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.