quinta-feira, 19 de fevereiro de 2015
Rachel Cusk’s autobiographical fictions.
By Elaine Blair
A character in Rachel Cusk’s new novel, “Outline,” a successful playwright named Anne, has been stricken with a peculiar kind of writer’s block. She calls it a problem of “summing up”:
Whenever she conceived of a new piece of work, before she had got very far she would find herself summing it up. Often it took only one word: tension, for instance, or mother-in-law. . . . As soon as something was summed up, it was to all intents and purposes dead, a sitting duck, and she could go no further with it. Why go to the trouble to write a great long play about jealousy when jealousy just about summed it up?
Anne’s malaise brings to mind a condition that a number of real-life writers have been reporting, including Cusk herself. Though she’s not well known in the United States, Cusk has long been a public figure in England, where she lives. Her first novel, “Saving Agnes,” was published to high acclaim, in 1993, when she was in her mid-twenties. As she continued writing, Cusk revealed herself to have an unsparing satirical eye that she directed toward fellow upper-middle-class white women, with the result that among British readers she has passionate detractors as well as champions. Since the early nineties, she has reliably published a novel or a memoir every few years. But, in an interview with the Guardian last August, Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.”
That line sounds like something from Karl Ove Knausgaard. “Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Knausgaard writes in “A Man in Love,” the second of the six volumes that make up his novel “My Struggle.” In that book, Knausgaard, using real names and verifiable events, describes his own midlife artistic crisis and his renunciation of his earlier forms of novelistic storytelling. Cusk has written admiringly about Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. “Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,” she told the Guardian.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, when writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen argued, in the pages of The Review of Contemporary Fiction and in this magazine, about how novels should be written, they discussed difficulty versus pleasure, and when to gratify or foil readers’ desires. Today, writers who are trying to expand the possibilities of the novel talk about incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay, of hewing closer to the author’s subjective experience, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions. The casual terms of the debate can be puzzling. Haven’t novelists always put autobiographical material to use in novels? Haven’t we been reading about a character called “Philip Roth” for years?
There are so many ways for a writer to play with autobiography and authorial identity that there is, effectively, no isolated element in fiction that can be called “autobiography.” Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Jenny Offill, Geoff Dyer, and W. G. Sebald. Nor does it prepare us for “Outline” itself. The novel is mesmerizing; it marks a sharp break from the conventional style of Cusk’s previous work. The characters in her earlier novels presumably share some of her biography—they age as she does, study or teach literature, raise children, tend to the chores of daily life in London or in provincial towns. But they remain smoothly sealed in their fictional worlds. “Outline” feels different, its world porous and continuous with ours, though not for the reasons we might expect. Cusk has not named her narrator Rachel. She does not put a fine point on the verifiability of the novel’s events. Though the narrator is a writer, the novel does not tell the story of how it came to be written. It is not an expansive account of a life but a short account of two days that the narrator spends teaching a writing seminar in Athens. Indeed, “Outline” proposes an unexpected solution to the weariness with fiction which Anne calls “summing up”: Cusk has her characters literally sum things up, making them speak about past events rather than showing those events as they unfold. To paraphrase Anne, why manipulate characters into situations dramatizing jealousy when they can tell us about their jealousy?
“Outline” is composed almost entirely of conversations. During the course of her trip, Cusk’s narrator, Faye, who lives in London, meets with friends in Athens and makes new acquaintances, mostly editors and writers. There seems to be something about her that makes people want to tell her things, or, possibly, they’d be happy going on about themselves to anyone. (It’s comical how few questions anyone asks Faye in return for her attention.) The man sitting next to her on the plane over, a Greek businessman from a rich mercantile family, tells her about his childhood spent between Greece and England, about the money that he made and lost, about his former marriages. A fellow writing teacher, a married father from Ireland, tells her how he came to write his first book and why he will probably never write a second. A Greek editor friend tells her why his publishing venture failed; a novelist shares impressions of Polish gender politics from her recent book tour. The two sessions of the writing seminar that Faye teaches offer a compressed version of the larger scheme of the novel: more talking, more stories beautifully arrayed in their variety and density.
Faye, for her part, says hardly anything. Almost all of her narration consists of paraphrasing what other people have said to her. We come to feel an intimacy with her that has nothing to do with disclosure; though we know conspicuously little about her, we share with her the experience of listening to others, and, as we do so, it becomes clear that a certain kind of conversation is missing from Faye’s days and nights. No one speaks to her in the casual shorthand of daily intimacy. Her school-age sons back home in England send her text messages (“Where’s my tennis racket?”) that only sharpen our sense of her isolation, her lack of sustaining closeness with other adults.
With its recessive, enigmatic narrator, “Outline” recalls Sebald’s novels, especially “The Emigrants,” in which the narrator uses other people’s stories to gesture obliquely toward his own preoccupations. As in that book, Faye’s withdrawal and indirection seem to indicate melancholy, but she also has a subtly satirical relationship to the world and to the people in it. Her first conversation is held with a tech-industry magnate who takes her to lunch to talk about starting a literary magazine:
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended—obviously—with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today.
We may feel like fellow-listeners with Faye, but it would be naïve to forget that the story is hers to shape. When she drops in one of her delicately barbed observations about someone she encounters, our opinion of him never recovers.
What we do learn of Faye’s own life is filtered through her discussions with other characters. In response to a question from her airplane neighbor, she tells him:
I lived in London, having very recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.
The book that Cusk published before “Outline” was a memoir about her divorce, “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.” It received both praise and stinging criticism. As even generous reviewers pointed out, the memoir seems to be written around, rather than about, Cusk’s marriage. All we learn about the couple is that, at some point well into their ten years together, they reversed traditional gender roles: Cusk’s husband left his job to take care of their two young daughters so that she could write. Cusk writes searchingly of her own mixed feelings about this arrangement, but she fails to make sense of the story of her marriage and its end through this one aspect of their domestic lives. Cusk’s husband is not present as a character, and she gives no indication of the emotional atmosphere of their union until its apparently bitter end. Everything that Cusk can’t say about their lives together seems to create a vacuum that she fills with a series of similes (a dissolved marriage is like a broken plate, or a jigsaw puzzle) and readings of classical literature (marriage is like Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s marriage).
Even aside from questions of family privacy, the artistic parameters of memoir make a recent divorce exceptionally hard to write about. The good memoirist can’t afford to compromise readers’ sympathies by seeming unreliable. Having seized the enormous power of telling a private story publicly, she cannot appear to blame or impugn others. She must convince readers that she is capable of critical self-appraisal, and of speaking credibly about her motives and desires. Cusk does all this with rigor and wit in “A Life’s Work,” an earlier memoir about becoming a mother, itself a difficult subject for scrutiny. But she falters in “Aftermath.” If there were ever a subject that called for fiction, it would seem to be divorce.
Turning to fiction after the publication of “Aftermath,” Cusk might well have gone about channelling what she knew of marriage into intimate scenes staged between two duelling characters, a husband and a wife. In a previous novel, “The Bradshaw Variations,” she did just that, writing about a couple whose relationship is compromised by the husband’s decision to stay home with their daughter while the wife resumes a full-time professorship. The novel, which alternates between the two characters’ points of view, is structured to bring out the tensions between its protagonists. Readers can see that these tensions will have to mount and crest; we read on to find out how Cusk will make the moves we know she has to make.
Cusk’s insight in “Outline” is that, instead of trying to show two sides of a marriage, she might do the opposite: focus on the inevitable, treacherous one-sidedness of any single account. Perhaps this approach came out of Cusk’s recent experience of narrating her own marriage story publicly and failing to convince her critics of her own reliability. That, she may have decided, would be the experience that she would refract in her next novel. The common difficulty of giving a credible account of a marriage surely has something to do with why marriages themselves come apart. Instead of trying to put John and Jane together in a scene, Cusk could imagine how John would describe it later, to a friend, leaving Jane’s side to be gleaned from his elisions and exaggerations and dubious interpretations. Instead of closing in on her characters, as she does in “The Bradshaw Variations,” Cusk here introduces degrees of remove. We know even less about Faye’s marriage than we do about Cusk’s, in “Aftermath,” but, in the novel, the absence registers not as a weakness but, rather, as a demonstration of all that Faye feels is at stake. Her reticence suggests the depressing, paralyzing effect that the end of her marriage has had on her. She seems unable, or unwilling, to tell her own story. She can only attend very closely to what other people say about their own marriages, as though searching for a key to hers.
Over drinks at an Athens café, Ryan, her fellow writing teacher, reports that he and his wife have “a good partnership,” an assessment that must be weighed against the fact that he compulsively ogles women and jokingly asks a waitress to run away with him. Ryan says that he and his wife shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all.
Ryan is not a sympathetic figure. He is boorish and inconsiderate. But his account, full of painfully contrived rationalizations, has pathos. Ryan wrote one book of short stories many years ago, when he was in his early twenties. He doesn’t feel that he has the drive to write a second, even though his professional identity is still tied up with being a writer. It’s not only the loss of marriage that can inhibit story-telling; the maintenance of a marriage can impose its own silences. Is it something about his family life that prevents Ryan from writing? Cusk doesn’t say so, but she does invite us to consider the correlation between the two. Ryan compares his writer’s block to marriage:
It’s as if he can’t quite remember what drove him into words in the first place, all those years before, yet words are what he still deals in. I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground. Though the temptation can be extreme, he added, as the young waitress glided past our table.
As Cusk’s characters talk about their romantic and domestic situations, echoes and symmetries emerge between their testimonies. Though marriage and family are part of what we call private life, Cusk points us toward their collective, social meaning, not through any direct discussion of marriage’s political or economic function but by changing the scope of the marriage plot. As the conversations accumulate, marriage comes to seem less a story of two people and how they feel about each other than the story of a society and its peculiar domestic arrangements. The Greek businessman tells Faye that “he and his wife had built things that had flourished, had together expanded the sum of what they were and what they had.” This seems as good a definition—as good a measure—of marriage as any. Faye’s editor friend makes a similar analogy but gives it a negative value. In his former marriage, he says, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love.
It’s not that they weren’t in love. It’s that they had a feeling that they interpreted to mean that they were not in love. Nothing is to be taken for granted when it comes to the definition, the legitimacy, the meaning of love or marriage.
Amid all these recollections of love and its wreckage, there is one moment when a character makes a romantic gesture in the present tense. What scant plot there is in “Outline” comes from the relationship that forms between Faye and her airplane neighbor. They see each other twice in Athens, when he takes her for rides on his boat. At each meeting, he gives her new information about himself that complicates the previous day’s account. The picture of his three former marriages, which he is eager to discuss, is filled in with the help of Faye’s skeptical challenges. The neighbor seems to enjoy her critical attention to the stories he tells. On their second boat ride, he makes the move we’ve been expecting:
My neighbour lifted his head and looked out to sea, his chin raised, his eyes searching the horizon. There was a certain stiffness in his manner, a self-consciousness, like that of an actor about to deliver a too-famous line.
“I have been asking myself,” he said, “why it is that I find myself so attracted to you.”
She bursts into helpless laughter. He perseveres with a quick, clumsy kiss. As soon as he draws back, Faye excuses herself to go for a swim and jumps over the side of the boat.
It’s one of the few times that two characters in the novel do something other than talk and listen to each other. Faye’s brief, involuntary venture into dramatic action is, for her, decidedly not satisfying. That evening, she describes the episode to a friend:
I said that he was old, and that though it would be cruel to call him ugly, I had found his physical advances as repellent as they were surprising. It had never occurred to me that he would do such a thing; or more accurately, before she pointed out that I would have to be an imbecile not to have seen it as a possibility, I thought he wouldn’t dare do such a thing. I had thought the differences between us were obvious, but to him they weren’t.
Faye’s account—all revulsion and affront—is striking for what it leaves out. She’s talking about a man in whose company she has chosen to spend many hours, the only person whom she has agreed to see more than once in Athens. What is it about him that she’s drawn to? Is it his admiration of her? His storytelling? Perhaps she identifies with him. Or, God knows, she could be taking notes for a book. Whatever it is, Faye doesn’t say. When her friend asks if she likes the man, she says that she has “become so unused to thinking about things in terms of whether I liked them or whether I didn’t that I couldn’t answer her question.” She can only describe her feelings for him as “absolute ambivalence.” For all her exacting observation of others, she’s unable to muster much self-scrutiny.
“Outline” gives us a pinched view of romantic alliances. Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them. In Faye’s withdrawal, her satirical jabs, her wounded renunciation of her own desire, we see a character who, like her companions on the trip, has been made unlovely by her experience of marriage and its loss. She will not risk large feelings, only small ones: instead of anger, sadness, or ardor, she can express only disdain, disgust, disappointment. In her airplane neighbor, she has found a good, sturdy object for these sentiments. If only he hadn’t spoiled their paradise with desires of his own. ♦
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 12:37