his job as a solicitor to "help" with the care of their daughters, while the author pays the bills – and the nanny. She tells us that she wanted to deny her husband shared custody, and felt outraged at being legally obliged to support him financially. This is what feminists sign up for, and her honesty has won her few allies.
Cusk is no stranger to controversy, having published A Life's Work, an eloquent account of how, as she says in Aftermath, "I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly." This charge of narcissism is unintentionally comical in that every experience, from having a tooth extracted to Cusk's daughters' hamsters' inability to live together, is turned into another metaphor for the author's anguish.
Nor does her prized objectivity protect her from "surprise" at the realisation that her husband hated her for instigating their separation. Yet her pain at the wound she has dealt her daughters is genuinely lacerating. She does love her daughters; a reader questions whether, despite her accounts of trying to maintain normality, she loves them enough.
Cusk is particularly prone to all the novelist's diseases – grandiloquence, egocentricity, and the need for control – and these do not make her an especially trustworthy or agreeable guide into the wilder shores of the human heart. Yet she also has the novelist's saving graces – honesty, courage, and the ability to depict her experiences in exquisitely crafted language. When she tells us that "my sins will not devour me but will be dutifully paid off over a lifetime in small increments, like a mortgage," the discerning reader treasures her. Her exacting, cerebral treatment of such a highly-charged subject is what makes it of literary value, revealing how one of the pitfalls of modern family life remains "the human need for war."
If the Iranians, whose reputation is almost as toxic, can win their first Oscar by portraying the break-up of a family in A Separation, Cusk is free to do the same. Part of the unease is that her experience is not mediated through fiction, and therefore involves people – especially children – who did not sign up to being players in a writer's family drama.
Ultimately, she seems to blame the "authority" of marriage as an institution rather than her husband or herself. The prurient will be disappointed, and the distressed, unenlightened. The concern for her fans is to what degree she has cannibalised herself as an artist.
Right at the end there is a short story, "Trains", showing how some of the events described in the book through the eyes of an au pair. It's a sad reminder that an author of Cusk's calibre is more true to themselves when examining the lives of others.
Amanda Craig's latest novel, 'Hearts and Minds', is published by Abacus
Friday, 17 February 2012
When Rachel Cusk's happy relationship of 10 years turned into a bitter break-up, she wondered how she and her two daughters would cope
Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we'd made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces. "The new reality" was a phrase that kept coming up: people used it to describe my situation, as though it might represent a kind of progress. But it was in fact a regression. A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken. I had to get used to the new reality. My two young daughters had to get used to the new reality. But the new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken. It had been created and for years it had served its purpose, but in pieces it was good for nothing.
My husband believed I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. For me, life's difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents. My own children do that, forcing my husband's hand into mine when we're all together. They're trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue.
In the mornings I take my daughters to school. We spend the evenings mostly alone; I feed them and put them to bed. Every few days they go to their father's and then the house is empty. At first these interludes were difficult to bear. Now they have a kind of neutrality about them. It is as though these solitary hours, in which for the first time in many years nothing is expected or required of me, are my spoils of war, are what I have received in exchange for all this conflict. I swallow them down like hospital food.
Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. My husband said he wanted half of everything, including the children. No, I said. What do you mean no, he said. You can't divide people in half, I said. They should be with me half the time, he said. They're my children, I said. They belong to me.
Once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household? Where had it hidden itself? My mother liked to talk about the early English Catholics forced to live and worship in secrecy, sleeping in cupboards or underneath the floorboards. To her it seemed extraordinary that the true beliefs should have to hide themselves. Was this, in fact, a persecuted truth, and our own way of life the heresy?
It has existed in a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters. Have I been, as a mother, denied? The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed – all unmentioned, wilfully or casually forgotten as time has passed. And I was part of that pact of silence: it was a condition of the treaty that gave me my equality, that I would not invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.
Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I'll say to him, yes, you're right. I shouldn't call myself a feminist. I'm so terribly sorry. And in a way, I'll mean it. She wouldn't be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. So I suppose a feminist wouldn't get married. She wouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. She might not have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother's but their father's, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother.
My father advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother did the same. What I lived as feminism were in fact the cross-dressing values of my father. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.
I remember, when my own children were born feeling a great awareness of this new, foreign aspect of myself that was in me and yet did not seem to be of me. It was as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to speak Russian: I didn't know where my knowledge of it had come from.
To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed by a cult religion. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine.
So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous. And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.
Ten years later, sitting in a solicitor's office, my maternalism did indeed seem primitive to me, almost barbaric. The children belong to me – this was not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for. Yet it was the only thought in my head, there, with the solicitor sitting opposite. I was thin and gaunt with distress, yet in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion. She told me I had no rights of any kind. The law in these cases didn't operate on the basis of rights. What mattered was the precedent, and the precedent could be as unprecedented as you liked.
She told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum. The solicitor raised her eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said.
For a while I cleaned incessantly, a maternal Lady Macbeth seeing bloodstains everywhere. The messy cupboards and cluttered shelves were like an actual subconscious I could purge of its guilt and pain. In those cupboards our family still existed, man and woman still mingled, children were still interleaved with their parents, intimacy survived. One day I took everything out and threw it away.
Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving in the undertow. At the school gate, the other women looked somehow quaint. I saw them as though from the emptiness of the ocean, people inhabiting land. They had not destroyed their homes. Why had I destroyed my home?
My children have been roused from the unconsciousness of childhood; theirs is the pain and the gift of awareness. "I have two homes," my daughter said to me one evening, clearly and carefully, "and I have no home." To suffer and to know what it is that you suffer: how can that be measured against its much-prized opposite, the ability to be happy without knowing why?
You know the law, my husband said over the phone. He was referring to my obligation to give him money.
I know what's right, I said.
Call yourself a feminist, he said.
What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman. The joke is that the feminist's pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, and discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother's unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother, too: he couldn't cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole.
My notion of half was more like the earthworm's: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked. And my husband helped. It was his phrase. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn't want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn't we be the same? Why couldn't he be compartmentalised, too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?
And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one.
So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband's femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn't control of the children I was necessarily sickening for. It was something subtler – prestige, the prestige that is the mother's reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband's. I had given it to him or he had taken it – either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage.
Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath. I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame. I wounded them and in this way I learned truly to love them. Or rather, I admitted it, admitted how much love there was. What is a loving mother? It is someone whose self-interest has been displaced into her children. Her children's suffering causes her more pain than her own.
Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her. It seems to be the fatal and final evolution of the compartmentalised woman, a kind of personality disorder.
In the mornings the sun streams through the windows into the half-empty rooms, like sun falling on a ruin. The water mutters in the pipes; the boiler grumbling cholerically in the basement. One day it finally falls silent; the dishwasher breaks, the drains clog, the knobs of doors and cupboards come away unexpectedly in the hand. There is the sound of dripping water, and a dark stain spreads across the kitchen wall.
A man comes to look at the spare room. His name is Rupert. The clocks have gone forward and now the evenings are long and as blank as paper. People stay out late calling and shouting, music pouring from open windows, cars honking in the dusk. I wander through the dark house, checking the locks on the doors and windows, for it feels as though the outside is coming in. I wonder whether we will be safer with Rupert in the house or more at risk. There is a space here, a male declivity in the shape of my husband. Vaguely I try to fit Rupert into it. I imagine him fixing the drains, the door handles.
Rupert brings his iron and his humorous posters, his suits. My husband comes to collect something while Rupert is in the hall and the two of them shake hands. "Pleased to meet you," they both say.
Most marriages have a public face, an aspect of performance. A couple arguing in public is like the body bleeding, but there are other forms of death that aren't apparent on the outside. People are shocked by cancer, so noiseless and invisible, and by the break-up of couples whose hostility to one another never showed. You were the last people, a close friend said to me, the last people we expected this to happen to. And this friend, like some others, went away for fear it might be catching.
The first time I saw my husband after our separation I realised, to my surprise, he hated me. I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was contaminated by it, like a coastline painted black by an oil spill. For months black poisonous hatred has flowed, soaked into everything, coated the children like the downy heads of coastal birds are coated in tar. I remember how towards the end it felt like a dam giving way by degrees, the loss of courtesy and caution, the breakdown of civility and self-control: these defences seemed to define the formal core of marriage, of relationship, to articulate the separation of one person from another.
Most evenings now Rupert and I meet in the kitchen. He is always in: I go downstairs and there he is. One evening he opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass. Upstairs the children lie asleep in their beds: I imagine them there, like people sleeping in the cabin of a ship that has sailed off its course, unconscious of the danger they're in. Rupert sloshes more wine into our glasses. He tells me I'm doing a great job. He tells me we're in the same boat, in a way. After a while I say goodnight, and go and shut myself in my room.
I book our summer holiday, the same holiday we always take, to a much-loved familiar place. I tell my husband we can split the holiday in half, changing over like runners in a relay race, passing the baton of the children. He refuses. He says he will never go to that place again. He thinks there is something ruthless and strange in my intention to revisit a place where once we were together. Great if it doesn't bother you, he says. I say, you want to deny our shared history. You want to pretend our family never happened. That's about right, he says. I say, I don't see why the children should lose everything that made them happy. Great, he says. Good for you.
Rupert is gone in the mornings by the time I get the children up for school, and in the evenings I avoid him. I stay in my room. My daughters and I do not leave home very often. For a while I thought that going elsewhere created possibilities of consolation, even of recovery, but I have discovered that every welcome is also a form of exposure. It is as though, in other people's houses, we become aware of our own nakedness. At one time I mistook this nakedness for freedom, but I don't any more.
It is my mother's 70th birthday party. The youngest person sitting down to lunch is two, the oldest – my grandmother – 92. There has never been a divorce in this clan. Other than myself, of the many assembled adults only my grandmother is without her mate. My grandfather died when my grandmother was in her 60s: for nearly 30 years she has lived without a husband. When I was younger I thought she must be relieved to be alone, after all those years. Though I had loved my grandfather I saw it as a liberation. It never occurred to me either that she might have remained alone out of loyalty to the familial enterprise; that she might have been lonely, but continued to play her part for the sake of her children; that she might have understood, as I did not, that the jigsaw is a mirage, not a prison. It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant.
My sister comes to stay and we take our children to the swings. Later, at the train station, she says to me: you have to learn to hide what you feel from the children. They will feel what they think you feel. They are only reflections of you.
I don't believe that, I say.
If they think you're happy, they'll be happy, my sister says.
Their feelings are their own, I say.
What I feel is that I have jumped from a high place, thinking I could fly, and after a few whirling instants have realised I am simply falling. What I feel is the hurtling approach of disaster. And I have believed they were falling with me, my daughters; I have believed I was looking into their hearts, into their souls, and seen terror and despair there. Is it possible that my children are not windows but mirrors? That what I have seen is my own fall, my own terror, not theirs?
I can't eat, and soon my clothes are too big for me. As a family we would eat around the kitchen table, but now I carry my daughters their supper on a tray. The table is covered in papers and books and electricity bills. I remember our family meals as a kind of tree, nourishment. I ask my children what their father feeds them. Takeaways, they say. The tree is dead for him, too, then. He was once an extravagant cook, a person who made pastry and boeuf bourguignon.
A friend comes to visit. I say to her, all my memories are being taken away. I don't go near the photograph album any more, don't look at the art books I once loved, don't listen to the music or read the poetry that have been my life's companions; don't walk on the hills I walked with my husband, don't contemplate foreign trips or visits to interesting places. And I don't eat, for fear that nourishment will hurt me with its inferences of pleasure.
At a party in London I meet Z. A room that is too warm and full of people. I had to walk around the park across the road for an hour before I could bring myself to go in. I don't want to talk; I have nothing to say. I feel like a soldier come back from a war, full of experiences that have silenced me.
X calls. Our conversation is like chewing on barbed wire, like eating ground glass. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.
Every week I drive for 45 minutes along the coast to see Y. I sit in the armchair. Y sits in a beige leather swivel chair. I say, I don't ever want you to tell me that I think too much. If you say that I'll leave.
It is strange to discuss my marriage in this room; its neutrality is almost chastising, makes the story both more lurid and more sombre.
Z comes to see me. We take a walk in the countryside. He is quiet, nervous, taller than I remembered. He seems different every time I look at him. I don't know him. He is mysterious.
As we walk we talk. In our conversation I keep missing my footing. I'm used to talking to someone else. Z walks quickly; I have to run to keep up. He says, narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. I want to live, I say. I don't want to tell my story. I want to live. Z says, the old story has to end before a new one can begin.
That night I call X. I don't know why I call him. I just want to talk, like a climber trapped in a snowstorm on a mountaintop calling home. It is rescue she hopes for. Perhaps she just wants to say goodbye. The roaming itch that drove her away from home, away from ordinary satisfactions, remains mysterious even as it devours her in that cold and lonely place. She calls what she left, calls home.
X answers. Our conversation is like chewing on razor blades, like eating caustic soda. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.
I say to Y, marriage is civilisation and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins. Yet we find ruins exquisite, Y says. He seems to suspect me of nostalgia. People overthrow their governments and then they want them back, I say. They evict their dictator and then they don't know what to do with themselves.
Y raises his eyebrows at the word "dictator".
I tell him about the walk with Z. If I was looking for a new dictator, Z didn't get the job. I tell him of the way I showed him around my house, bought flowers, made him a beautiful lunch, like a small country advertising itself for invasion. Is it male attention I want, or male authority?
Is there a difference? Y says.
Z attended to my vision but he wouldn't take possession of it. He backed away and was silent.
X talks. X is a talker. He is like a well signposted museum: it's easy to find your way around, to see what he chooses to display. There are new things there now, new people, new opinions, new tastes in evidence; the old ones have been taken down to the archive, I suppose. But he doesn't like me to visit, doesn't want to talk to me any more. I keep inquiring after what is no longer part of the collection. X furrows his brow, as though he has difficulty recollecting it, this past to which I insist on referring. As soon as he can, he shows me out. The big institutional door, so reassuringly heavy, closes in my face.
Z comes to the house with a bag of tools. He fixes the broken shower, the pipe that leaks water into the kitchen wall. Are all these pieces of paper bills, he says. I don't know, I say. I don't want to open them. I want to live. Z opens one and reads it. He raises his eyebrows, gives a small smile. It's a speeding fine, he says.
I go with Z to the cinema and when we come out I say something about the film he doesn't understand. I feel, suddenly, that I've lost my power of communication. The loss feels as tangible as if I'd boarded an aeroplane and flown to a country whose people didn't speak my language, nor I theirs.
Z lives alone. In my own house I charge from room to room, like a dynamo. I'm trying to keep the house alive. Sometimes it feels that the real house has gone but the children don't know, don't realise that I'm behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz, frantically turning knobs and adjusting microphones to keep the illusion going. In Z's flat I don't move. I become aware of myself, too close, like a stranger sitting down right next to me in a train carriage full of empty seats.
Z waits for the cloud of the cinema trip to pass over. He cooks, runs a bath, gives me a book to read. He says, sometimes for you the saying is a kind of working out, like doing a sum on a bit of paper. You can't always expect people to grasp it. But I want you to know what I mean, I say. So do I, he says. I want to know what you mean. It's late at night, too late to run away from something whose nature I can't in any case discern. It's just a shape in the darkness, understanding or its opposite, I can't tell.
In the neutrality of Y's consulting room the whole bloodstained past has been unravelled, but of Z very little is said. I find that I am protective of the silence around Z. The old war can be turned into words, but a living silence ought not to be disturbed. Things might be growing there, like seeds under newly ploughed earth.
23 February 2012
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
by Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk's new book about the break-up of her marriage to Adrian Clarke is
already the talk of Twitter and sure to prove as contentious as A Life's Work,
her misery memoir of 11 years ago about being a new mum. That book's forceful,
selfish tone about Cusk's loss of self and the nightmare of motherhood, from
breast-feeding to sleep deprivation, divided opinion sharply. Some wondered why
she'd bothered to give birth; others expressed gratitude to have their own
experiences so eloquently expressed by such a gifted writer.
Cusk dedicated A Life's Work to her husband, acknowledging that she lived in "the most generous household". She also described how looking after her baby for the first six months, then getting pregnant again, threatened to undo whatever state of equality had previously existed between the couple. Obligingly, Clarke agreed to give up his job as a successful lawyer and when asked by their friends what he would do instead, he answered, "Look after the children while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children".
Since then, Cusk has written several more books, including a quirky travel guide to Italy, which had to be pulped because of breaches of privacy, and several novels, the most recent of which, The Bradshaw Variations, chronicled the breakdown of a marriage between a house husband and his career wife; that was three years ago.
Even by her usual caustic standards, in Aftermath, Cusk sets a new benchmark in angry self-pity as she is forced to accept that her earlier ideals about equality between the sexes were not only misjudged, but turned out to have a vicious sting in the tail. Clarke, or X as he becomes later in the book, wants half of everything, including their two daughters. "They're my children, I said. They belong to me." He asks her what kind of feminist she is and she cannot decently answer. When the divorce solicitor tells her that Clarke is entitled to half her earnings, she is outraged. "But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman," she protests. She goes further.
"I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my
mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I
hated it so? Because it represented dependence." Hard to believe, but she is
surprised to find, when they meet for the first time after their separation,
that he clearly hates her. When her sister tells her she must learn to hide her
feelings from her children, she replies that surely the children's feelings are
their own. A close friend says they were the last couple she expected to break
Cusk bangs on about truth and reality but never stops sounding wilfully, selfishly naive. It's all about her, always. She never spells out why the marriage broke down. "I might say, by way of explanation, that an important vow of obedience was broken" is the closest she comes.
The drama queen finds parallels in the stories of the Greek tragic heroines: here's Clytemnestra who has to lure Agamemnon indoors before killing him, and Antigone who has to man up when her family falls apart. Cusk too has cast herself in her own extreme tragedy, no matter that this play's central device is the aftermath of marriage breakdown, rather than incest and murder.
Towards the end, she starts seeing a psychoanalyst she calls Y and quickly decides she is jealous of his beliefs. "I want to attack them, to damage them. I want to humiliate them by not believing in them myself." And she takes up with a lover she calls Z, who sounds kind, decent and reasonable. After the book extract ran in the Guardian last week, some wit left the comment "Z mate, RUN!" and you can't help thinking the commenter had a point.
Still, this book must be read; it's compelling for all the wrong reasons.
February 24, 2012
A life apart
Review by Isabel Berwick
An extraordinarily self-absorbed account of life after divorce puts into words what is normally consigned to the non-verbal
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, by Rachel Cusk, Faber, £12.99, 160 pages
The literary magazine Granta published a piece last year by the novelist Rachel Cusk about her recent divorce. It was an extraordinary account, painful to read, and perhaps too raw to be called memoir. It was writing as catharsis.
Now she’s turned it into a book. Its title, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, is a bit of a misnomer. There is, in fact, not much marriage in here. The book opens with this: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.” What follows includes a lot of solitude, smoking and near-starvation. Cusk more or less stops eating and serves her two daughters their supper on trays.
She likens her life, post-separation, to the Dark Ages, those centuries of barely chronicled history that Cusk’s history teacher had most enjoyed discussing: “[she] liked the women who accrued stature in those formless inchoate centuries ... in the absence of that great administrator civilisation”.
Regular readers won’t be surprised at the pitiless way in which Cusk describes her own dark months, and she doesn’t spare others, either. This is an extraordinarily self-absorbed book, and many people will hate it for that. (I am tempted to shout “eat something” at her: “Days and nights of hunger, white and abstract, hunger and the feeling of excitement that is in fact its opposite, dread: I wonder whether the dying get caught up in something of this black romance ...”)
Beyond the easy knocks, Cusk is asking herself, and the reader, to think about deeper questions, most notably: where is the authority when the authority of men has gone? In Greek myths she finds a brutal, passionate world suited to her new outlook. “The question of what constitutes authority, in the tempestuous Greek world of feeling and psychological fate, with its mingling of mortality and divinity, is eternal and unresolved. It is a question with which I am preoccupied too: what will authority be, where will it come from, in my post-familial household?”
We don’t really get to the answer although there are compelling, slightly disturbing vignettes from Cusk’s new life along the way. (Do weird things happen disproportionately to writers? Or are they chaos magnets, attracting oddballs?) She variously deals with a howling lodger, the mad landlady at a holiday rental, and a dangerous-sounding local dentist.
The (overwhelmingly female) critics of Cusk’s confessional books miss the point: she’s not out to be our friend. She is not seeking approval. We must accept her, if we do, simply as an extraordinary writer of the female experience. She puts into words what is normally consigned to the realm of the non-verbal. “X [ex-husband] answers. Our conversation is like chewing on razor blades, like eating caustic soda. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.”
For Cusk, the verbal is her elemental state. (Her therapist alludes to the “existence of the non-verbal universe”, which seems to come as news to her). Towards the end of the book she meets a man, Z, and they go on a date. He fails to understand a point she’s making about the film they see. “He says, sometimes you say things before you’ve understood them. For you the saying is a kind of working out, he says, like doing a sum on a bit of paper. You can’t always expect people to grasp it.”
Perhaps, in writing this book, she has helped herself to grasp towards an understanding of her new life. And perhaps that’s necessary for her, and it is beautiful, difficult and thought-provoking for the rest of us. Those are merits enough to justify her writing Aftermath – at least until Cusk’s daughters are old enough to read their own “post-familial” history. Perhaps that will generate a whole new tale.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts
19 Feb 2012
Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life that we'd made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.
'The new reality' was a phrase that kept coming up in those early weeks: people used it to describe my situation, as though it might represent a kind of progress. But it was in fact a regression: the gears of life had gone into reverse. The new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken. It had been created and for years it had served its purpose, but in pieces – unless they could be glued back together – it was good for nothing at all.
My husband said that he wanted half of everything, including the children.
No, I said.
What do you mean no, he said.
You can't divide people in half, I said.
They should be with me half the time, he said.
They're my children, I said. They belong to me.
Once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household? Where had it hidden itself?
Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I'll say to him, yes, you're right. I shouldn't call myself a feminist. You're right. I'm so terribly sorry.
And in a way, I'll mean it. What is a feminist, anyway? What does it mean, to call yourself one? There are men who call themselves feminists. There are women who are anti-feminist. A feminist man is a bit like a vegetarian: it's the humanitarian principle he's defending, I suppose. Sometimes feminism seems to involve so much criticism of female modes of being that you could be forgiven for thinking that a feminist is a woman who hates women, hates them for being such saps. Then again, the feminist is supposed to hate men. She is said to scorn the physical and emotional servitude they exact. Apparently she calls them the enemy.
In any case, she wouldn't be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, the kitchen, the maternity ward, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven't been through enough cycles of failure yet.
The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine – well, she's asking for it, asking to be undone, devoured, asking to spend her life perpetrating a new fraud, manufacturing a new fake identity, only this time it's her equality that's fake. Either she's doing twice as much as she did before, or she sacrifices her equality and does less than she should. She's two women, or she's half a woman. And either way she'll have to say, because she chose it, that she's enjoying herself.
So I suppose a feminist shouldn't get married. She shouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. Perhaps she shouldn't have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother's but their father's, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother. No, I shouldn't have called myself a feminist, because what I said didn't match with what I was.
For me, to act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character. I was aware, in those early days of motherhood, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion.
And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. Like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. As the mother of young children I was homeless, drifting, itinerant. And I felt an inadmissible pity for myself and for my daughters in those years. It seemed, almost, catastrophic to me, the disenchantment of this contact with womanhood.
And so I conscripted my husband into care of the children. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children. These were our preparatory sacrifices to the new gods, whose future protection we hoped to live under. Ten years later, sitting in a solicitor's office on a noisy main road in north London, my maternalism did indeed seem primitive to me, almost barbaric.
The children belong to me – this was not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for. Yet it was the only thought in my head, there in the chrome and glass office, with the petite solicitor in tailored black sitting opposite. She told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman.
What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman, and everyone laughs. The joke is that the feminist's pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot.
Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother too: he couldn't cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole. What, morally speaking, is half a person? Yet the two halves were not the same: in a sense my parents were a single compartmentalised human being. My father's half was very different from my mother's, but despite the difference neither half made any sense on its own. So it was in the difference that the problem lay.
My notion of half was more like the earthworm's: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked, picked them up from school once they were older. And my husband helped. It was his phrase, and still is: he helped me. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn't want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me.
Why couldn't we be the same? Why couldn't he be compartmentalised too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Helpful is what a good child is to its mother. A helpful person is someone who performs duties outside their own sphere of responsibility, out of the kindness of their heart.
Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?
And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were two transvestites, a transvestite couple – well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one. Once, a female friend confessed to me that she admired our life but couldn't have lived it herself. She admitted the reason – that she would no longer respect her husband if he became a wife.
Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine – something, anyway, dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath. It is my belief that I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame.
When my children cry a sword is run through my heart. Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her.
We rearrange the furniture to cover up the gaps. We economise, take in a lodger, get a fishtank. The fish twirl and pirouette eternally amidst the fronds, regardless of what day it is. The children go to their father's and come back again. They no longer cry: they complain heartily about the inconvenience of the new arrangements. A friend comes to stay and remarks on the sound of laughter in the house, like birdsong after the silence of winter.
But it is winter still: we go to a Christmas carol service and I watch the other families. I watch mother and father and children. And I see it so clearly, as though I were looking in at them through a brightly lit window from the darkness outside; see the story in which they play their roles, their parts, with the whole world as a backdrop.
We're not part of that story any more, my children and I. We sing the carols, a band of three. I have sung these songs since my earliest recollection, sung them year after year: first as a tradition-loving child in the six-strong conventional family pew; later as a young woman who most ardently called herself a feminist; later still as a wife and mother in whose life these unreconcilable principles – the traditional and the radical, the story and the truth – had out of their hostility hatched a kind of cancer. Looking at the other families I feel our stigma: we are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary.
I begin to notice, looking in through those imaginary brightly lit windows, that the people inside are looking out. I see the women, these wives and mothers, looking out. They seem happy enough, contented enough, capable enough: they are well dressed, attractive, standing with their men and their children. Yet they look around, their mouths moving.
It is as though they are missing something or wondering about something. I remember it so well, what it was to be one of them. Sometimes one of these glances will pass over me and our eyes will briefly meet. And I realise she can't see me, this woman whose eyes have locked with mine. It isn't that she doesn't want to, or is trying not to. It's just that inside it's so bright and outside it's so dark, and so she can't see out, can't see anything at all.
Mon, Feb 20, 2012
Rachel Cusk: 'Divorce is only darkness'
Few figures in contemporary British literature divide people like Rachel Cusk. The writer, whose new memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation is published next month, attracts both admiration and ire: for her boldness as an artist, her self-belief, her pitiless gaze at herself and others. Her earlier book, A Life's Work, a devastating confessional about her experience of motherhood, "the long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed", attracted fury from some women critics: why bother having children, they said, if you're just going to write about how grim it all is. And Aftermath looks set to provoke more anger: it is a fierce, at times brutal examination of how Cusk left her husband of 10 years, and how she then tried to rebuild her life and the lives of her two children – considering stay-at-home mothers who describe themselves as "lucky", a disturbed lodger and a new lover along the way. She has again mined her life and told of her experience of being a woman, in a manner that is in no way comforting. Women writers do not tend to do this and get away with it.
Her writing is economical and precise – she describes someone as "a woman whose sorrows take extrovert and hedonistic forms" – which won't surprise readers of her under-rated novels. And her eye for detail, which she casts over incidents, interactions, relationships, is both merciless and subtle: from her suggestion that women in conventional families "can't see anything at all", to her admission that in wounding her children "I learned to truly love them", to her pitch-perfect evocation of the post-separation home: "Our daughters and I do not leave home very often: a kind of numbness has settled on our household that any moment can transform into pain." She writes, "they're my children. They belong to me": the sort of primal statement which one rarely reads these days, when men and women are so often seen as equal and identical "parents" rather than mothers and fathers.
Cusk makes you think differently and look differently, even if you don't agree with what she's saying. Here, she answers questions about Aftermath.
Why did you decide to write about your relationship breakdown?
I was asked by Granta magazine in 2010 to contribute an essay about feminism, which they said they wanted to be quite personal; and having thought at first that that wasn't the proper way to discuss feminism, I realised very quickly that for me now, perhaps it was the only way. The radicalism I had felt as a young woman began to seem to me if not exactly semantic then verbal, theoretical. As I have grown older, it is experience that has become radical. It is living, not thinking, as a feminist that has become the challenge. Sex, marriage, motherhood, work, domesticity: it is through living these things that the politics of being a woman are expressed, and I labour this point because it is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds – or should reserve the right to be – with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me. And it is of course intrinsic to femininity that it is costive or denying to a degree, so the saying can become radical in itself, but only from a point of view of personal honesty. So the decision to write comes from that. And as for the subject, it had fallen within the compass of my experience and what I saw was that in the breakdown of marriage the whole broken mechanism of feminism was revealed. I had expected to find, at the end of the family structure, at least some proof of feminist possibility, however harsh. But either it wasn't there or I couldn't find it, and that seemed to me to be a subject worth writing about. The book grew from that essay, which forms the first chapter of it.
Your honesty, precision and intense gaze are unflinching and can be ruthless and unforgiving. You write: "Unclothed, truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Over-dressed it becomes a lie." Is it exhausting? Is it worth it?
It's worth it if others find it helpful or meaningful. Yes, there is an element of exhaustion, of self-sacrifice, in this kind of writing, because without the most stringent honesty it is absolutely meaningless.
Have you ever regretted things you have written?
I've regretted the way they were presented. The line between literary memoir and degrading gossip can seem very fine where newspapers – your own not excepted – are concerned. And prose is such a vulnerable medium: the Guardian's "extract" from Aftermath consisted in fact of lines taken from all over the book and compressed into something I could barely recognise as my own writing. I did feel lacerated by people who read my motherhood book and concluded that I hated my children. Or perhaps the point was that they hadn't read it. But many, many small reparations have been set over the years against those big initial knocks and eventually outweighed them. Recently the NCT bookshop contacted me to say that they wanted to stock A Life's Work and I did feel that was a handshake from the heartland, as it were.
Do you ever hold back with what you write?
Yes, of course. Writing is a discipline: it's almost all about holding back. The memoir is a confessional form, but that doesn't mean it is in itself a confession. It isn't a spewing out of emotion. In memoir you have to be particularly careful not to alienate the reader by making the material seem too lived-in. It mustn't have too much of the smell of yourself, otherwise the reader will be unable to make it her own.
Writing about yourself is exposing – were you worried what readers, friends and family would think of you?
There is always shame in the creation of an expressive work, whether it's a book or a clay pot. Every artist worries about how they will be seen by others through their work. When you create, you aspire to do justice to yourself, to remake yourself, and there is always the fear that you will expose the very thing that you hoped to transform.
A Life's Work dealt with your experience of motherhood – was it more difficult to write about a relationship which involved two people, and a family of four people?
Yes, the experience of motherhood was very integrated and perhaps easier to write about, partly because the baby is a reflective template rather than a moving target. A developed family structure is obviously much more complex and also much more a product of society and history. It has more hinterland, and is harder to conscript and encompass in a single view. With this book I had to find patterns and parallels from much further back, from the roots of drama and Christianity and early modes of civilisation, in order to represent my sense that marriage is to an extent an illusion of personal choice. In breaking marriage you break more than your own personal narrative. You break a whole form of life that is profound and extensive in its genesis; you break the interface between self and society, self and history, self and fate as determined by these larger forces.
Have you invaded your children's privacy?
Children have to share their parents' destiny to some extent, like it or not. I happen to be a writer; they are the children of a writer. But I also strive to be quite impersonal in the way I write about figures in my life. "My mother" or "my children" are intended to be every reader's mother, every reader's children or concept of children. And in fact very often I've been criticised for not providing enough identifiable detail about these "actual" characters, for not naming them or physically describing them. That criticism, I've always sensed, has come from the very people who might at the same time accuse me of "using" or invading the privacy of those close to me. So I'm a little suspicious of it, while at the same time recognising an obligation to be clear with my daughters about what it is that I do.
Your "writer's objectivity" is important to you. What happens to it when you document something as subjective as the end of a relationship?
I suppose the proof of that will be in the reading, in whether I've managed to represent my personal experience in a way that illuminates something personal for the reader. That is really the essence of the transaction, and my handling of it was tested absolutely in this book. Yet there is something grimly and utterly objective in the breakdown of marriage, many things in fact. In a sense you are returned to the public realm; your private world is broken open and exposed and you come out – metaphorically speaking – on the streets. I wrote a lot of the book from this broken or "outside" perspective, and much of the metaphoric stream in the narrative concerns itself with this new mode of looking, which I liken to looking through the lit windows of other people's houses from the darkness outside.
Why do you think some women were so furious with A Life's Work?
Well I'm tempted to think, because it was true! Why would anyone bother being cross otherwise?
Will anyone be furious with Aftermath?
In motherhood an image is being defended, an image of rightness and completeness and happiness. Many women struggle to maintain that image, and it angers them to have it questioned. I don't think anyone could claim a positive image for divorce, so I don't expect there'll be the same defensiveness. Motherhood has traumatic elements, but divorce is only darkness, only trauma, so there aren't many controversial things that can be said about it. The question is whether it can be represented, whether my trauma can be made to stand for other people's.
Throughout your divorce your husband would say: "Call yourself a feminist." Do you?
I do, partly because it seems ungrateful and impolite not to, and partly because there's nothing else, really, to call oneself while retaining any connection to an original sense of justice.
What do you mean by what you call "the feminist principle of autobiographical writing"?
I mean that there is, for me, a defensible principle of autobiography where female experience is concerned; defensible in the sense that I personally would defend my decision to write about my own life, against the accusation that it is merely so much self-obsession or is the product of a self-obsessed culture. If there is a disjuncture between how women live and how they actually feel – which to me there is, in motherhood and marriage – I will feel entitled to attempt to articulate it. And given that this disjuncture is usually deeply personal, and relates to a personalised problem with a generalised image, autobiography becomes the best possible form for this articulation to take.
Do children belong to their mothers? You write: "They're my children. They belong to me."
Children belong to themselves, of course. But what I wanted to describe in the book were a number of primitive and fairly ferocious feelings that seemed to emerge from the rupture of separation and that directly contradicted my own meditated feminist politics. This was the beginning of my seeing the difference between feminism as an ideology and feminism as lived experience.
Is it a curse to be a mother?
Motherhood is a great test. It involves enormous submission, and to submit without being extinguished is what is testing. And it is a business of gifts and revelations as well as losses and bewilderments, of great visibility and significance alongside feelings of utter invisibility. So it has a core of contradiction that strikes me as fundamental to life. Perhaps it's a curse to live so close to this core, and perhaps it's merely an intensification of a more general conflict between duty and consciousness, between society and self.
Is it a curse to be a woman?
If it is then it's an interesting one, and it gets all the good lines. It's perhaps true that the less you live as a woman, the more cursed it is to be one.
Sunday 30 August 2009
Novelist Rachel Cusk, best known for her powerful book about motherhood, is now publishing her seventh novel
I have never actually handled a highly strung racehorse, but that is what interviewing Rachel Cusk brings to mind. We meet for lunch in a restaurant in Brighton, where she lives, and get on fine at first while we are just making small talk, but as soon as I start asking questions she is bridling all over the place. "Oh Lynn," she sighs, "you can't seriously expect me to answer that." But then she apologises rather charmingly: "Part of what I thought would happen when I got my teaching job [she teaches creative writing at Kingston University] is that I would become better at talking and it hasn't happened!"
She is good at talking, but when she talks about her novels, it often sounds like a literary seminar, all about process and structure and narrative method and absolutely nothing to do with her. I asked if her new novel, The Bradshaw Variations, represented some retraction of her previous feminist values, in that it is about a career wife and house-husband whose marriage deteriorates in the course of the book and whose child almost dies.
Cusk, predictably, tosses her head up and snorts: "I guess that's what the publishers mean when they say on the proof, 'Many topics for book group discussion.' I wondered what that meant!" She has a fine contempt for book groups, having been to one once where everyone kept threatening to resign until she left. But then she has a fine contempt for many things. It is this fury, this divine discontent, that gives her books their characteristic energy and black humour. But it is disconcerting when you encounter it in real life. She once threw a shoe at a pigeon for cooing outside her window.
It is difficult to see where Cusk's discontent comes from when, on the face of it, she has had the cushiest of lives. She is still extremely good looking, at 42, with a slim figure and long, dark, shiny hair. She comes from a wealthy Catholic family, was educated at St Mary's Convent in Cambridge and then read English at Oxford. She published her first novel, Saving Agnes, in 1993 and won the Whitbread first novel prize. There have been seven novels, including her new one, and two books of non-fiction.
After a brief first marriage to a banker, she is married to a photographer, Adrian Clarke, by whom she has two daughters, Albertine, 10 and Jessye, nine, as well as a 17-year-old stepdaughter, Molly, from his first marriage. They live in a Regency house in Brighton and must be reasonably well off.
However, Rachel Cusk is not one for counting her blessings. She hates what she calls the "cheer up, love" school of criticism that asks why she has to be so angry all the time. Unfortunately, it's the question always hovering on my lips. Someone actually asks it of the heroine of her fourth novel, The Lucky Ones (2003), and she says she is angry about "men. Marriage. Children. I don't know, everything". That seems to sum up Cusk. She sees herself as embattled, hounded by critics, loathed by other mothers, attacked with slings and arrows from every side. She says that when she cycles to school with her daughters, other women hiss abuse at her from Range Rovers. She used to describe herself as a red-blooded feminist but nowadays admits: "I find that I like women less than I did." She avoids school gates and places where other mothers congregate.
This all started with the book she wrote about motherhood, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother in 2001. She wrote it when she had just had one baby and was already pregnant with the second and it is an excoriating account of the horrors of pregnancy, antenatal classes, parenting manuals, childbirth, breastfeeding, colic, sleepless nights and the disintegration of self involved in looking after a small baby. She says at one point: "I often think that people wouldn't have children if they knew what it was like."
Many mothers were outraged by the book and accused her of hating her child, though others were secretly grateful that someone had articulated their own worst feelings. It is probably the most powerful book on motherhood ever written and has been reprinted many times.
But she says she now almost wishes she hadn't written it because: "It's caused me so much grief. I think it's sort of labelled me – and I'm not someone who thinks very much, possibly not enough, about 'my readers' because I don't sell enough copies for that to be an issue. But I think it did put a suspicion of bleakness or depressiveness under my name, a feeling that I'm incredibly critical of everything and sort of miserable, which I have found amazingly difficult to shake off."
This impression was compounded by her last novel, Arlington Park, which seemed to express a hatred of almost all aspects of family life. She says it went down brilliantly in France – "I think Frenchwomen enjoy intellectualising their own experiences" – but not here. "What I resented with the reviews was there being a sort of judgment made about me as a mother. I absolutely don't dislike children – I would choose their company over adult company any time."
After Arlington Park, she published a travel book, The Last Supper, about a summer in Italy with her family that was partly meant to scotch the idea that she hated spending time with her children. I confess I wondered why she wrote it – it seemed a bit slack by her standards – and she laughs bitterly. "Oh well, it was just a travel book; it was meant to be harmless." But it wasn't harmless at all because someone brought a breach of privacy suit, which apparently is a big new legal hazard since the Max Mosley case. "You don't have to lie – no one said I lied – but if you describe people and they recognise themselves they can sue." The book came out in February and was pulped in March and she had to pay half the costs. "So when you say the book was a bit slack you're adding to my feeling that I'm not having a good year!"
The Last Supper begins with a quotation from DH Lawrence: "Comes over one an absolute necessity to move", which is an urge Cusk obviously shares because she is always moving house. Since adulthood, she has lived in London, Oxford, Exmoor, Bristol, Italy and now Brighton, but is beginning to get itchy feet again. "I'd quite like to move but I don't think anyone will let me. I like Brighton but… it's because of my peripatetic childhood, I guess. I was born in Canada, but was still a baby when we moved to America and we moved twice in America, then came back to England and moved a few times. And my husband's father was in the navy so he moved a lot too."
Even as a child, she realised that her parents' urge to move was not quite rational – "I felt they moved in order to escape feelings of unhappiness" – and has reluctantly come to see the same in herself: "I now see it as a syndrome whereas before I was completely convinced that there were these terrible things wrong and that we had to move, whereas I now see that it isn't that."
But she also thinks that writers should move, should travel, seek new experiences: "I have a romantic conception of the writer's life and the sort of writer's life that I admire is probably a childless life, possibly a marriageless life, certainly a travelling life – I'm in awe of how much DH Lawrence managed to get around. But that's never been something I'm capable of doing. All I've ever done is work really hard, try and try and try to put down roots, marry and have children and lead this completely stable life."
She would have liked to live abroad, but was not able to because her stepdaughter (who lives with them) had to make regular visits to her mother and now her own daughters are starting to put their feet down. "I wanted to apply for a fellowship in New York for a year and I thought they'd be excited about moving to New York. But absolutely not. It was never about overriding them or putting myself first. It was much more, at the stage when they were smaller and dependent on us, about trying to have an interesting life. I think most writers – except the Philip Larkin type – want to have new experiences and I have those desires very strongly."
Cusk has always been a writer. She wrote poetry as a child and started her first novel the minute she left Oxford. "I have this theory that most artists never leave childhood, that you're endlessly trying to work out what happened. And leaving university and facing this idea that there is something called adult life that I was going to enter and get a job – I just couldn't. So writing became what I did as soon as I stopped studying."
But what did happen to her in childhood? Why does she say she was so unhappy all the time? She recently admitted, in the introduction to a new edition of A Life's Work: "I have a bad relationship with my own mother and was pitched by motherhood into the recollection of childhood unhappiness and confusion."
She is the second of four children, with an older sister and two younger brothers and once said: "I came wrathful from the womb." But, again, why? "I didn't feel accepted – that is my earliest memory of childhood. I was always unlike my parents and I was identified as that from early on. Both my parents were oldest children of quite big families, then they had an oldest child, my sister, and there were three of them waiting for this awful invader – that's my theory anyway."
She thinks it was exacerbated by her childhood asthma and allergies that meant she often had to be rushed to hospital; the threat only receded when she was given a Ventolin inhaler when she was 15. But the real problem, she says, was that: "The distinctive feature of my family was intolerance of sensitivity and emotion – everything's great, it all has to be great all the time and why do you have to spoil it? Whereas probably the most fundamental and important thing to me has been defending my right to tell the truth about how I feel. When I started writing books, my parents found that very difficult because writing was equivalent to emotion in their minds."
Her early novels, she believes, were inhibited by "having my parents sitting on my shoulder, judging everything, and me trying to conceal what I was doing". She believes she was "writing in a sort of fog" and would have dried up if motherhood, and writing A Life's Work, hadn't enabled her to find a new honesty. But it has meant a breach with her parents. "I haven't spoken to my mother for two years. We just couldn't find a way of getting on."
Does she speak to her father? "Not really. I have spoken to him but he supports my mum. And my siblings have found it difficult, but that's because there's this general fear of confrontation and emotion."
She is clearly unhappy with the situation but feels there is no alternative. "I think there's something terribly wrong – on both sides, both for parent and child – and having children myself I know exactly what a dark and damaging thing it is. The relationship should not break down, at all costs. It is much better to honour the sense of duty and learn not to expose yourself or make yourself vulnerable. But I've never learnt that; I've never known how not to be vulnerable. So in the end, I've gone the never-speak-to-them-again route. I think it's just the feeling of not being accepted as I am."
There is a haunting exchange towards the end of The Bradshaw Variations where the heroine, Tonie, meets a doctor at a party and tells him: "I want attention. I don't know why." "That is the tragedy of most people," he says. "What about you? Is it your tragedy?" she asks. "I had a good mother," he tells her.
This, to me, seems the kernel of the book, but when I ask Cusk about it she wails: "Oh Lynn! You're just like everyone else!" and talks about Olivia Manning instead.
Didn't she ever, even once, have the feeling that she was getting enough attention, that she was young and beautiful, the world was at her feet? "OK," she says glumly. "I did, I suppose, in my late 20s, when I'd published two books and I had my own house in London and I could support myself, I was free… but then I decided that that wasn't what I was looking for. I couldn't write at all in that period. I felt I needed to get back in touch with something serious, that I didn't want to live a party-going life in which I went to places and did things because I wrote books.
"There are so many writers who I, rather unkindly, think of as luvvies, who all hang out together. And you can see that some writers' talents are fed by great exposure to society and then there are others – DH Lawrence is a good example – who think they want acceptance but actually they can't stand it and they've got to annoy people by pointing out uncomfortable things, and that's more me.
"There's this really good line in Women in Love where Ursula says, 'I always thought it was a sin to be unhappy.' And actually I think that's very common, it's what a lot of people feel – that you have an obligation to life to be happy if you can. But to me, there's no moral difference between happiness and unhappiness – I just want to describe them, that's all I'm interested in. But that's why I resent this miserablist label, because I'm not happy or unhappy, I'm just interested in different states and how they feel."
A life's work: The Rachel papers
Born 8 February 1967 in Canada to English Catholic parents. Spends most of her childhood in Los Angeles before her family relocate to England in 1974. Married to photographer Adrian Clarke, with three daughters, including one from Clarke's previous marriage.
1993 Wins the Whitbread first novel award for debut Saving Agnes
1995 Publishes The Temporary
1997 The Country Life wins the Somerset Maugham Award.
2001 Writes her controversial memoir on motherhood, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
2003 The Lucky Ones is shortlisted for the Whitbread Award and Granta names her one of 20 Best Young British Novelists.
2006 Arlington Park makes the Orange Prize shortlist.
They say "What shines in Rachel Cusk's writing is the precision of her observation... she can pinpoint something profound with the merest detail." Author Carol Birch
She says: "[Writing is] like playing a musical instrument. It's a redeeming experience that doesn't happen anywhere else in life." Sam Creighton