Rudeness

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: Look at Me

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.

Rachel Cusk Interview with Caille Millner (And Thoughts on Twitter)

What struck me most of this discussion between Rachel Cusk and Caille Millner about Transit is Cusk’s assertion that the ‘only way of knowing someone is watching them’. Regardless of the form Cusk uses for her writing, this way of looking at the world lies at the heart of why I find her books so compelling. It is this sense of always being an observer, a voyeur, the painter looking into their own painting. It is essentially an outsider’s view, jarring and fascinating to find a writer that shares something of one’s way of perceiving the world.

Whereas once I might have shared this link via my @timesflow account on Twitter, that channel has drained of interest as it has come more to resemble Facebook. There has been much talk of the bubble effect on Twitter. That bubble effect when made up of a small, truly global group of people who share a literary sensibility is what has kept me on Twitter for the last six or so years. Bubbles can be good for you.

Recently, for quite understandable reasons, literary discussion has been largely buried beneath people’s anguish and rage about the political situation in America and to a lesser extent the U.K. It became clear last June how the bubble effect is compelling when literary but dangerous when political. I have other channels in which to consume and discuss political information. The endless op-eds and repetition available via Twitter were useless during the period before and after last June’s referendum, and equally pointless in this charged and painful time. I’ve tried limiting those I follow to readers still finding a way to discuss literature (apologies if I’ve upset anyone by unfollowing, it isn’t you, it’s me!), but the noise to information ratio is distracting, painful and not useful in any way. I’ve decided for the time being not to delete my account, but am not present on Twitter except in DMs.

Apologies if these comments seem pompous but I don’t want any of those friends I value on Twitter to think I’ve lost interest in literary discussion. I still follow posts on my favourite blogs via RSS. To avoid using Twitter in purely broadcast-mode, I shan’t be tweeting links to my posts here (after this one) for a while, so please follow by email or RSS if you have any interest in my thoughts on what I’m reading. If you’d like to get in touch please use email, blog comments or Twitter DMs. Thank you.

Rachel Cusk: The Temporary

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.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

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.

Rachel Cusk: Saving Agnes

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.

Rachel Cusk: Thoughts on Outline and Transit

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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2017

This time last year I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2016. I conformed to pattern and failed almost entirely to fulfil my intentions. This is symptomatic of a good year’s reading. Distractions came in the form of writers like Max Frisch, Anna Kavan, Rachel Cusk and Jorge Semprún, all of whom insisted on my attention, and will continue to do so as I explore their oeuvre.

I read some fine books by some first-class writers that I hadn’t read before, and very much hope to read more of: Adrian Nathan West, Amy Liptrot, Lara Pawson, Arno Schmidt, Maggie Nelson and Ali Smith.

Late in the year I discovered the Backlisted podcast. I rarely bother with podcasts but this one should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys this blog. After listening to an episode on William Maxwell, I’m now reading, slowly and with pencil in hand, So Long, See You Tomorrow. I’ll struggle to write objectively about the story. It is in a sense too close to me. Maxwell’s mother died when he was young, as mine did, and he has an exile’s sensibility. Both make the story terribly moving. But that aside, Maxwell writes with the subtly and elegance of a chemical reaction. I shall start 2017 with Maxwell’s work, both this and other novels and short stories, perhaps also dipping into his essays and memoir.

All intentions have a corresponding possibility of fulfilment, more likely if specific books are embarrassing by their presence. A stack of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions sit within easy reach of my reading chair, part of an intention to read more broadly next year and to spend more time than normal with contemporary books–contemporary by my criteria being books less than ten years old. To this end, I am now subscribed to Deep Vellum, Open Letter, And Other Stories and Fitzcarraldo Editions, all small presses publishing intriguing writers.

My favourite publisher Seagull Books have books forthcoming that will demand attention, including newly translated work by Tomas Espedal, Christa Woolf and Max Frisch. I’m also looking forward to new books by Catherine Lacey, Claudio Magris, Kate Zambreno, Jessa Crispin and Yiyun Li.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Rachel Cusk, William Maxwell and Jorge Semprún I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Rachel Cusk: Outline (a “shared trance”)

outlineI 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.

A Series of Punishments

Rachel Cusk’s writing offers that unusual convergence of microscopic observation and breathtaking sentences. It is rare for a writer to be capable of both sensitivity and beauty. It was discernible in the problematic but absorbing Aftermath but especially manifest in Outline. This sentence seems almost a summation of Cusk’s grand theme, or at least what I can detect from reading just two of her books. It is one of those sentences that force me to lay the book aside, transcribe it with fountain pen and grey ink into my notebook, type it into this box, and then sit back and think of its force.

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesnt notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath

Rachel Cusk knows how to look at things. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, her forensic sense of empathy is clear whether describing a local florist or her profound alienation after her marriage of ten years came to an end.

What happens when the texture of our world shatters into pieces? If we are no longer able to see the form that provides a sense of structure to our world? Cusk seeks to give form to her world through language, giving shape to chaos through writing Aftermath. As David Winters writes of Lydia Davis’s novel, “she tries to imprint an order upon her experience.”

Cusk’s Aftermath is a work of originality.. An striking opening leads to a startling, clever ending, but along the way she looks at the fragility of most unions whose pieces rarely fit tidily together, and like a jigsaw only looks complete from far away.

I intend to explore Cusk’s backlist further but the call back to Dostoyevsky is stronger.