Portrait of a Marriage

Rachel Cusk’s Memoirs
(Siemon Scammell Katz / Faber)

I am eager to read British novelist Rachel Cusk’s much-acclaimed “Outline Trilogy,” three short books titled Outline, Transit, and Kudos. The novels’ protagonist is a British writer whose life appears to mirror Cusk’s own, and the novels are evidently plotless, made up almost entirely of conversations between the narrator and those she encounters in various settings. But Cusk is also the author of three memoirs, two of which have earned her a degree of notoriety, even opprobrium. One of these is about the experience of motherhood (A Life’s Work), the other about her divorce from the father of her two daughters (Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation).

I have just finished reading Aftermath and the third memoir, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, about Cusk and her family’s three-month sojourn in that intoxicating museum of a country. They are both well worth reading. Aftermath is something of a jumble, or a jigsaw puzzle—a metaphor Cusk returns to several times in trying to make sense of the collapse of her marriage and the sundering of her family. It is also very sad, as she circles again and again around the daily anguish of the separation and its “aftermath.” She is almost physically crushed by the divorce; unable to eat, she becomes dangerously thin. But there is little self-pity, and she does not spare herself in describing the marriage’s implosion. The Last Supper, written before the marriage failed, is a meticulously observed piece on domestic life, demonstrating Cusk’s extravagant command of metaphor and simile, her unsentimental assessment of others as well as herself, and her intellectual prowess. Her writing on Italian art and culture is heavily colored by her Catholic-convent education, which came as a surprise to me. I’ve read a few reviews of her books, and her Catholic upbringing is hardly ever mentioned, much less considered as an influence. Writing about Piero della Francesca’s Madonna di Senigallia, Cusk finds the painting “austere, gray, full of a cold northern light. It is a painting whose subject is purity.” With characteristic confidence and penetrating analysis, she concludes: “I have understood, I think, Piero’s message, though its tidings are not of joy. It is at once more rational than joy and more beautiful. It is that you must seek a truth that lies beyond human concerns.”

It is not equality but respect, loyalty, and affection that are the basis of any lasting relationship.

Cusk is repelled by the “Catholic gigantism” she encounters in the architecture of Assisi and St. Peter’s, as I am. She remembers how, as a young person, she was also intimidated by the church’s “spiritual bureaucrats with their rules and regulations” and by the shame Catholicism seemed to spread over much of human desire. Amen. “But now,” she confesses, “I found the Christian story all human, like literature; it was a long time since it had been raised as a weapon over my head.” In a similar vein, she takes the measure of Raphael as a painter. His pious Madonnas are just “sweet, beautiful recollections of childhood.” They “lacked the very thing that makes the Mona Lisa seem to smile: mystery.”

On the topic of Italian food she is iconoclastic. “The Italian diet proceeds on the basis that isolation is the natural condition of a foodstuff,” she complains. “Nothing is hidden behind anything else. The tomato is one entity; the olive another…. To introduce one foodstuff to another represents a whole level of culinary attainment; it is a kind of marriage, inviolable, and hence requiring the utmost care to arrange.” Perhaps.

The family’s time away from England—strangely, her husband and children are never mentioned by name—ends in a surreal encounter at a country house in France. Next to the house where they have reserved rooms is a barn filled with eerily lifelike mannequins. Having been coaxed into the barn, the children retreat in fear. Coming face to face with the barn’s elderly and taciturn female creator and proprietor, Cusk perceives “the soul of the artist open briefly before me like a chasm and disclose its dark and pagan power.” The woman’s macabre obsession with the arrangement of seemingly human-sized dolls is perhaps a reflection of the author’s own ambitions.

That dark power seems to be one of Cusk’s gifts, or burdens. In Aftermath, she never explicitly discusses the reasons her husband demanded a divorce. Instead, she fearlessly reports that he thought she had treated him “monstrously,” and describes how “the first time I saw my husband after our separation I realized, to my surprise, that he hated me. I had never seen him hate anyone: it was as though he was filled up with something that was not himself, contaminated by it. Like a coastline painted black by an oil spill. For months black poisonous hatred had flowed from the fatal wound to our marriage, flowed through every source and outlet, soaked into everything.”

What she does write about at length is her determination, as an ardent feminist, to pursue what she calls her “male” ambitions as a writer. That could only be achieved if the marriage was built on a strict understanding of equality. In pursuit of that goal, her husband left his job as a lawyer to mind the children and take over many of the domestic chores. But the division of labor was never really equal, and the deeply ingrained expectations of how fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, should relate to each other proved impossible to escape. Cusk surprisingly confesses that “I had hated my husband’s unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother’s; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot.” His willingness to give up the traditional male role of wage-earner was not, it seemed to her, a manifestation of equality but of dependence: “And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes.”

Cusk shows how her ideal of equality in marriage failed under the demands of childrearing, but never really questions that ideal as a foundation for marriage, or any other personal relationship. People bring different talents and strengths to every enterprise. One partner may bring an intimidating serve while the other is good at the net or with the volley. Any successful partnership or team is not made up of equal parts, but of various yet complementary parts. To succeed, the whole must be more than the sum of the individuals involved. It is not equality but respect, loyalty, and affection that are the basis of any lasting relationship.

Cusk seems to acknowledge as much, if only in passing. Visiting her long-widowed grandmother, she ponders the difference between her own understanding of marriage as a “bondage” and that of her grandmother, who never seemed to contemplate remarriage: “It never occurred to me either that she might have remained alone out of loyalty to the familial enterprise…but continued to play her part for the sake of her children; that she might have understood, as I did not, that the jigsaw is frail, not strong, is a mirage, not a prison. It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant.”

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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