Rachel Cusk is fascinated by silence. About five years ago she announced that she had given up on fiction. A prolific writer, she had by then published seven much-praised novels and three memoirs but, she explained, she was done with both genres. The immediate cause of her writing malaise—what she called her “creative death”—was her painful separation and divorce from the father of her two children, and the response to the book that she wrote about it.
Aftermath was published in 2012, and Cusk’s exploration of her anguish—her insomnia, her inability to eat, her depression, as well as her reflections on the gender divisions within marriage—proved enormously controversial. The book was praised by readers and reviewers for its honest and unsentimental account of the emotional ruins of her relationship and her struggle to regain her autonomy, but it was attacked, just as often, for its “self-obsession.” In effect she was condemned for not being sufficiently interested in her husband’s feelings. One particularly vicious review castigated Cusk for the exalted terms in which she described her experience of divorce (including allusions to Greek tragedy) and dismissed her as a “peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish.”
In the aftermath of Aftermath, Cusk explained to the Observer critic Kate Kellaway, she feared she was “heading into total silence.” Fiction now seemed to her
fake and embarrassing. Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous. Yet my mode of autobiography had come to an end. I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.
Cusk took the silence she feared she was doomed to and did something startlingly creative with it, in the highly acclaimed Outline trilogy. All three novels are organized around the “absent” voice of the narrator—a novelist named Faye, like Cusk a divorced mother of teenagers, who travels to teach creative writing in Greece (Outline, 2014), does up her London house (Transit, 2016), and, now remarried, goes to a writers’ conference held somewhere very like Portugal (Kudos, 2018). The novels are constructed as a string of connected stories, told to her by the people she meets. Faye reports in her own voice the conversations she has, following chance encounters on planes and boats, at extended lunches, in the classroom, and while walking through tourist spots. Toward the end of Outline she meets Anne, a fellow novelist who, like Faye, is suffering the effects of an obscure trauma and who, like Faye, gets into a long conversation with a man on a plane, and then recounts the conversation in detail. The novelist describes herself to Faye as “an imminent absence,” a being given definition only by the stories she hears:
While he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.
For obvious reasons, this passage has been read as the clue to the novel’s form. We are being encouraged to think of the trilogy as an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing, or is there only in outline. But the novels offer another template for their own construction in the ingenious parallels with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. People mirror one another, or repeat one another’s noises, like the animals that Faye sets as a topic for a creative writing assignment in Outline. “They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves…the most important thing about an animal, he said, is that it can’t speak.” The novelist Anne, who is an echo of the novelist Faye, is even described as a parrot: her voice makes “quite a distinctive squawking sound,” and she has green, unblinking eyes.
In Ovid’s version of the myth, Echo—condemned forever to repeat the words of others—falls in love with Narcissus but cannot reach him because she cannot speak in her own voice. He gazes at his reflection in the pool; she completes the mirror by echoing his words back to him. By this interpretation, Faye too is condemned only ever to repeat the words she hears—and she is surrounded by narcissists, who fail to recognize that they are drowning in their own solipsism. The self-satisfied Greek businessman who is blind to his own responsibility for the failure of his relationships is ruthlessly exposed by Faye’s echoing voice at the end of the novel. “I will spend the day in solicitude,” he says, when she declines his invitation out to sea. “You mean solitude,” comes back the reply, and the reader wants to cheer. In obliterating contingent detail, the echo tells the truth. Yet either way—Faye as an outline or Faye as an echo—she is a creature without words of her own.
In interviews, Cusk suggested there was a causal link between the trauma of being vilified for speaking out about her divorce in Aftermath and the silenced self in Outline. But Aftermath was not the first book that made Cusk a figure of hatred. In 2001 her memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother had proved equally controversial—to the extent that Cusk was invited onto BBC radio to defend herself against accusations that she mistreated her children, and questioned elsewhere over whether she regretted having them. In a preview of the reaction to Aftermath, she was accused of being “self-obsessed.” The book is an unusually candid portrayal of a woman’s ambivalent feelings about childbirth and new motherhood, including the physical ruins of the postpartum body, the effects of sleep deprivation, and her struggle to remain true to the autonomous self that she felt was threatened by the experience of motherhood.
Cusk’s own assessment of the cause of the attacks on her was that by writing honestly about maternal ambivalence she had identified the “dishonesty,” and sentimentality, on which the approved culture of motherhood is based. Reflecting on the outrage her memoirs have stirred up, she focuses on the tense boundary between individual will and the will of the community:
I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.
There is undoubtedly something to this diagnosis. The woman who struggles to share her children with her former spouse might well feel threatened by Cusk’s (albeit temporary) expression, in Aftermath, of complete conviction that her children belong to her and to her alone. The mother who’s “half self, half society” tries to suppress those feelings in herself and to behave “reasonably”—or maybe she rages against and punishes her husband, but she generally justifies herself in terms of righteous anger at his behavior rather than making claims about her instincts or biological needs. We might be fascinated by productions of Medea (and Cusk produced her own version of the play in London in 2015—one in which the children were not sacrificed by their mother at the end), but few of us are prepared to acknowledge our kinship with such extremes.
Cusk is not only willing to admit to her darkest instincts; she seems to revel in the anger they produce in others. How else to interpret the fact that—seven years after the “creative death” that the response to Aftermath precipitated in her—she has republished the essay on which Aftermath was based in Coventry, her new collection of essays? First published in Granta, this is the essay’s third outing. It is not as if her critics are likely to approve of it any more this time around, so what’s going on? The answer has to do with her conception of narrative and its relationship to truth—the subject that unites this collection of occasional essays, introductions to classics and modern reprints, and book reviews from the last ten years.
Cusk first explored her growing dissatisfaction with storytelling in that “Aftermath” essay, published in 2011, and so some time before she started writing the Outline trilogy. The problem with storytelling is that it’s mired in subjectivity:
My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. I might say, by way of explanation, that an important vow of obedience had been broken.
Not content with some bland formulation like “there are two sides to every story,” Cusk pits story against truth. When a novel goes wrong, she explains, “the problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth.” And she argues the same of relationships between people. The six autobiographical essays in this collection all turn on the need to extricate truth from the false and deceitful layers of fiction.
In the first essay, “Driving as Metaphor,” Cusk reflects on her habits behind the wheel, and those of her neighbors in rural Norfolk. She describes the drama of the road as a set of competing stories; the road functions not as “a shared reality but a kind of fiction.” People drive too fast or too slow, and are unable to recognize their failure to obey the rules: “Where driving is concerned, there seems to be a peculiar difficulty in attaining objectivity; the personal reality of the driver is unassailable, even by his own conscious mind.” Cusk describes her own history of driving as “analogous to the history of my own will.” “I find myself wondering at the nature of the story [driving] has made up: its relationship to the truth is opaque.” She is annoyed by slow drivers when she is in a car herself, but they never drive slowly enough when she is on a bike: “It strikes me that the true danger of driving might lie in its capacity for subjectivity, and in the weapons it puts at subjectivity’s disposal.” Then, renting a car on a foreign trip one day, she has a sudden, intense experience of her own vulnerability: “It was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in, and without that belief I was being overwhelmed by the horror of reality.”
The word “reality” here is doing a great deal of work. It stands first for the truth of personal or subjective experience, the different realities we experience when riding a bike or driving a car, for example. But it also stands for universal or objective truth, or the really real, which lies beneath the stories we make up to protect ourselves, our saving fictions. As she describes it, story and reality (or “truth”) are opposing forces, although “the story has to obey the truth, to represent it, like clothes represent the body. The closer the cut, the more pleasing the effect. Unclothed, truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Overdressed, it becomes a lie.” Cusk believes in a more authentic truth to be discovered under the falsifying clothes of narrative. And the main thrust of the essay—driving is being used as a metaphor here, after all—is to expose stories and storytellers for what they are: bulwarks against and deniers of this reality.
Elsewhere in this collection we hear of a friend who, now that her children have grown, “is losing belief in what she is doing.” Looking back on the detritus from the different phases of her children’s lives, each of which she had been entirely committed to at the time, it now seems “as if…the true story of her family has eluded her.” Cusk suggests that because we believe stories, truth is sacrificed. Her own mother’s stories of the family rode roughshod over the reality of everyday life when she was a child and, effectively, silenced it: “The sheer energy and wilful, self-constructing logic of narrative, which at first made one cringe and protest every time the truth was dented, came over time to seem preferable to elusive, chaotic reality.” It is not, in itself, curious that a writer of fiction should express so much suspicion of our inclination to create narratives. It is a staple of contemporary fiction to explore the manner in which we get trapped in fictions. What is unusual is not Cusk’s distrust of stories but her faith in truth.
The title essay of this collection takes as its subject the idea that stories silence the truth. “Coventry” is about a moment when Cusk’s parents stopped speaking to her. Apparently they do this quite often. In English euphemism, this withdrawal of communication—a favorite torture visited by groups of schoolgirls on classmates deemed guilty of unforgivable behavior—is known as being “sent to Coventry.” Cusk is good on the patience it takes to enact this form of punishment (“like coldness the silence advances”), and on the power dynamic at play: “It is the attempt to recover power through withdrawal, rather as the powerless child indignantly imagines his own death as a punishment to others. Then they’ll be sorry!” Here she places her parents in the role of willful children, desperate in their attempt “to control the story…to control me.”
Although Coventry is a wordless place, as a strategy in a war between parents and child it is the epitome of story:
War is a narrative: it might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war, there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events.
The cause of this latest outbreak of hostilities is unclear. Her parents have come to stay for the weekend, and, despite the fact that Cusk and her husband go to a lot of trouble to make them comfortable, something goes wrong. Her husband is convinced that he has caused the rift by praising Cusk’s “honesty.” Cusk disagrees: “While his comment may possibly have expedited my journey to Coventry, I know it wasn’t the cause of my being sent there.” Arguably, since communication with her parents has been blocked, she cannot discover the cause. Yet she does not speculate. Her initial feeling of dismay fades until she begins to take pleasure in the silence, and in seeking “whatever truth might be found amid the smoking ruins of the story.” She decides, when her parents make some attempts at reconciliation, that she doesn’t want to leave Coventry. “I’ve decided to stay” in a place where there are no words.
Cusk’s essay depends on a distinction between story and truth, but it failed to get me on its side because I kept finding myself thinking about alternatives to Cusk’s version of the story—for example, one in which the parents refuse to speak because their daughter refuses to hear. What caused her parents to have such an awful time that weekend? I wondered. Why didn’t Cusk call her elderly parents after their wintry drive home to check that they were all right? Why did Cusk’s husband expect a note of thanks for having his in-laws to stay? As a reader I stayed resolutely on the side of “story,” and, in effect, therefore, on the side of the parents.
“Coventry” shares with the Outline trilogy the difficulty of representing exchanges in which one of the parties remains silent. The structure of the trilogy offers Cusk tremendous flexibility, and at its best the patterns and repetitions of the disparate tales, linked through the narrator’s echoing voice, build into narratives that offer the reader far more than the sum of their parts. The essays unfold using a similar logic, creating a chain of observations that are presented as analogous to one another. Alongside reflections on the behavior of her parents, and her friend whose children have now grown, in “Coventry” Cusk philosophizes on the everyday scenes that unfold in front of her—what is going on between elderly silent couples out for dinner, for example, or the difference to be observed on the beach between the “herding parent” (looking after the children) and the “lone parent,” and what we might learn from this of the original “family drama.”
In an essay on the “moral status” of rudeness, Cusk stitches together the rudeness of border officials, her father hanging up on her, and her own rudeness to a shop assistant with the breakdown of communication in Brexit Britain, the “basket of deplorables” in American politics, and the fate of Philoctetes in Sophocles’ play. It is not that these examples of rudeness cannot illuminate one another, but for the reader they are too tenuously held together by Cusk’s perspective. Cusk wants us to read her reflections as constitutive of the “really real,” but too often they stay at the level of personal or subjective reality.
And in struggling against the relative arbitrariness of her chain of associations, her voice takes on an insistent and rather solemn tone. Categories such as “reality,” “truth,” and “woman” are loaded with a freight they cannot bear. Claims such as “there is currently no public unity among women, because since the peak of feminism the task of woman has been to assimilate herself with man” carry the force not of truths but of assertions. They are matters of opinion. Cusk constantly struggles to balance the small detail and the big truth when she denies herself the room to roam into the fictive. Instead she has to argue for her ability to discern underlying truths, offering explicit lessons on what she learns through her observation of others.
There is so much in these essays about being disliked—by her parents, by her readers, by her ex-husband, by her friends—that this performance of being shunned itself calls out for interrogation. We could interpret her insistence on her own unpopularity as proof of her worth. The more people complain about her, the more “true” she is being. In an essay on women writers, a series of reflections set off by rereading Woolf and Beauvoir, she makes the argument explicit:
She [the woman writer] can find herself disowned in the very act of invoking the deepest roots of shared experience. Having taken the trouble to write honestly, she can find herself being read dishonestly. And in my own experience as a writer, it is in the places where honesty is most required—because it is here that compromise and false consciousness and “mystification” continue to endanger the integrity of a woman’s life—that it is most vehemently rejected. I am talking, of course, about the book of repetition, about fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life.
Cusk is convinced that her autobiographical writing upsets people because she lights up the conflict between self and society, and by claiming a moral force for her honesty she associates her work with a feminist project. Yet there is, it seems to me, a major difficulty with this view of women’s writing, and it is hidden inside that word “unvarying.” It may be true that domesticity and motherhood and family life are “eternal” forms, or at least very long-lasting ones. But they are certainly not unvarying.
The final essay in this collection was first published as the introduction to a reprint of Natalia Ginzburg’s essay collection The Little Virtues. Cusk makes a series of claims for Ginzburg’s fiction, including that “no context is required to read her: in fact, to read her is to realise how burdened literature frequently is by its own social and material milieux,” and that the authority of Ginzburg’s voice is “grounded in living and being rather than in thinking or even in language.” But to read Ginzburg is to encounter language first and foremost. It is through language, and habits of speech, that she explores her kaleidoscope of otherness. Her masterpiece Family Lexicon is entirely grounded in verbal differences, and the particularity of idiom, clothes, food, and style. There are no “types.” Her father and mother, uncles and aunts, neighbors, brothers, and sisters are all characterized by their habits, including their habitual lexicons, and nobody is in the least like anybody else. Ginzburg is not interested in who people are “truly,” underneath their habits and modes of living, but in how we inhabit our lives in all their intense individuality and accidents of style.
There is a willed deafness running through these essays that brings us back to the drama of speech and silence. In an essay on teaching creative writing, Cusk bemoans the fact (and it must be genuinely irritating) that people are always telling writers what to write about: “What other grown-up gets told how to do their job so often as a writer? Or rather, what is it about writing that makes other people think they know how to do it?” The trouble for Cusk is that since she believes that writers are people who have “fought every social compulsion to ‘grow up,’ whose inner world has been constellated around avoiding that surrender,” it follows that it is a vocation open to a great many people—if not all of us. It has little to do with language, or the ability to tell stories. This is essentially Cusk’s argument when, in both “Aftermath” and “Coventry,” she explains that she has learned to make a distinction between “reality” and story, and that she is on the side of reality. Or when she claims that Natalia Ginzburg’s voice is grounded in living rather than in language. The key to being a writer lies in attitude, not craft, and plenty of “other people” are in possession of the inner-child attitude. One meets them all the time.
For Cusk, the writer is a seer, a resister of stories, and a repository of truth. Given that writing is about attitude and orientation in the world, there is in fact no need for a writer to write in order to be one. A writer can be silent, like Faye, or like Chekhov’s three sisters. In her essay on women’s writing, Cusk explores her fascination with Chekhov’s play. Homing in on the suggestion that the play was based on aspects of the lives of the Brontë sisters, Cusk describes how
the three women, Olga, Irina and Masha, suffer not only from the confinement and tedium of provincial life but from something antithetical in their relationship to reality. What they feel is not embodied by what they are.
The sisters, she argues, are unable to discharge their creativity, “a force that bears a special hostility to the actual,” not least because of Chekhov’s decision to further restrict their lives in the play by denying them the Brontë sisters’ outlets of art and writing. So Irina’s soul is, as Chekhov puts it, “like a costly piano which is locked and the key lost,” but silent though it is, it is the soul of an artist. While women artists search the “profound silence” of the past for their forebears (Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës), Cusk suggests it is female silence itself that interests Chekhov, “and it interests him not as an absence but as a presence.” This is an intriguing interpretation of the play, given how much those sisters talk. And while it is true that they are thwarted in their efforts to live fully, they are certainly not more thwarted than their brother.
But the analysis fits Cusk’s interest in the eternal struggle between art and compromise with the social contract. She continually claims a special role for the writer who has refused to surrender to the demands of social life, and will therefore, inevitably, be scorned. She extolls the virtues of the woman writer who insists on taking “femaleness and female values” as her subject: “She won’t win the Man Booker Prize for writing the book of repetition: she will, as De Beauvoir perceived, irritate and antagonise rather than please.” To be placed in enforced silence (to be sent to Coventry) is, then, a kind of badge of honor for the writer. It proves you have things to say that other people do not want to hear. Yet the same is surely true of anyone who refuses to speak—Cusk’s parents, for example. They are speaking up for their experience by not speaking, and it follows logically then that they, and not their daughter, are the writers in the story—the kind of writers who trade in truth rather than language.
My guess is that critical readers of A Life’s Work and Aftermath were not so much discomfited by Cusk’s uncompromising revelations about her conflicted feelings toward her babies, or her visceral battle with her husband for the children, as they were reluctant to accord these revelations the value of truths. They were disinclined to agree with the claim that the instincts of the child who has refused to surrender to grownup social life in themselves carry moral force or moral courage. Throughout these essays, Cusk keeps conflating truth and honesty, but they are not the same. The first makes a claim to universality, the second to personal accountability. Cusk knows that she has no more purchase on universal truth than the rest of us, and maybe that’s why she courts opprobrium in the way she does. She keeps claiming a right—to the role of seer—to which she knows she is not entitled.