Interview with the prize-winning novelist from Sunday Business Post 20/09. Cusk’s new book, Bradshaw Variations is out now and well worth a read.
Carl Jung never defined an archetype of the domestic goddess, but then again the Swiss psychoanalyst never spent an afternoon in the company of Rachel Cusk. Still stunningly attractive at 42, the bronzed Canadian-born mother of two marries a catwalk model’s figure and poise with the sharp intellect and caustic wit of a prize-winning novelist. Nigella Lawson she most certainly is not.
It is late afternoon when we meet in her small, stuffy hotel in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, not far from Charlotte Square, where, the following morning, Cusk will read at the city’s prestigious book festival. She has come north to publicise her latest novel, The Bradshaw Variations, a slight but engaging account of a year in the life of three brothers and their respective families.
If the train journey from Brighton has tired her out it doesn’t show. She is alert and loquacious, talking about everything from the rather hideous brown leather sofa she perches on – ‘It’s like someone’s sitting room, isn’t it?’ – to why, after seven novels, she is still writing about the minutiae of ostensibly humdrum everyday life.
‘It is seen as a political choice to write about domesticity but really it isn’t. I just refuse to make things up. I don’t write about drug addicts or people that are underprivileged because that is a kind of life I know nothing about. My material is what is around me at a given time, and that is what I have to use.’
Cusk’s prickly defensiveness is understandable. This is one domestic goddess unafraid to speak her mind about affairs of the heart, or the home. Until A Life’s Work – a dark, unsettling account of impending motherhood written around the time of the birth of her first child – was published she was a moderately successful, well-respected literary writer. After, she became the scourge of Middle England, particularly its female half.
‘I was completely harangued by these women journalists who were all trying to shut me up, suggesting that I was some sort of evil, child-hating mother,’ she says, nervously running spindly fingers through her long, dark, shiny hair.
Cusk is not alone in writing less than enthusiastically about motherhood and child-rearing – recently Ayelet Waldman, novelist and wife of Michael Chabon, stoked controversy in the US by expressing similar opinions – but why do these views provoke such opprobrium?
‘The very same people who got so angry at me for saying these apparently dreadful things about having babies and looking after babies, my guess is that they were really much angrier than me about it. That they hated it more than me. That this taboo emanated from their own worst fears about themselves: that they would not be able to conceal their profound ambivalence about the whole thing.
‘I think the fear is that if anybody started giving these women encouragement who knows what they might do? Chop off their children’s heads, murder their husbands, run away from it all,’ she smiles winsomely.
She is adamant that the reaction to A Life’s Work ‘didn’t change my writing’, but it is hard not to see 2006’s Orange-prize shortlisted Arlington Park as something of a rejoinder to her detractors. In a vision of suburbia that owes more to John Updike than JG Ballard, the novel follows the lives of five young women in a leafy ‘burb over the course of one rainy day: all are married, all are well off, and all are crushingly frustrated.
For Cusk, art alone offers a viable route out of this insidious, middle-class ennui. ‘I think of art as the home of certain things that are indispensible to life and if you never find them, if you never meet them, then that is a sad life to have lived,’ she says. The Bradshaw Variations is peppered with characters searching, but rarely finding, creativity in their lives. As such, the novel is less a story in the traditional sense and more a protracted, thought provoking, character-driven interrogation of what it means to live well.
The question of what constitutes a good life (or a bad one) has clearly vexed the writer throughout her adult life, so much so that at times our conversation feels a little like Greek Philosophy 101. She is most comfortable speaking in a veiled language of Platonic abstractions; nouns like ‘form’ and structure’ recur endlessly, especially when she talks about middle-age, a time of life she shares with her new novel’s central characters, Thomas Bradshaw and his wife Tonie.
‘The real difficulty and beauty of middle-age is that you are trapped in a form, and that form is your family. The parameters of that form are very fixed, and you can’t go outside them because it you do you have violated family life and you have ruined it. So you have to express yourself within this confined structure if you want your life to be beautiful.’
For a writer renowned for compassionate, often painstaking renderings of domestic life, when it comes to discussing her private affairs Cusk is remarkably reticent. I know from my research that she is married to photographer Adrian Clarke (her second husband), with whom she has two daughters, but my questions reveal almost nothing concrete about her family – except, that is, for her parents.
She grew up in LA, she tells me, where her father was an accountant – ‘Have you seen the Godfather? I reckon that is quite close to what it was like to be an accountant in LA in 1972.’ At the age of 8 her English parents, ‘Catholic, stuffily brought up people who went to California to let their hair down but found it frightening’, decided to move Cusk and her three siblings to rural Sussex. ‘They had this idea of England as an idyllic place,’ she says, staring off into the middle distance as if to emphasise an unbridgeable detachment from her past.
‘My childhood was so peripatetic. We were uprooted an awful lot and in mind I always had this idea that living in the same house for your whole life would be a wonderful thing to be able to offer your children,’ she says. Surprising sentiments given that in her adult life Cusk has lived in London, Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, and, last year, decided to move her entire family to Italy.
‘I was desperate to get away. I felt the walls were closing in on me and I wanted, needed, a good wander,’ she remarks of the three months in Tuscany that became The Last Supper, before adding, ‘but then I wanted to get back. Now I see the benefits of being a bit more stable.’
Domesticity, it seems, has not come as naturally to Rachel Cusk as initial impressions might suggest. She talks of ‘a very strong compulsion to know about ordinary life,’ but in the next breath reflects regretfully that she has not kept her life ‘as free’ as the artists she most admires; Virginia Wolff, WG Sebald, DH Lawrence.
Nevertheless, she maintains that great writing can, and does, emerge from the quotidian. ‘There are felicitous combinations of talent and available experiential material, like DH Lawrence, and that is amazing. But much more often the writer is a Henry James figure: a person that is socially ambitious living among and writing about other socially ambitious people,’ she says.
Socially ambitious she may be but after her Italian experience Rachel Cusk has no intentions of abandoning her style or subject matter anytime soon. ‘The idea of going and living in a place where I can’t understand the social structures from the very core of my being. I don’t think I could do that.
‘I think, if you are me, you are best off where you come from. That is my meat and drink, even if it is painful, even if it annoys other people, even if it annoys me. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I might have to go and write brief, stylish novels about French people.’
Background: Cusk studied at St Mary’s Convent in Cambridge before going on to read English at Oxford. She began writing Saving Agnes at 23, with her debut winning the Whitbread first novel award. She continued publishing throughout her 20s, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. ‘Back then I didn’t know where novels came from,’ she says. ‘The transformation was realising I had to bind together my own emotional experience with what I was going to write and that those two things had to be one and the same thing.’ Her personal exploration of motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, proved extremely controversial when published in 2001, and she has developed her interest in family dynamics and domestic life in her subsequent novels. Now living in Brighton she teaches creative writing at Kingston University, London.
Novels: Saving Agnes (1993), The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997), The Lucky Ones (2003), In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), The Bradshaw Variations (2009)
Non-fiction: A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001), The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009)