Clytemnestra in Brighton

Joanna Biggs

  • Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk
    Faber, 153 pp, £12.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 27765 0

On the cover of Aftermath, Rachel Cusk’s divorce memoir, there’s a drawing of a jigsaw. It’s the classic pattern, the one in which all the pieces – reaching out on two sides and sucked in on the others – are the same, and fit together at right angles. The book begins: ‘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 simile will be invoked four more times; her marriage is a completed jigsaw and her divorce the moment when the picture that only ‘seems complete’ is broken up.) The sentence doesn’t work – jigsaw pieces don’t form heaps, their edges aren’t broken, and what are ‘broke’ and ‘broken’ both doing in the same sentence anyway? – but the real problem is that a jigsaw is dismantled only so that it can be put back together again. A jigsaw in bits is a funny metaphor to use for divorce.

Rachel Cusk has written seven works of fiction, but we know her best for her memoirs: the first, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, about the reservations she felt about motherhood, drew accusations of child hatred; the second, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, about a family holiday, had to be pulped when she libelled a whole village; and now the third, Aftermath, has brought Cusk charges of self-absorption, narcissism, condescension, commercialism, cruelty towards her children, too much revelation, not enough revelation, naivety, grandiloquence, ice in her heart and a lack of a sense of humour. Cusk has put the vitriol down to people not being able to accept what she has to say. Maybe the problem isn’t what she has to say, but how she says it.

She keeps writing about herself despite the hostility because of what she calls ‘the feminist principle of autobiographical writing’. A Life’s Work is a good example of what she means. The idea of the book was to show that having a baby involves pain, boredom, drudgery, exhaustion and sleeplessness. That doesn’t seem very controversial now but maybe it seemed so in 2001, a year after Mumsnet was founded but before Mummylit properly got going. Cusk saw A Life’s Work as a ‘letter, addressed to those women who care to read it, in the hope that they find some companionship in my experiences’. But it’s not sappy companionship that Cusk has in mind. She is making herself vulnerable by telling you things that make her look bad; it’s something women do and sometimes it helps.

Cusk, who was never sure she even wanted children, begins A Life’s Work with a trip to the doctor to tell him she’s pregnant. He works out her due date and sends her out of the door. The midwife is marginally more sympathetic and gives her the names of some books to read, books with ‘photographs, images of women transfixed as if at the moment of death: grimacing, sweating, imploring, eyes screwed shut or turned heavenwards, their bodies drowning in a tangle of sheets and hospital wires or raised up by pain into cruciform postures, arms outstretched’. She starts bleeding at 34 weeks, so the baby has to come out early by caesarean section. When Cusk’s daughter is born, she is colicky, won’t sleep, breastfeeds for an hour at a time. The biological imperative is a shock. So are the trappings of motherhood: the wheels on the bus that go round and round, and the hand movements that go round and round with them, the competition about baby milestones as if most babies didn’t walk in the end. It’s not many mothers who complain that it’s all too silly for them. Cusk’s point is made not in metaphors but in irritation: she’s annoyed with Natasha for being so contented at the end of War and Peace, annoyed with the baby when it won’t stop crying and annoyed with herself when she shouts at it (as if she was the only mother who did that).

But the reception of A Life’s Work (motherinferior on Mumsnet: ‘I found it profoundly annoying and kept wanting to shake her’) was bruising, and in a new preface to the book she takes the high ground: ‘This is not a childcare manual, ladies. In these pages you have to think for yourselves.’ In her next memoir, The Last Supper, she has to prove she’s not a monster. She and her husband take their girls, six-year-old Albertine and five-year-old Jessye, out of school to live in Italy for three months. They go from Newhaven through France to Tuscany, where they become experts in frescoes, gelati and playing tennis with expats. Is a mother writing a travel book, a genre overstuffed with posh, lone men, a gesture towards the ‘feminist principle’? Cusk says her travel book ‘was meant to be harmless’, and in fact it’s a bit boring. Even so she gets her point across. She takes the girls to the beach with a complete Shakespeare under her arm:

The children do not run to the rolling water, nor play in the earthy sand. Instead they sit one on either side of me, their mouths by my ears, trying to see over my shoulder. They want to know about Shakespeare. They want to know the plot of Othello, of Antony and Cleopatra. They point to things and ask what they mean. Every time I turn the page, they complain. After a while I surrender and read aloud. I read them Hamlet’s soliloquies and Antony’s love-speeches and Macbeth’s unsettling remarks on the death of his wife. I do all three witches in different voices.

Might she be showing off?

Aftermath began as an essay she wrote for Granta’s all-women issue last summer billed as a feminist take on divorce. That essay gives the book (it’s barely a book: just 150 widely spaced pages) its title and becomes the first chapter, in which Cusk and her husband have separated and are consulting solicitors. The book then goes back to the ‘heart of marital darkness’, the day ‘he’ left, and gradually emerges into the light: she bakes a cake for her mother’s 70th birthday party, takes in a lodger, has dinner at friends’ houses, walks in the park with her sister and their children and finally has therapy with a psychoanalyst called ‘Y’ (the closest Cusk comes to a joke) and a new relationship with ‘Z’. She refused to give interviews when the Granta essay came out, but has since made up for her reticence with an appearance on Woman’s Hour and interviews in the Guardian and New Statesman, though she didn’t say much in them, apparently for legal reasons. It’s unfair to tell a memoir writer off for self-absorption, but strange to write a memoir about divorce when you can’t mention the reasons. Aftermath is a book about saying something without saying it – which is where the metaphors come in.

Two paragraphs after the dismantled jigsaw there is a broken plate: ‘A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is 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.’ It’s an ordinary, unsurprising metaphor, recalling the plate slung at the wall in a row or smashed the evening before a wedding for good luck, but it’s the beginning of a metaphor chain that stretches to 138 (I counted), and says more about the kind of sentences she likes than it does about her marriage or her divorce or anything else about her. There are chains within the chain, and they try to hold Aftermath together: slices of her mother’s three-tier birthday cake, which ‘replicate the strata of the whole’, are fruitlessly compared to jigsaw pieces; oil and tar keep bubbling up to suggest hatred; in a single paragraph, a dentist is ‘like a 1950s film star’, with a ‘rosebud expression, like the star in the suspenseful phase of the drama’ who walks away ‘like a tragic starlet in a Paris backstreet’, as if the paragraph would collapse without such support. The sheer number of metaphors produces a kind of chaos, where oil and masks and jigsaws and a seamstress’s scraps and cake mixture and the sea and ground glass and Oedipus and the moon and Lady Macbeth and marriage and footprints in the sand are jumbled together.

You’re not sure what she means when she says a jigsaw is a marriage is a plate, and you’re relieved to come across a patch of direct speech. After six metaphors we get to the first bit of dialogue between Cusk and her husband. Perhaps they are separating because ‘an important vow of obedience was broken,’ or is it because they had swapped traditional gender roles, which made him ‘womanly’ and her ‘unsexed’? They are now trying to determine who gets what:

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.

It’s not dialogue really: it’s he said-she said, an argument. The husband says something reasonable enough and Cusk takes it literally, as if he were asking her to saw the children in two. Cusk used this literal-minded persona for comic effect in A Life’s Work by pretending to take lifestyle articles in the papers seriously, and as an excuse to discuss ‘Frost at Midnight’ by claiming not to have noticed the baby at Coleridge’s side. Here she’s using it because she isn’t pleased with her answer: ‘not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for’. The passage has been much quoted to show Cusk being unfair to her husband and children, but it also shows that she isn’t afraid of not being likeable. She later calls the sentiment ‘barbaric’, but she doesn’t take it back, or apologise for it.

The most tiresome metaphors aren’t the inexact or clichéd but those that go on and on. Soon after Cusk’s husband leaves she has to have a tooth pulled. The molar was ‘beyond repair’, as a crooked root meant that no instrument could get at the problem. ‘The intimate world of the mouth will suffer irreversible loss,’ Cusk says, ‘a simulacrum may be fitted; until then, the other teeth will have to do the work of compensating for the absence.’ This is not the first time: ‘A major tooth has already decayed and been extracted from this mouth, a history which obviously makes things harder.’ (This must be Cusk’s way of telling us about her brief first marriage to a banker.) The dentist has trouble getting the tooth out and has to use the chisel: ‘There is collateral damage; the fine mesh of life is torn.’ At last it comes out, and Cusk is sent home with orders to eat soft things: ‘And cold will feel more pleasant.’ In the end you get the impression that having a tooth pulled hurts more than getting a divorce. She advertises for a lodger – being in a man-less household reminds her of the women left behind during the Trojan War – and ends up with Rupert, who leaves the house at 6.30 a.m. and goes to bed at 9.30 p.m., after microwaving a ready meal for one. In the next metaphor, the grandest of all, she is Clytemnestra, who murdered Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to get a fair wind for Troy. Rupert the lodger becomes Aegysthus, Clytemnestra’s co-ruler when Agamemnon is away from Argos (or a terraced house in Brighton). Cusk drags Clytemnestra down to her level: she is an ‘Iron Lady’, a ‘working mother’, ‘the new unisexual’. The strangest thing about this metaphor is the way it has to involve the lodger, who may take his charmless fish pie microwaved, but has nothing to do with the marriage breaking up. Cusk is again reaching for the universal in an intensely private situation, but all she gets is bathos. The grand metaphors are trying to make her divorce exceptional, but the truth is that she’s one of many divorcées trying to make ends meet and remember her appointments.

Like other divorcées, she has children. It’s a commonplace that children are the most important element in a divorce; Cusk makes them the most likeable characters in her book. In the first essay, they cry in the bath (we don’t see Cusk’s tears until page 87); and they have more negative capability than their mother when they say things like ‘I have two homes … and I have no home.’ They seem full of innate good sense. When Cusk stops eating, she mocks herself for succumbing to the ‘consumptive glamour’ of suffering; they say: ‘Aren’t you having any?’ And when one of the daughters falls out with a friend, she tells her mother that ‘It’s just as much my fault as hers’: if Cusk could manage that sort of even-handedness she wouldn’t have had to write Aftermath. Does making her children (along with her brother and a few friends) the only nice characters in the book excuse writing about them? Or telling the world how she felt about their father in the heat of divorce? Cusk makes a distinction between truth and story in the opening chapter: hers is the truth and the marriage is the story. But there isn’t just one truth.

In the final chapter, a short story called ‘Trains’, Cusk puts herself in the shoes of the nanny, who seems to have held the household together when the husband left. Sonia arrives in Brighton from Lithuania to learn English by helping out in Cusk’s household. At first she is bewildered: she spends three hours in the supermarket, takes pills to sleep, hears ‘him’ and ‘her’ shouting late into the night. But when the husband disappears and Cusk takes to her bed, Sonia comes into her own. She bakes gingerbread with the children, bathes them, finds their pyjamas and steers them away from their catatonic mother. Cusk is close here to admitting that the story of the divorce isn’t simply hers, that it might also belong to her friends, parents, children and Sonia, but she can’t go as far as imagining what things are like for her husband. Many people have noted that she doesn’t give her husband his name: he is ‘X’ or ‘him’. But his name, Adrian Clarke, is on the inside back flap; he took the author photo. The reader sees her – dark fringe, almond eyes, half-smile – through his eyes. Aftermath may be a rare instance of a husband’s story in wife’s clothing.

As I read Aftermath and the jigsaw kept turning up – now as a metaphor for Cusk’s Anglo-American upbringing, now as a point of comparison with the symbolic, failed, birthday cake, now as an imaginary manifestation of her divorce carried ‘everywhere in my hands’ – I started to worry that the defining feature of the ‘feminist principle of autobiographical writing’ might be lack of clarity. There’s no point telling the truth if no one can understand you, or if they consistently misunderstand you. ‘Sometimes you say things before you’ve understood them yourself,’ Cusk’s new man tells her. ‘For you the saying is a 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,’ Cusk replies. She should have tried harder.