Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing

‘Brobdingnag o Lilliput’: the net has room for radically opposed perspectives and taste
in art and literature (see nearly invisible figures at base of shop windows).
Photograph by MIL22

Readers, all three of you, know that this blog could be one of the greatest fans Private Eye** has ever had – not just for its satire in direct descent from Jonathan Swift and other upholders of the grotesque tradition in English literature; not only for its unique compendium of whistleblowing about misused power and authority in Britain published every fortnight, but also for the futuristic modus operandi that makes these offerings possible.

This means that it is with excruciating reluctance that we at post-Gutenberg ask why the Eye keeps savaging the novelist and memoirist Rachel Cusk, who is capable of dystopian flights of prose of this calibre –

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine in the seaside town where I live, the gulls screaming in the early dawn, a glittering agitation everywhere, the water a vista of smashed light. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving and stirring in the undertow.

It reminded us of …

She listened … there was only the sound of the sea. … She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her … but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea …

… lines by another good writer, about whom we’ll have a bit more to say in a moment.

The first passage is an extract from Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, published this spring by Faber and Faber, today’s most prestigious literary imprint in Britain. With such a backer, she certainly did well with the gatekeepers in the sense in which the term is being used now – to refer to the old print media mafia of literary agents and editors deciding whose manuscripts will be lifted out of the slough of rejection, then promoted energetically, or left there to rot.

‘Gatekeeper’ could reasonably be used more widely, to include the reading public of a particular place either giving scribblers permission to think, feel and write in the ways that come most naturally to them – or attacking them or otherwise discouraging them from doing so.

That sanction has so far largely been denied to Rachel Cusk in Britain – for her divorce memoir. The Eye is far from her only excoriating mocker. Other British newspapers and innumerable citizen-commenters on reviews and articles about her have lambasted her eidetic, intelligent and ferociously self-critical account of this sad passage in her life. She has been denounced for solipsism, wallowing in dark emotions and imagery, and wrecking her own family’s privacy. For any objective witness to this battering – watching a long way from literary London – the last criticism is the most puzzling. Not once does she name her ex-husband or make it possible to identify him by his occupation, which has anyway changed since their divorce. Nor are her children easily identifiable, since they have no Christian names in her story, and presumably the surname of their father.

Yes, some of these facts can indeed be discovered online, but not by her choice – only, you suspect, because of the snippets of real life information extracted from her in publicity interviews on which book publishers insist, brooking no compromise.

You wonder why the anger about the baseless accusations of privacy invasion are never directed at ‘luvvie’ newspaper columnists, bloggers and social media networkers who never have to open the kimono, apparently delighted to live with it flapping high above their heads in a permanent hurricane of disclosure about themselves and their near and dear.

Cusk’s actual mistake was in violating the unwritten and unspoken rule for English writing in England – one that tends to make Americans uncomfortable. It decrees that sustained introspection and emotional intensity – when tending to chiaroscuro, if not outright melancholy – must be undercut by wit, poking fun at oneself, or some form of outrageousness like the scatological riffs and downright nastiness in some of Philip Larkin’s poetry. Admitting to admiring the lyrics of Leonard Cohen is asking to be sent to an aesthetic Siberia in most social circles. That makes no difference to those of us who marvel at the way sounds marry words in his contributions to music – even if we do believe the world’s greatest literary tradition to be English, inevitably: it shaped our taste.

But that is not the same as thinking that English aesthetic preferences should be used as a universal yardstick.

North America has crept into this scrap of wondering because Cusk’s writing style has partly been shaped by the years she spent there as a child. Her Mood Indigo prose in this memoir – I look forward to reading the others, and her novels – is strongly reminiscent of Joan Didion’s.

If Aftermath had been published simultaneously as an e-book in Britain and America – instead of in the UK alone – she would surely have elicited a more sympathetic or certainly, balanced, reaction from a cross-cultural audience. 

As sharp-eyed lit-critters have already guessed, the writer of the second extract quoted in this post is none other than Virginia Woolf – in To the Lighthouse. Much of her oeuvre consists of narcissistic, depressive, long-drawn-out exercises in introspection. Yet expert and non-expert British readers grant her genius status. Does a female writer have to be a victim of incest, and mentally ill, and finally, a suicide, to be allowed to say what she wants to as she sees most fit?

In a special editorial, no less, about Cusk, not long after Aftermath was published, The Guardian asked whether children can ‘really be counted as acceptable collateral damage in the self-styled vocation of the artist’ — without a substantiating word or phrase for the accusation. … Well! Should literary critics include in evaluations of the works of Virginia Woolf the question of whether it was right or fair that Leonard Woolf should have been obliged to interrupt his literary career, chronically, to serve as his wife’s psychiatric nurse? A nonsensical question, yes, but no more so than the one about damaging children.

The Guardian feels justified in lashing poor Rachel Cusk for writing a book that ‘plunges headfirst into the phenomenology of pain, which she wraps in a beautifying prose.’ Note the use of beautifying rather than beautiful – the compliment her sentences amply deserve – hinting that her writing so well must be reckoned another crime against decency; lipstick on a pig.

Time and the net will, we suspect, deliver the respect she deserves – for giving us, for instance:

We too came by car, along the motorway and then on smaller roads that took us through countryside and villages, little redbrick places that reminded me of the village where I used to visit my grandmother as a child. We lived in America then, and that English village, so damp and miniature-seeming, so full of twists and turns and cavities, constituted my education in the country of my parents, where soon I would come to live for good. In California I wasn’t quite sure who I was: large pieces of the jigsaw were missing, and it seemed that the missing pieces were here, in this rain-darkened place. I half-recognised them, the antiquity and the expressive weather, the hedgerows with their mysterious convoluted interiors, the sense of a solid provenance that underlay the surface movements of life like wood beneath the burnish: they were part of me and yet they lay outside me. … I was an onlooker, though I didn’t want to be. I wanted to live in the moment instead of always being lifted out of it into awareness, like a child lifted out of its warm bed half-asleep in the thick of night.

Brava! Rachel Cusk. Carry on scribbling, don’t let the Mini-Englander mentality get you down and in future, insist on simultaneous international publication.

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** Feeling a bit low?  antidote: ‘Never too old’, a new love story by Dame Silvie Krin