Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas With Rachel Cusk

from Rachel Cusk's new book, Aftermath

"I blame Christianity – as far as I can see, that's where the trouble started. The holy family, that pious unit that sucked the world's attention dry while chastising it for its selfishness, that drew forth its violence and then in an orgy of self-glorification consigned it to eternal shame, that sentenced civilization to two millennia of institutionalized dishonesty; compared with the households of Argos and Thebes, that family has a lot to answer for. . . . The day feeble Joseph agreed to marry pregnant Mary the old passionate template was destroyed. That was an act of fundamental dishonesty all round: the new template of marriage – a lie! The family was reinvented, a cult of sentimentality and surfaces; became an image, bent on veiling reality  – the stable in all its faux-humility, the angels and the oxen, the manger to which kings come on bended knee, the 'parents' gathered adoringly round the baby – an image of child-worship, of sainted unambivalent motherhood, of gutless masculinity and fatherly impotence. And it still comes through the twenty-first century letterbox at Christmastime; I remind myself not to send cards this year."  

As usual with a new book by Rachel Cusk, I am in the middle of reading this one for the second time, having just finished reading it for the first time. Other similarly fervent encounters with her work are located here and here and here and here and here.

Not as usual, I have also been scanning the press that accompanied Aftermath's London release earlier this year. Of the dozen or so reviews I looked at, all were written by women and all were hostile. The book has barely made a ripple in America, where an edition has only just been released. But even the puffery on the Farrar, Straus & Giroux site offers a falsely upbeat impression of the book's tone and intention, as if it actually were the practical manual on coping with divorce that the British press berates it for not being.

I try (and fail) to think of another current-days writer regularly represented by literary journalists as an overprivileged, cold, cerebral, narcissistic bitch. The reviews, in fact, are consistently so bad that it becomes mysterious how Cusk manages even to keep publishing. But she does, which implies that some kind of an adequate audience must exist (though largely silent). And it will grow – of that I am sure. Her present detractors will in the future look like those 19th century French critics who maintained that the Impressionists simply didn't know how to paint and were motivated (like sociopaths) solely by the intention to insult the public. 

Mentioning France calls to mind Annie Ernaux, another 21st century heir of literary feminism, but one with the good fortune to be writing (in French) for a culture able to endorse her subjective, truth-telling enterprise.