Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Rachel Cusk: Divorce and Aftermath

Rachel Cusk is a British writer, who, in case you want to know, is recently divorced. Why would you want to know—provided you know who Rachel Cusk is in the first place (although, if you are reading this post, you will have, because I revealed her profession in the opening sentence)—whether she is married or divorced?

It is a legitimate question. I did not know about Rachel Cusk’s marital status until last month when I stumbled across anexcerpt from Cusk’s most recent non-fiction work in the culture section of TheDaily Telegraph. (Yes, the Telegraph does have a culture section; and yes, I read it from time to time).

Cusk’s most recent work of non-fiction is a memoir, and its title is: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.

So you see, one of the reasons why you might want to know about Rachel Cusk’s marital status is: she wants you to know; she wants the world to know that she is divorced. That’s why she has written a book about her divorce (published by Faber and Faber, £12.99 only).

I don’t know about you, but for me £12.99 for a book is not cheap. If I am at all to be persuaded to spend this amount on a book then it has to fulfil at least one of the three conditions: (1) It must be written by a writer I greatly admire. (2) The book’s subject holds more fascination for me than a pubescent boy for a Catholic priest. (3) The book has attracted rave reviews and is considered a classic or a cult book.

Mind you, I am not saying that I will buy the book if one or more of the above conditions are fulfilled. I shall most probably still not buy a hardback edition and wait instead patiently for the paperback edition to come out.

Back to Rachel Cusk. She does not fulfil the first condition. I do not admire Rachel Cusk (as a writer). If you are thinking of forming a Rachel Cusk fan club, don’t bother to send me the invitation, because I shall politely decline.

I know, I know: in 2003 Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of ‘thetwenty best of young British novelists’, which, apparently is a big thing (although to describe Rachel Cusk, who would have been 36 when the list was published, as ‘young’ is a bit like declaring that you had a filling sushi meal). Since 1983 Granta (a magazine that no one reads but miraculously still gets published) has been publishing a list of best of young British novelists every ten years. While writing this post I looked up the lists out of curiosity. The lists do contain many writers I admire or have heard of or read (not knowing they were on the Granta list), but they also have names I don’t recognise at all. (What does this mean? Is my having heard of a writer’s name the ultimate test of the writer’s popularity? I’d certainly wish so. But I’d also wish to spend a night of hot passion with Scarlet Johansson and that weird girl in the film Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (at the same time). Doesn't mean it is going to happen.) The point is: getting your name on some obnoxiously hoity-toity list is not necessarily a guarantee that you will be a successful writer.

Is Rachel Cusk a successful writer? Does she sell? Who knows? She certainly has no difficulty in getting the memoir of her divorce published by Faber and Faber. So she must be a writer of some standing. Faber and Faber wouldn’t publish just anybody.

Have I actually read any of Rachel Cusk’s novels? As it happens, I have. Not one, but two. A few years ago I read a novel of hers entitled In the Fold. Last year I read her most recent novel, entitled The Bradshaw Variations.

What did I make of these two novels? I shall briefly write about The Bradshaw Variations, which I read only last year. Then I will write (even more briefly) about In the Fold

I do not remember a thing about The Bradshaw Variations. I finished reading it, so it couldn’t have been total dross. But I remember it being tedious, not least because of Cusk’s ponderous prose which didn’t clearly convey what she was trying to say. Reading The Bradshaw Variations was a bit like looking at one of those impressionistic paintings of Monet. You have no clue whether Monet was trying to depict Paris in rainy season or just had a fit of sneezes while the wet paint-brush was in his hands.

As for In the Fold, it too was a masterclass in opaque verbosity.

Rachel Cusk seems to me to be one of those writers who desperately want to show the world how very clever and how very profound they are; but end up, instead, writing a lot of what seems like twaddle about nothing in particular.

I have even heard Rachel Cusk in a literary programme. She read out from Arlington Park, which was published in 2006. Again I remember nothing of the programme other than a pasty white woman reading monotonously a monotonous passage from what was probably a monotonous book. (I have Arlington Park in my collection. I have no recollection of buying it. I thought I must have bought it for a quid from a second-hand bookshop; but when I opened it, it had Rachel Cusk’s signature with the message that she hoped that I would enjoy the book. So I must have bought it after the literary programme. I couldn’t tell you whether I liked it or not, because I haven’t read it, and I am not going to any time soon.)

I think I have made it fairly clear that I am not a Rachel Cusk fan; and the Granta nomination in 2003 notwithstanding, I will be very surprised if anything she has written will be read in fifty years—since I will most certainly not be alive in fifty years I won’t actually know whether Cusk’s novels would be in circulation in fifty years; and, having led an unpious existence in this life, I am destined to be reincarnated as a cockroach or a rat in the next one—except perhaps on the book-blogs  devoted to ‘supremely talented but cruelly neglected and excessively underrated British women writers of late twentieth and early twenty-first century’.

What about the subject matter? Cusk’s memoir is about her divorce. I am pretty sure that the divorce was protracted and full of rancour. If it was an amicable, mutually acceptable separation, with both parents deciding act maturely in the best interest of children, it wouldn’t have been worth writing a book about, would it? (What would you write? “My husband and I have been aware for some time that we were drifting apart. I first realised that things were not quite how they should be in our favourite Italian restaurant—which, by the way, does the most scrumptious spinach-ricotta cannelloni, and you must have it with a chilled bottle of Gavi—when I noticed him desperately trying to suppress a yawn when I was in the middle of explaining to him the importance of art in human lives. On my part I realised that we were really not suited for each other. He is earnest, my husband, but he lacks style and his hair look as if he cuts them with garden shears. These things hurt my delicate and fragile sensibilities, the downside of being a sensitive (and talented) artist. When it comes to fine things in life my husband is adequate in the same way a chiropractor is competent to manage your curved spine but is no orthopaedic surgeon. So we had a long, heart to heart chat about our future over breakfast (a strong cup of coffee and toasts). I had to tell my husband that if I had to survive as an artist we must separate. He was most gracious about it. He said he fully understood. He would never be able to forgive himself, he said, if he stifled my creativity even inadvertently. We then had a frank discussion about financial arrangements. My husband was most understanding. You see, he gave up his job to look after the house and children, while I became the breadwinner with my book-writing; but he said that he did not want me to be lumbered with the worry of providing for him; I must focus, unhindered, on my writing. He would manage, he said. He would go in the night to the backs of shops and eat out of bins, but I wasn’t to worry about providing for him.” Wouldn’t quite be the material of a bestselling book, would it? What you want, what the readers want, is the mother of all battles, with your about-to-be-ex husband more bitter than the lemon you squeezed in your gin and tonic last night.

So, I started reading the excerpt in the Telegraph, if not exactly trembling with eager anticipation, then in a spirit of mildly prurient curiosity.

I should like to say that I managed to reach the end of the excerpt, but I regret to announce that I didn’t; rather I couldn’t.  Somewhere into the fourth or fifth paragraph, as Cusk preached in her mannered prose about what it meant to be a feminist in modern world, I lost consciousness.  I guess the pleasures of reading self-absorbed, self-pitying, whinge palled rather quickly for me.

I can’t help feeling that when marriages break up, the partners who are established writers have an unfair advantage. They can get it out of the system by writing books about them—writing being therapeutic and all that. If the books sell, it is even better. What about the poor partners? How do they put the whole thing behind them? They might want to put forth their sides of the story; except they can’t, because when they try to string sentences together their eyeballs collide. (Not really fair, is it? But then life is not fair. If life were fair the British Empire would still be existing, and we would be telling the natives to hurry up and bring us cool glasses of sherbet.)  Last year I read American writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Prey and Love. That book (unlike Cusk’s) is not about Gilbert’s divorce, but there is rather a lot of it in the first few pages in which, you’d be surprised to learn, Gilbert’s ex-husband comes across as about as reasonable as a low IQ Tottenham Football Club striker who has been shown a red card. Now Cusk has turned the break-up of her marriage into a book, £12.99 per copy. How mercenary do you have to be to write a book full of me-me cod psychology out of the dissolution of your marriage? (On the other hand, you might say that since the marriage is kaput anyway, you might as well turn it into some sort of money-making scheme; and if you end up looking like a narcissist wearing your sense of hurt sensibilities like a bank robber wearing a hood, it is a small price to pay.)

A few years ago Julie Myerson, another British novelist, published a novel entitled The Lost Child. On the eve of the publication of the novel Myerson publically announced that in the novel there was an entire section that incorporatedan episode involving her real life son Jack, who, according to her, had become a cannabis addict and whom she was forced to chuck out a few years earlier. Myerson said that she had decided to go public in order to raise awareness of the risks of cannabis smoking. This generated a lot of publicity for Myerson (and her novel, which couldn’t have hurt), not all of which was positive. Myerson was flabbergasted and aghast and shocked and devastated, so she claimed, when some questioned her motives behind waiting for almost three years before deciding to raise public awareness about the hazards of cannabis smoking, the timing coinciding rather neatly with the publication of her novel, which just happened to have had a whole section on it. 

Cusk is more direct about her intentions. She has published a memoir about the break-up of her marriage. You might question the propriety of her actions, but you can’t question her motives. (Unlike Myerson’s) there is nothing sly about Cusk’s motives. There is a straightforward assumption that people would want to read about the sordid dramas of her life, and if they do, she will make money. (My guess is that the book won’t be a blockbuster because, let’s face it, writers are never going to be in the same league as footballers and screen personalities when it comes to popularity; and Cusk, despite the 2003 Granta seal of approval, is not in the premier league of writers.)

I might read Cusk’s memoir (third, according to Wikipedia; she has already banged out a memoir about being a mother (A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother) and a family holiday with her now-ex-husband in Italy (The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy) if I spot it in the local library; but I don’t think I will bother buying the book. That is primarily because I don’t rate Cusk highly as a writer, but also because I find the exercise of commercially exploiting a family tragedy slightly distasteful.