In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.
This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.
It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.
I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.
The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.
For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.
In Eugénio Lisboa’s elegant preface to Carcanet’s A Centenary Pessoa, Lisboa captures Pessoa’s distinctive way of looking at the world. There is much in this description that also accounts, I believe, for Rachel Cusk’s acuity. The two writers are more alike than would seem immediately obvious.
“Fernando Pessoa soon became aware of his acute foreignness, of his being the incurable outsider at the very centre of life, of an excruciating inability really to feel ‘the pains of happy people or the pains of people who live and complain.
Wounded by lucidity, by frigidity, by a sense of distance from living, this same distance, this omnipresent perspective, made his inquisitive mind see things in a clearer or, at the least, in a different way. People like Pessoa learn early in life that the country most of us inhabit, made comfortable by familiar presumptions, is forbidden to them. But the awkward exclusion, an embarrassment in everyday living, this disability that amounts at times to a disease, can prove a fertile dis-ease. Unable to integrate with the habitual, forbidden from happy absorption, unable to see evidence as evident and the obvious as obvious, gazing in always from outside, wondering about ‘facts’ and ‘things’ that others accept without question – such an affliction can lead to a productive amazement.”
Rachel Cusk on rudeness. This is characteristically brilliant, especially in its treatment of mock-politeness, worse in its way than outright rudeness.
“My mother and I don’t speak to each other anymore, but I’ve been thinking about her lately. I’ve been thinking about facts, about how they get stronger and clearer, while points of view fade or change. The loss of the parent-child relationship is a fact. It is also a failure. It is regrettable. The last time my parents spoke to me, my father said something very rude. He said I was full of shit. He put the phone down straight away after he said it, and I have not heard from him again. For a long time afterward, I was profoundly disturbed by his words: For my father to speak to me of shit, and claim that I was full of it, seemed to remove my basis for existing. Yet he was half of me: It was, I realized, for that reason that he felt he could speak to me the way he did. I was his child; he forgot that I was as real as he. It could be said that one-half of our country has told the other it is full of shit, deliberately choosing those words because it knows that their object finds rudeness — the desecration of language — especially upsetting.”
Anita Brookner’s Look at Me, my first of her books, rewards persistence, though occasional sentences, very infrequent, just clang: “In any event, he was, as the police say, helping them with their enquiries.” Often such a sentence is enough for me to add a book to the bag I keep by the door, ready to go, when full, to my local charity shop.
I was in ruthless mood after persisting with a Fleur Jaeggy book that proved unrewarding. Testing my deflated reaction after finishing the Jaeggy, one review described it as “entirely sufferable“, another commented on the tiresomeness of its “vague profundity“. Both reviews seem broadly on target though entirely is an overstatement. I found the last Jaeggy I read equally insipid.
But Brookner is more interesting, capturing the casual cruelty between people exceptionally well. Unlike Rachel Cusk one senses Brookner as participant in her story of loneliness and love rather than voyeur. It is an utterly English story, wrapped in the hesitancy and froideur of its people.
The title lingers. Everything is temporary, eventually. It cannot be uncommon that a short-lived encounter, intentionally transitional, acquires, as a buttress against loneliness, a condition of permanence. At least for a while. Rachel Cusk’s The Temporary brings together two solitary characters, less different than each imagines, who, temporarily, attempt to live up to the expectations of those around them.
We are in Cuskland and come to expect aesthetic detachment, but in The Temporary, though the viewpoint shifts between the central protagonists, our sympathies are expected to remain with Ralph. Amid swirling transience, Ralph is a statue, apparently rooted. Behind masks of insincere politeness, both characters exist to raise questions about social conventions attendant upon class, education and background.
In The Temporary, though an early second novel, one starts to sense Cusk’s tendency to distance herself from her characters’ meaningful encounters by aestheticising them as performance, placing herself into the role of incessant observer. This detachment could be distracting, but not when the writing is this formidable, and the voyeur’s insight so nuanced and acute.
Nothing we read is in isolation. Everything we read is shaded by our mood, temperament, and by the other books we read before and afterwards. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond made me think of Rachel Cusk’s work. Both writers have an austere luminosity, every inch poetic and eloquent, both writers capable of crafting the most unerring sentences.
What is apparent even in Cusk’s early work is a voice formed from confusion, mortality and defeat, a voice that without ever hardening acquires over time a deepening force and clarity. Though I read Pond for the most part with pleasure, there is a precocious, knowing tone that becomes mildly vexing. The way of observing the world, uncanny in its quickness is a little naive and disembodied. Read in juxtaposition to a different writer, the shade cast will have been different.
The ingenious, circuitous sentences and tumbling ensembles of metaphors in Rachel Cusk’s Saving Agnes don’t always succeed. The ostentatiously constructed texture of the narrative occasionally rattles, but it is clear from her debut novel that Cusk’s depiction of modern life is dark, uncanny and penetrating.
I’m sufficiently far from my twenties to recall only a pervasive heaviness from the sense that decisions made at this time may prove consequential. Close enough to childhood to be haunted by lost security and protection, but inhabiting a strange transitional, not quite fully adult phase when one’s identity is diffuse and exploratory. Reading Saving Agnes is to peer through Cusk’s filter–we are a similar age–at this elusive and inchoate period of life.
In her review of Transit, Tessa Hadley refers to the sheer force of personality in Cusk’s writing; flowerville writes, “why can’t you stop following what she’s doing. and you thought that it’s because she does follow her own tangent. most of the time in directions you don’t find interesting but – who ever follows her own tangent is worth being followed in some way, if possible”. Perhaps its this inimitable quality that draws me to Cusk’s work as well. This originality is clear even in this debut novel.
Twenty years later, the fluidity and looseness of Saving Agnes is replaced with the intensity and straightness of Outline and Transit; the circumlocutory sentences of Saving Agnes are austerely pruned, but common to all three books is the melancholic atmosphere and attentiveness to the nuances of human interaction.
What amused most of Thomas Bernhard’s I’m Not Going to Badmouth Anybody At All (Douglas Robertson’s translation) is his assertion, “I’m basically just not a clubbable person”. I’d thought the social status of being clubbable a uniquely British concept, embracing that very English commingling of raced, gendered, and class-specific assumptions that grant visibility in this country.
Raised overseas, a solitary child, unsympathetic to the sophistries of the English cultural establishment, it nevertheless surprised me to be told in my twenties that I wasn’t clubbable. Despite a desire to be inconspicuous, I was hopelessly different from my peers, and bounced back and forth, at one moment defiantly assertive, and at the next hiding in the pages of a book. Little wonder I was considered a dark horse.
For a long while I was fascinated by Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which offers a series of elegant theories that explain the tenuous identities we construct to help us confront the world. This seems to me the province of Rachel Cusk’s writing.
It is more persuasive in Outline than in Transit because Cusk relies less on the creation of plausible characters. In neither book are you left with the sense that Cusk’s characters existed before her novel began, a quality I suggest of many truly great novels, but what makes these novels, and her debut Saving Agnes so compelling, is Cusk’s acuity in reading how people interact and construct their identities. Her writing embodies Wittgenstein’s claim: “If one sees the behaviour of a living thing, one sees its soul”.
In Outline and Transit, Cusk finds a form that places the reader in the mind of another. By externalising normally unspoken soliloquies, there is a sense that the inner/outer conception of self is friable. It is easier to get lost in the mirror. But Cusk’s perspective is more that of baffled observer caught in the act of looking, than participant in the fabric of everyday life. While we watch, through Cusk’s penetrating eyes, we are relentlessly reminded of the voyeuristic nature of our watching.
I am the ideal audience for this book, frequently bored with the tyranny of representation, with a deep-seated impulse towards the possibilities in fiction for silence and emptiness. Any serious reader of Beckett knows of the demands made when a writer is seducing readers to follow on a path towards silence. Rachel Cusk’s Outline propels away from representation and towards silence, towards something beyond plot and narration.
Something different is happening with the idea of ‘the narrator’ in Outline. By scarcely defining her narrator–it is jarring three-quarters of the way into the story when we learn the narrator’s name–Cusk leaves a reader with only the scantiest idea of whose eyes we are observing from. Without a typical character-narrator– a propelling force–without an identity to assume, Cusk makes the form take on the steering of its own discourse. Occasionally it teeters under the weight of its own structure, but Outline is nevertheless one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in years.
Cusk opens up all sorts of ideas about how we define ourselves in telling another of our experience, of the trauma of our lives. She writes, “Yet there was something worse than forgetting, which was misrepresentation, bias, the selective presentation of events . . .” That may be true, yet how do we step outside ourselves sufficiently to rise above our partisan and polemical perspectives? This seems at the heart of what Cusk is addressing, especially as she has said elsewhere, “Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.”
The quest to gain enough distance to tell all sides of a story, to hear all sides of a story and not only what we can relate to is perhaps a logical path to follow Cusk’s Aftermath, which felt like an inevitably evasive and one-sided account of her divorce. Though Cusk’s writing suggests movement from character to author-surrogate, Outline adopts a new form to the purely autobiographical Aftermath, which explored similar subjects, though from the obverse side of the mirror. Outline is a more radical innovation using an indefinite voice, deprived of time and purpose. It questions its own being and its way of relating to the world. It will be intriguing to see where Cusk takes this self-exploration in the sequel Transit and the reported last part of the trilogy.