Rereading books I disliked in my first reading with a new-found admiration is establishing an alternative reading list, titled perhaps Instances of my Earlier Obtuseness. Dismissing Rachel Cusk’s Kudos a third of the way into her book on my first reading, now I’ve read it to the end, would have been to jeopardise the opportunity to understand what Cusk set out to do in her trilogy. As my friend Michelle and I discussed, Cusk’s trilogy is arguably only fully appreciated after reading all three books, preferably back to back. It is only in the closing pages of Kudos that the rage becomes fully apparent.
After dismissing Leaving the Atocha Station twenty pages from the end I concocted a quasi-moral justification for my disdain based on Lerner’s use of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. With greater appreciation of how Lerner (and Cusk) are continuing to open up the form of the novel, with the negation of any distinction between autobiography, memory and fiction, I reread Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it. In some way, reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage taught me how to appreciate fiction that uses form to explore a writer’s self-consciousness.
After liking Lerner’s 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, I decided to reread The Hatred of Poetry, an essay I sampled and dismissed on my first reading. It confronts the difficulty of writing and appreciating poems in an atomised and vacant world. Its ruminative tone is common with his fiction, a curious mixture of dispassionate criticism and child-like enthusiasm. Second time around I enjoyed the twisting and turning of Lerner’s argument, quite as much as both novels. I don’t quite recall what I disliked in the first place, maybe the use of the word hate in the title, seemingly hyperbolic but its Platonic note better appreciated after reading the essay.
There is something I think in the idea that the books we dislike intensely–and I don’t mean poorly written books, which are innumerable–might tell us something about ourselves if given a second chance, in the same way that those people one instantly dislikes offer the same opportunity for epiphany.
There is a different time when I wouldn’t have finished reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04. As Borges says in his Paris Review interview: “I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He’s playing at several games at the same time.” Lerner’s games are almost a catalogue of David Lodge’s characteristic postmodern strategies of contradiction, discontinuity, excess, short circuit, all played against each other. This may be writing on the very edge of fiction, but in a different way than Rachel Cusk although there are similarities in the use of autobiography to ask questions about the nature of self and identity.
At this time I am more willing to be implicated with Lerner’s preoccupations and voice, to play along with his inventive text. I’m curious enough to want to see how he tells his story and continue to enjoy writing that enmeshes the writer in the very structure of their fiction. It is less subtle than Cusk’s trilogy and will appeal more to readers that are fascinated with games of literary production.
It isn’t just a book that plays games with form, otherwise I may not have finished my reading. Lerner chooses and arranges the elements that go into his story so that the past becomes an artefact of narration. The very concept of a past constructed through memory, selective by nature, suggests that the past itself is just another story, no longer accessible in its original form. That such a personal, but essentially fictional past, is integral to the creation of self-identity is also the argument Rachel Cusk makes so powerfully in her trilogy.
There’s some insightful writing around about Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, including the transcript of an interview with Alexandra Schwartz. On my first reading of the last in the series, Kudos, I drifted off about a third of the way through, but I am glad I returned, this time reading the trilogy end to end over a couple of days. I’ve thought whether to write anything much about my reading of Cusk, but have little that would improve on the pieces linked above.
I’d like to read more Cusk, but cannot imagine she can continue to explore the reticent narrator in the same way. There is a controlling quality that becomes a little claustrophobic, that sense of a person seeing without being seen. What I enjoyed most was the clear tension between Cusk’s need to use some minimal tools of fiction to narrate her story, but preserve the subtlety about the implications of her narrative, at least until the last pages of Kudos.
What also interests me is the phenomenon that has come to be called autofiction. It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.
Autofiction changes the role of the reader, requiring a greater imaginative contribution. It is both discomfiting and liberating. I’ve returned to Knausgaard’s writing for that reason, enjoying both Summer and Autumn, and fully intend to read his six part series over the winter. I read Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living and am hungry for more. In fact, I’m finder it harder and harder to return to the false notes of character and stylised tensions of plot that are the remnants of the nineteenth century novel. It’s just a phase I’m sure.
The weather on Sunday was atrocious, so I spent the day reading. My early enthusiasm for Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station waned just past the halfway mark, and died all together after a truly awful recreation of the 2004 Madrid bombings, during which the solipsistic narrator wandered around using it as a handy backdrop for his increasingly turgid musings. Disappointingly, the publisher of Leaving the Atocha Station, a Twitter follower who favourited my first tweet promptly un-followed me after the second.
Though tempted to take Beckett’s next edition of letters from my shelf, I resisted and opened up Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I think I discovered Haushofer via flowerville, and plan to read The Wall, supposedly the Austrian writer’s magum opus: “The Wall is an existentialist masterpiece that can offer profound consolation as well as the ultimate lesson in loss”. My reaction was the reverse of reading Lerner’s début. Initially I wasn’t at all sure and read fifty pages before going to sleep. I awoke thinking about the characters, drawn to their passage through the book’s pages, and am now thoroughly engrossed, such a gently powerful story. Now to another fifty pages.