An as­tute and en­gross­ing col­lec­tion of es­says that re­flect on tran­sience and more

The National - News - - ARTS&LIFESTYLE - Mal­colm Forbes

Rachel Cusk once hailed Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s six-vol­ume My Strug­gle cy­cle as “per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary en­ter­prise of our times”. The same de­scrip­tion could be ap­plied to Cusk’s own foray into the realm of semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion. Art bril­liantly and beau­ti­fully im­i­tated life in her ac­claimed

Out­line tril­ogy, with­out any of Knaus­gaard’s nar­ra­tive-clog­ging clut­ter.

That trio of books set Cusk glo­ri­ously back on track. Her pre­vi­ous work, Af­ter­math

(2012), a can­did mem­oir that dealt with the dis­in­te­gra­tion of her mar­riage, was painfully over­wrought and mad­den­ingly nar­cis­sis­tic.

Those who re­main un­con­vinced by, or an­tag­o­nis­tic to, Cusk’s non-fic­tion, are more than likely to give her lat­est book a wide berth.

Coventry is her first col­lec­tion of es­says, the main sec­tion of which is de­voted to per­sonal mem­oir. It doesn’t bode well: that sec­tion opens with a piece called Driv­ing as Metaphor

(any metaphor that needs to be flagged up and spelt out lacks po­tency) and ends with a 30-page essay called Af­ter­math, an early ver­sion of the first chap­ter of the book of the same name. Cue fur­ther bouts of self-ab­sorp­tion and overegged drama.

The op­po­site is ac­tu­ally the case. With the ex­cep­tion of

Af­ter­math which, to these ears, still hits all the wrong notes, Cusk’s es­says prove to be el­e­gant, stim­u­lat­ing and in­sight­ful. In one sec­tion she fo­cuses on what might be best termed as cul­tural is­sues. There is art crit­i­cism, an ac­count of a pil­grim­age to As­sisi (ex­cerpted from Cusk’s mem­oir The Last

Sup­per) and a piece on the ins and outs, and pros and cons, of cre­ative writ­ing work­shops. Last but by no means least is an en­light­en­ing study of “women’s writ­ing”, which be­gins by cen­tring sem­i­nal texts by Vir­ginia Woolf and Si­mone de Beau­voir and ex­pands to bring in other fe­male au­thors and char­ac­ters. An­other sec­tion on lit­er­ary crit­i­cism gath­ers in­tro­duc­tions to books and re­views of both con­tem­po­rary and clas­sic fic­tion. Cusk writes in­ci­sively on Edith Whar­ton, Olivia Man­ning and the re­cently re­vived Na­talia Ginzburg. Fran­coise Sa­gan’s bit­ter­sweet Bon­jour Tristesse is shrewdly summed up as “a mas­terly por­trait of pri­mal hu­man bonds”; D H Lawrence’s The Rain­bow is per­sua­sively judged “mys­te­ri­ous and mirac­u­lous”, and El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s aw­ful Eat, Pray, Love is provoca­tively placed in a tra­di­tion that in­cludes Jane Austen and He­len Field­ing.

And yet, at the risk of draw­ing scorn from the naysay­ers, it is the per­sonal mem­oir sec­tion of the book that is the most en­gross­ing. Driv­ing as Metaphor turns out to be an as­tute piece of writ­ing that starts small but grows in sig­nif­i­cance. Cusk ex­plains how in the ru­ral area where she lives, the “nar­row and bur­row-like” coastal roads are fre­quently blocked by slow driv­ers, farm­ers with trac­tors and tourists with car­a­vans. Fast driv­ers speed through her vil­lage, threat­en­ing chil­dren and wildlife – al­though not stoats or weasels, which man­age to “zoom tri­umphantly across the road like a funny un­du­lat­ing mous­tache, too cun­ning to be caught.”

Af­ter a cat­a­logue of seem­ingly aim­less gripes, a per­sonal an­gle slides into view. Cusk ar­tic­u­lates her fears and frus­tra­tions be­hind the wheel, her con­fu­sion when us­ing hire cars abroad and her won­der­ment at the “elect” who have never learnt to drive (“How did they know not to do it?”). She also posits an ar­gu­ment: “it may be that the in­creas­ing lux­ury of the world in­side the car is a kind of con­so­la­tion for the degra­da­tion of the world out­side it.” An­other high­light is the book’s epony­mous essay. Tak­ing its lead from the ex­pres­sion “be­ing sent to Coventry” – shunned or os­tracised – Cusk ex­am­ines the cold shoul­der and silent treat­ment she has re­ceived from her par­ents and for­mer hus­band, and re­calls “the cold and cal­cu­lated process of ex­clu­sion” that marred some of her fel­low pupils’ school­days.

Inevitably, Cusk turns her at­ten­tion to the English city and its near-de­struc­tion in the Sec­ond World War. But this pre­dictable de­tour ends up open­ing av­enues of in­quiry. Look­ing at a pho­to­graph of Coventry Cathe­dral the day af­ter its bom­bard­ment causes Cusk to re­flect on tran­sience and fragility. Ev­ery­thing, she notes, “no mat­ter how painstak­ingly built and pre­served, no mat­ter how ap­par­ently time­less and re­silient, can be bro­ken”. Later, it oc­curs to her that she may feel safer in Coventry, “a place where the worst has al­ready hap­pened”.

“The­o­ret­i­cally, there should be noth­ing there to fear.”

A third stand­out essay,

On Ru­de­ness, ex­plores the hos­til­ity Cusk has dis­cerned in British so­ci­ety since the Brexit ref­er­en­dum. Here and else­where we find traces of pre­cious­ness (“I think about clothes, their strange prom­ise, the way their prob­lems so re­sem­ble the prob­lems of love”) plus lit­er­ary ref­er­ences that can feel dec­o­ra­tive rather than il­lus­tra­tive. For the most part, though, whether ex­pound­ing on the tri­als of moth­er­hood or the works of Kazuo Ishig­uro, Cusk en­ter­tains and ed­i­fies in equal mea­sure.

An im­age of Coventry Cathe­dral a day af­ter it was bombed dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. It makes Cusk re­flect, in the book’s epony­mous essay, on how ‘ev­ery­thing … can be bro­ken’

Rachel Cusk. The fo­cus of her new work is per­sonal mem­oir

Coventry Faber & Faber Dh85.99

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