I blame Christianity

Jenny Turner

  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
    Faber, 249 pp, £16.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 23362 5

Chapter 6 of Rachel Cusk’s new novel takes place round a large square table at a creative writing course in Athens. The narrator asks each student in turn to tell a story. The fourth is told by a girl called Clio, who believes that every person has a ‘story of life’ with its own ‘themes and events’. Clio uses her contribution to the exercise to prove her point. On her way to the class that morning, she passed a music college with an open window from which she could hear a pianist practising the D minor fugue from Bach’s French Suites. Remembering how, a couple of years earlier, she had ‘for a number of reasons’ given up her own hopes of becoming a professional musician, she was overcome by a sense of loss. ‘It was as though the music had once belonged to her and now no longer did; as though she had been excluded from its beauty, was being forced to see it in the possession of someone else, and to revisit in its entirety her own sadness at her inability … to remain in that world.’

Clio is followed by a boy called Georgeou, who sees Clio’s story only as a series of random events, gated by the plainest logic.

Thankfully, Georgeou continued, there was an infinite thing called possibility, and an equally useful thing called probability. We had an excellent piece of evidence in terms of the music college … Most people would have some concept of what a professional musician was, and would understand that the possibility of failure in such a profession was as great as the possibility of success. Hearing the music coming out of the building, therefore, they could envisage the person playing it as one who was running this risk, and whose fate could therefore take one of two basic forms.

Cusk’s last novel was called The Bradshaw Variations (2009). It featured a piano-playing husband, a fugally comic structure and an epigraph from Sartre: Bach ‘taught us how to find originality within an established discipline; actually – how to live’. Art, music, sex, money, parents, children, pet dogs: all the plates were up on their poles and spinning. All the themes worked out and made sense. But anything worth doing in art needs to be risky, and risk isn’t properly risky unless the chance of failure is at least as great as the chance of success. What happens when you get the plates spinning in interesting, original, dangerous ways and then they all fall off?

Between The Bradshaw Variations and Outline, Cusk published a book called Aftermath (2012), about her divorce: ‘A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken.’ Her disagreements with her husband remind her of Oedipus and Agamemnon: ‘In Greek drama, to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death.’ The muddle of family life post-breakup makes her think about Britain after the retreat of the Roman Empire. ‘Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb.’ She doesn’t give much detail, but the problems seem to have started with an attempt to overturn gender expectations, with Cusk as the breadwinner and the husband looking after the children at home. ‘Call yourself a feminist,’ the husband says ‘disgustedly’ as the arrangement collapses. Then he demands ‘half of everything, including the children’, and Cusk refuses: ‘They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.’

Many readers really liked Aftermath, but a few reviewers were appalled. In the LRB Joanna Biggs called it out on its ‘tiresome metaphors’, including the plate one, and for comparing Clytemnestra to a modern working mother. In the Sunday Times Camilla Long complained about ‘acres of poetic whimsy’, and described Cusk as ‘a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish’. But the killer blow was probably the extract run by the Guardian, which was, Cusk complained, insensitively edited, reducing what she saw as the integrity of her experiment to ‘degrading gossip’. ‘Creative death,’ Cusk called the aftermath of Aftermath in a recent interview in the Observer. ‘I was heading into total silence.’ Creative death and total silence, having destroyed her home and exposed her marriage, and with two daughters to support.

Two things seem to have helped her pull herself back. She had a job teaching creative writing at Kingston University: ‘a more humane alternative to being a (failed) hack’, as she wrote in a piece about creative writing courses last year. And she was reading Knausgaard, and coming to think that the whole idea and practice of fiction, as conventionally understood, is ‘fake and embarrassing … utterly ridiculous’. The real point of writing, her piece quotes Knausgaard as saying, is not to do with making things up, but with ‘drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows … Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself’ – and this is where, in Cusk’s view, creative writing courses come in. People come along as a first step in the effort to start uncovering and developing their own self-relations and their relations to the world. ‘Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language … The notion of “finding your voice”, simplistic as it may sound, is … a social goal.’

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