Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

Over the last ten months, I’ve began to look to Rachel Cusk’s work with a reverence bordering on religious fervour. Her Outline trilogy* is revelatory, and does what few novels ever manage – it updates character, changes the narrator’s role to little more than a lens to look through. Further, it sacrifices that central individuality of the focalizer almost to the point of eliding the very notion of that individuality.

As you see, discussing Outline awakens a deep passion within me, for the craft as much as the ideas given voice. The same can be said of Coventry, which demarcates its seventeen essays into three parts: the first section, “COVENTRY,” examines topics of a deeply personal nature to Cusk, drawn from her own experiences; the third section, “CLASSICS AND BESTSELLERS,” tells of important authors and their works, and is generous in its praise (and on one account, in its deft critique) of all of them; and last but not least is “A TRAGIC PASTIME,” the second section, which seems to criss-cross the boundaries between the two, its four essays on topics both personal and literary.

The six essays falling into the “COVENTRY” section are universally strong; “Driving as Metaphor” takes a topic I would find snore-inducing on any other day, and turns it into an engaging conversation about this strange activity, which isolates and shifts the behaviour of the individual. It examines also people like myself, who “appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.”

“Lions on Leashes” is about children, and how they grow from the protagonists of a story told by their parents into free agents with a will of their own. It’s about the way parents dictate their children’s lives, and about that point when it is no longer impossible, when the physical authority parents use to enforce their will is no longer an available tool. It’s also about “the hysteria around maternal ambivalence,”(93) which society “turns into something blatant and grotesque.”

Cusk’s words here, especially, connect to one of my favourite Greek tragedies: “Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.” This fits in exceptionally well with my essay on Euripides’s Medea. Find the time to read it — this Greek tragedy is still relevant today. If you get your hands on “Lions on Leashes” — which, outside of Coventry, can be found in the NYTimes — read the two together, there’s almost a dialogue between them.

“Making Home” and “On Rudeness” are phenomenal works, which pushed me into deep introspection, as did “Coventry,” the titular essay of the collection examines a very specific phrase I had no familiarity with, “being sent to Coventry.” The connotations it has for family, the relationship between parents and children, and silence make for captivating subject matter.

My favourite piece in the second part, “A TRAGIC PASTIME” is “How to Get There.” It is a beautiful love letter to creative writing and its role in society: “If creative writing culture represents only that — freedom — it is justification enough.” A particularly poignant part of this piece says:

The reattachment of the subjective self to the material object is where much of the labour of writing lies — labour because, in this one sense, writing feels like the opposite of being alive. The intangible has to be reversed back into tangibility; every fibre of subjective perception has to be painstakingly returned to the objective fact from whence it came. The temptation is to elude this labour by ‘making things up’, by escaping into faux-realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subjective self. This is not the same thing as imagination or inventiveness: the feeling of not believing something you are reading arises not from the fact that it is set in Hogwarts School but from the suspicion that it is pure projection. A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes. A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable. (185)

Seems to me that this penetrates at the heart of what makes good speculative and SFF fiction.

“I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” was perhaps one of the weaker essays, though that says little — even the least of them offers an engaging intellectual debate between what’s on the page and the reader.

In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the question of “women’s literature” is examined, dissected with a scalpel and brought home to a conclusion many will find contentious — I, myself, question it with great relish.

The pieces on Lawrence, Ishiguro and Edith Wharton made me care for each and every book Cusk mentioned — I’ve long wanted to read the former two, but I don’t think I’d heard of Wharton, except maybe in passing.

Cusk’s esssay on “Eat Prey Love” is a meditation on the nature of that bestselling book, its main critique that Gilbert’s voyage of self-discovery is, in a word, vapid. “…[Gilbert] might have chosen not to live entirely and orgiastically in the personal — in pleasure — but instead to have renounced those interests in pursuit of a genuine equality. But to say that, of course, would be to take it all much too seriously.” (233)

“On Natalia Ginzburg” offers an excellent cut-off point to the anthology, with a final line that offers a stark glimpse at the role of writing, from Ginzburg’s own collection of essays:

And you realise that you cannot console yourself for your grief by writing . . . Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.’

An excellent reflection on writing to close the non-fiction anthology of a writer so inquisitive, so searching as to the nature and function of writing, don’t you think?

The only element of Coventry I would bemoan is the lack of a proper introduction to this collection, either from Cusk herself or from whichever editor aided in the collecting and publication of these seventeen essays in their single, 250-page tome. I would’ve so enjoyed some small foresight as to what drove Cusk to explore some of these themes — but that’s less criticism than a thoughtful shrug at what could’ve been.

Coventry is a must-have anthology for any lover of the essay, by a modern master of the form.

*I have spoken of both Outline and Transit, here and here.

Augustus by John Williams: The Will to Power (Part 1 of 2)

John Williams witholds the inner voice of the eponymous Augustus, born Gaius Octavius, until the very last. The first Roman Emperor remains among the most enigmatic figures in history, and Williams, too, keeps him at a hand’s length, his motives obscure even as the author’s other characters scrutinize Octavian’s every move.

And what characters they are! Nearly all of them based on real historical figures, rendered to life with daunting skill. But a few of these figures are Octavian’s three closest friends: Marcus Agrippa, Salvidenus Rufus, and the patron of the arts (and, judging by the emperor’s words, a bad poet in his own right), Maecenas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. This essay is the first of two planned out, aimed to celebrate a monumental work of historic and literary fiction, a work both intelligent and empathic, concerned with “the ambivalence between the public necessity and the private want or need” that Williams himself identifies as the conflict at the heart of the novel. This first essay examines Book 1 of Augustus, which follows Octavius Caesar’s ascension to power, his navigating the treacherous waters of a chaotic Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. His begins as a pursuit of justiceagainst his uncle’s assassins — or is it vengeance, or even a mere casus belli for the ambition of a young man?

Despite this, it’s not long before Octavian is forced to save one of his uncle’s assassins, Decimus, also one of Julius’ proteges. Here, then, is the first glimpse at the central conflict of Augustus. When Decimus, saved by the intervention of Octavius sends word to him in the hopes of conversation, Octavius Caesar’s response is telling:

I did not come to save Decimus; therefore, I will not accept his gratitude. I came to save the state; and I will accept its thanks. Nor will I speak to the murderer of my father, nor look upon his face. He may go in safety by the authority of the Senate, not by my own.

Augustus, Vintage edition, 60.

You see, then, how public necessity forces the young Caesar places public need before want; though whether it’s due to respect for the state, or to increase his own political capital during a time when doing so is of utmost necessity, is anybody’s guess.

The first part of the novel concludes after Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium. Success drips blood, failure gushes it. This is not something Octavius Caesar is unconscious of: “We knew that we had won the world; but there were no songs of victory that night, nor joy among any of us.” (140) So writes Marcus Agrippa in Williams’ fictionalized Memoirs of the very same, upon his recollection of that final contest between Octavius and Mark Anthony. The battle seals the latter’s face; Anthony kills himself not long after.

The paragraph quoted above is telling for the price of Augustus’s ascension. There is no end to the spilling of Roman blood in what was, in essence, the last chapter in a lengthy Roman civil war that saw its beginnings before even Julius Caesar’s star had risen. Many of the actors early on in Book 1 are driven by the notion of restoring the Republic to its former glory; Williams captures the political entanglements and atmosphere of the Eternal City through the letters of Cicero.

NYRB’s Editor at Large, Daniel Mendelsohn, describes Williams’ voice as “capturing both the wit and preening of Cicero”. Here, then, is one example of that wit, this time from a fictional letter penned by Maecenas:

We had heard the witticism that Cicero made: “We shall do the boy honor, we shall do him praise, and we shall do him in.” But I think that even Octavius did not expect the Senate and Cicero to offer so blatant and contemptuous a dismissal. Poor Cicero . . . . Despite the trouble he cause us and the harm that he indended, we were always rather fond of him.

61

This early actor in the political landscape of Book 1 does not last long, however, for a simple reason:

…the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; the the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the chall to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder.

62-63

Indeed, these early actors fall away from prominence as the novel moves inexorably onward. Even though many of the Republican faction survive to play a role in Book 2, the factional conflicts are overshadowed between Octavian and Mark Anthony’s own conflict. One of them is beloved by the people, the other has the loyalty of many of Julius’ own legions; both driven by the will to power.

Each of them, however, is possessed by very different qualities. Anthony is a soldier; a man whose own fortunes are built in the shadow of Julius Caesar. Followin Caesar’s detah, he viewed himself as the rightful heir of the power wielded by his former leader; but Anthony lacks the qualities of an administrator, as history teaches us when he took the position of Administrator of Italy in 47 B.C.; some of Anthony’s blunders are referenced by Williams on p. 51: “[Antonius] had defied the constitution once by entering the city with his armed forces…”

Further, Anthony is hardly a master tactician. Upon allying himself with Cleopatra and campaigning for her, he makes a fool of himself. Proof is to be found in the fictionalized report of Epimachos, High Priest of Heliopolist to Cleopatra: “[Antonius] fights more bravely than prudence should allow, and endures privations and hardships which would destroy the most seasoned common soldier. But he is no general, and the campaign has been a disaster.” (123)

Octavian, meanwhile, is that exceedingly rare mixture of scholar and skilled politician. Look towards the comparison between him and Cicero: “[Cicero] acted out of enthusiasm, vanity, and conviction. We had learned early that we could not afford those luxuries; we moved, when we had to move, out of calculation, policy and necessity. [My italics]” (62) These are good qualities in a statesman.

Octavian has the wherewithal to surround himself with capable men; though one of his friends, Salvidenus Rufus, betrays him in a moment of doubt, he leans both on Maecenas and on Agrippa; one a talented political operator, the other — a strategos of great skill. Anthony, by contrast, allows himself to be manipulated by Cleopatra, a pawn to aid the Egyptian ruler’s ambition of a Greko-Egyptian line to overshadow Rome itself. A pawn that loses even the loyalty of many of the soldiers in his sworn Roman legions, forced now to stand against fellow Romans for the defense of barbarians (as the Romans viewed the Egyptians and their kingdom).

One man proved victorious, the other was vanquished. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, August 19, marks the 2006th anniversary since Augustus’s death. Join me next month, on the anniversary of Octavian’s birth on September 22, for the second part of my analysis of John Williams’ Augustus: “In Times of Peace”.

Movement is the End Goal: Rachel Cusk’s Transit (Essay)

The lights blinked twice and went out. I strapped the safety belt on, conscious of the blinking lights, conscious, too, of the cry of the toddler several rows back. A long flight, with no end in sight.

Next to me on the plane sat my creative writing instructor, a woman roughly the age of my mother. She is a writer of some renown, owed in equal parts by the fame she has found for renovating notions of character, and by the infamy she had been subject to for her frank, uncensored—what some would call selfish—account of her messy divorce with the father of her children. This story she told in a well-known novel from 2012.

We kept our silence over the duration of the lift-off, for no other reason than for the fact that neither of us had much to say. Now she took a deep breath and addressed me. “These last few months have been a time of transition for me.” A time of change, she adds, makes you conscious of nothing so much as the process of transformation itself. Everywhere she looked, she saw men and women struggle through one transition or another. Old lovers, friends, odious neighbors, acquaintances – everyone is transitioning, either through periods defined visibly through outside factors; or through internalised ones, at work in everything we touch, everything that touches us.

What drives it? She considered, looking down the aisle at the air hostess awhirl with activity. Just when I thought to call her attention again, my teacher’s voice picked up once more. ”It’s motion, and it’s static, this constant of ours.” Like with so much else, she said, change is defined by how we embrace it; through acts of will or surrender. Viewing the act of change like this offers you a good stage to talk about evil and love and parenthood, she said, and loneliness, and of so much more that goes into the human condition. She stopped, gaze narrowing, as if she were fast forwarding through what she just said. “An acquaintance of mine told me recently, ‘Loneliness is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think that you kill things just by being there.’”

But how does that connect to change, I asked. It leaves a mark, she told me, the kind that doesn’t come out with a bit of soap and a long soak. It shapes your thoughts and changes your inner self, and creates distance that’s difficult to overcome.

I thought I knew what she meant, I told her. I’d been lonely, myself. Was lonely, still—now and again.

She said, “We don’t even realise it. It dawns on us only once we turn around and look back.   Something a friend told me struck a note with me. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place.’ That’s how this silent, all-encompassing process works. You might have only caught glimpses of it this far, you’re—what, twenty-five?”

“In August.”

“You have noticed then, how people enter your life seamlessly, without flaw—and exit in much the same vein. You won’t be surprised to learn that sometimes, they come back. And sometimes, you’ll pick up where you left off, as if no time has passed at all, and no matter how much either of you has changed, you’ll find…it doesn’t matter at all. Does that negate the transition in the first place? “

I nod.

She curved her lips upwards as she told me, “It’s the way of change.” It’s not a one-way street, she said, this transformation of ours. At the right time, with the right person, time flows backwards, and you again return to that twenty-something year old, or that little girl. or boy.

She spoke for a long time, and I listened to all she said, and lost myself. The words she said were rarely about herself, but rather about the world as she saw it, and the people whose words helped her see it the way she did. My teacher had an understanding of human nature like few others I’d known. To immerse myself in her words was to catch a glimpse of that understanding, take possession of it—however fleeting. I was envious and almost lustful of that knowledge; the more she spoke, the more I wished to hear.

After the plane landed but before the seatbelt lights went off, I turned to her. She’d grown silent for the duration of the landing, once more withdrawing into herself.

“Thank you, Faye,” I told her. “Your guidance is invaluable. I think…much of what you’ve told me today will leave its mark for a long time to come.”

She nodded, her face serious. “I’m glad of it. But I’m curious – what do you think?”

I attempted to mimic Cusk’s style in this mixture between a review and an essay – I hope you’ve enjoyed the results. Some of the words I inserted into her mouth are direct quotes from the novel – I’ll leave it to you to judge which ones!

Outline by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

I would like to take a few minutes and talk about one of the most interesting novels I’ve come across as of yet. Through its title, Cusk makes a thesis statement – the myth of characters, she might as well say, is holding the novel back.

Faye, the novel’s main character, is strangely absent from it. Though we see events – or conversations, rather – transpire through her eyes, Faye is silent, echoing the characters she engages with but offering little of her own. Each of the ten chapters within Outline takes the form of a conversation, allowing Cusk to penetrate deep within

Faye listens to each of the men and women who speak in these chapters; she does so intently, deflecting questions about herself, choosing instead to ask questions of her own, to dig further in search of understanding of the other, through a mixture of skepticism and insight. In doing so, Faye exposes many of those she speaks as clueless, wilfully blind to their own shortcomings – a stranger she meets in the plane, for example, a Greek businessman who smugly believes he holds no fault in the falling apart of his many romantic relationships; a Greek writer Faye has met before, Angeliki, who has recently come into a great degree of fame in her home country and abroad, and in doing so has detached herself from the woman she used to be previously: ““That was another Angeliki…an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books. Angeliki the famous writer, the feminist of international renown, has never met you before in her life” (Chapter V); and more, and more.

“Faye herself is missing,” writes Clair Wills for the New York Review of Books. “We are being encouraged to think of the trilogy as an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing, or is there only in outline.” It’s an interesting notion – the idea that we are “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filledin around it while the shape itself remained blank.” (Chapter X)

Wills offers another reading:

…in the ingenious parallels with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. People mirror one another, or repeat one another’s noises, like the animals that Faye sets as a topic for a creative writing assignment in Outline. “They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves…the most important thing about an animal, he
said, is that it can’t speak.” The novelist Anne, who is an echo of the novelist Faye, is even described as a parrot: her voice makes “quite a distinctive squawking sound,” and she has green, unblinking eyes.

The Truth Alone by Clair Wills; you can find part of the article here. It’s behind a paywall, sorry!

The novel closes on just such an echo; Faye, correcting the Greek businessman I mentioned earlier, delivers a blow which spells out the truth of this tiny man in enormous letters in the reader’s mind.

What are we, then? Characters, outlines, echoes of that which surrounds us? Perhaps reading Outline will offer you some answer.

Me? I read Outline for my Researching Literature course over three weeks ago; I still can’t stop thinking about it. Two more books await – I’m excited to dive in and mull them over for months and years to come.

Remarkable.