This novel is by the author of The Dinner, probably the best known work of fiction by a Dutch writer in recent history (which I haven’t read). This book was written after that success. I picked it up at a bookstore clearance sale, thinking I should read more Dutch writers. First the positive: Koch is good at suspense. The story had me in its grip, and he can build a character, scene and clear narrative voice. This translation felt right, too. It isn’t ever conspicuous or awkward in its construction, but it also somehow transmitted a European voice (as opposed to an American or British one).
Unlikable protagonists have been a favored vehicle fiction in the past 20 years or so, including in television (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) and movies (Young Adult), although, granted the male ones are more easily accepted by audiences than female ones (e.g. Moshfegh’s Eileen). Koch takes up this device, creating, it seems, the most unlikable person he could imagine: a misanthropic doctor who is disgusted by the human body; who treats mostly artists, but dislikes art; who views having daughters rather than sons as a misfortune; who sexually objectifies every woman who crosses his path, etc. I think the intention is a kind of black humor but I can’t help but suspect the author behind it took some delight in setting down views that have become unacceptable via his creation, which he can easily disown – “scientifically based” sexism, for example (men are wired to impregnate young women and women are wired to want to reproduce with successful men) and homophobia (anal sex is unnatural). I suspect the author more than his character, because much of that stuff, in the end, is gratuitous, not in service to the story. Even if we give the author the benefit of the doubt (as a reader should) and don’t entangle him with his character, the mechanics of the story itself raise some questions. For example, how rape is positioned as a plot motivator, or how a single anonymous gay character offers a sympathetic ear to the evil doctor after suffering humiliation at his hands.
Questions of author v. narrator aside, I also thought that for being a tightly plotted suspense story, the ending sort of collapses. While there is great tension from chapter to chapter, when you examine the ending, or start asking questions (e.g. why doesn’t a medical doctor consider the possibility of DNA evidence before assuming who has raped his daughter and deliberately spreading cancer in his body?), the whole thing sort of collapses. There are also at least two multi-paragraph descriptive passages involving semen, which are two too many in my view. In short: not recommended!
I was chatting with two women a a literary event this spring. They were both in their 50s, full of knowledge, and talking about their experiences with Stendhal syndrome, based on Stendhal’s experience when visiting Florence. It’s a (medically debated) condition of being physically overcome by a piece of art to the point of being dizzy, overwhelmed, weeping. (From Wikipedia: “The staff at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to tourists suffering from dizzy spells or disorientation after viewing the statue of David, the artworks of the Uffizi Gallery, and other historic relics of the Tuscan city.“) One of the women said it had happened to her twice in her life, once seeing the opera made of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the second time on seeing a Rothko painting, from across the room. The other woman had also experienced it with a painting. They turned expectantly to me, and I, embarrassed said that I hadn’t ever experienced it. But I thought it was better than lying about having experienced such a thing. I’d been dazzled by art, had a physical response to it, but never a kind of reaction they described.
Since then, I do think I experienced something like Stendhal syndrome reading the first 20 pages or so of Sleepless Nights. I didn’t break down weeping, but I felt dizzy, overcome, a little panicked as I moved from sentence to sentence. I couldn’t take the precision, the power of each one, the turns, the unexpected rightness of each image. I was anxious about not being able to take it all in, that I was unworthy or would need to read it a dozen times to take it in. It sounds so dramatic when I set it down like this, and I can’t say that it was pleasant, but the bottom line is that the writing is stunning.
However, I haven’t put this slim novel at the top of my list of recommended books because it is so melancholic and grim. It’s about faded glory, the bill collector arriving, the loneliness of old age, the winter of life. Not the best book to read as you’re staring down 40, turning the corner.
It took me a while to understand what Hardwick was doing with this book, what it was, but I also didn’t care that it wasn’t immediately apparent, because of the deliciousness of the language. The narrator is a woman, named Elizabeth. Over the course of the book, she recalls people in her life, tracing their fates over time. Often the people are downtrodden, ill-fated: Billie Holiday in a Harlem club; residents of a New York City rooming house; a Jewish Dutch doctor who survived the Nazi camps, had life-affirming affairs in Amsterdam afterwards, in his old age, with his bitter alcoholic wife; a lover from Elizabeth’s youth, abandoned by his long-time partner, come to see her to complain, his life has amounted to not-much; the cleaning women she has known, their difficult lives, difficult ends of lives. It would be sort of unbearable if the writing weren’t so alive in contrast.
Hardwick joins the list of criminally under-appreciated women who were writing in the 60s and 70s, and who I’ve had to discover on my own. They include Renata Adler, Eve Babitz, Grace Paley… (Obviously Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Hannah Arendt are/were more visible, but I like that they inhabited the same world and had contact with each other at the time, even if “only” through their words.)
Rachel Cusk has become my 2019 obsession, by which I mean that her books have been the irresistible ones, the ones I’m compelled to buy despite the piles of unread ones in the house. It’s because of the precision of her writing, her descriptions of individuals, landscapes, rooms, and the atmospheres in the rooms, that are concise and vivid and simultaneously unusual and spot-on. The way emotion is intensely present but not overstated on the page. Her sense of humor, grim and dry, and the way she takes on difficult subjects without looking away. The way she dives straight into the essential question, problem, point of fracture or heartbreak.
Her so-called “Outline” or “Faye” trilogy, feels so much of this time, though I haven’t entirely figured out why. I don’t just mean references to Brexit or sideways commentary on the state of the publishing industry, though those kinds of things do make an appearance. I mean the narrative experiment going on, in terms of both the position Cusk takes as an author and Faye takes as a narrator.
Author v. narrator v. narrative
Cusk has essentially said that she had to step away from writing as herself after being viciously, personally attacked by the press, and some readers, following the publication of her memoirs on becoming a mother (A Life’s Work, which is stunning and hilarious and brilliant) and her divorce (Aftermath, which I haven’t read).
The author has put aside the construct of a plot, perhaps distrusting whatever use an invented storyline can be to our lives, and instead seeks to dig into the stories people tell each other or tell about themselves. The form is experimental in that the narrator, Faye, is a writer who hides behind the retelling of other people’s stories. In the first book, she travels to Athens to teach a writing workshop; she buys and renovates an apartment in London in the second; and attends a writer’s conference in Portugal in the third. We learn that she is divorced, that she has two children. This is the slender framework of the trilogy. The meat of the books are the stories of the people she meets – strangers on airplanes, her writing students, her hairdresser, old friends, journalists who interview her. She retells and reshapes their accounts and confessions. Their stories are shards of a mirror that refract and reflect each other, and Faye in a more subtle way. There are many possible themes, or maybe these are better phrased as questions: What happens after you let go of the story of the life you imagined for yourself? What do parents do to children? What do men do to women? What does suffering bring? What does it create? What is static and what is changeable about the self? What generates the creative act?
It’s significant that Faye is a writer only insofar as that renders her capable of such vivid and at times scathing portraits. It seems like she’s erasing herself in favor of painting portraits of others, but she’s retelling their stories in her own words. She’s not repeating them verbatim.
Conversations with strangers on a plane occur early in two of the books, which sets the tone for the project. Why does that happen, people pouring their hearts out to strangers on a plane? Because it is a temporary space, because there is an intimacy borne of the close physical proximity, because the stranger will never be seen again, because there’s always a sense of mortality and powerlessness about being on a plane. There are other types of scenarios that inspire people to confide: the hairstylist’s chair (but in this case it’s the hairstylist who discloses), a gathering of writers, where there is almost a one-upmanship to prove who is the most damaged (and perhaps, then the more interesting writer?), a dinner with an old friend not seen in years, a writing workshop where students are willing to make themselves vulnerable. Sometimes the revelations by the speaker are unconscious, and only a careful listener (or reader) would pick up on the hypocrisy or self-deceptions that emerge from contradictory assertions.
other times, the radically honest confidences are not in the context of any
special relationship or setting, they just come. In the world of the trilogy,
Faye is able to conjure this sort of atmosphere with, apparently, anyone she
talks to. Faye usually omits the questions that lead to these radical
disclosures from friends, and at times, near strangers. It’s fiction in that
sense, a world more interesting than the one we inhabit. We aren’t usually
privy to the questions she asks that makes the other person reveal the
unutterable secret that holds their marriage together, the time they beat their
children’s beloved dog, the assault by a stranger that made them unable to
create. It’s an intense and double-edged fantasy, and certainly the fantasy of
I think Cusk, in her memoirs, and also in the character of Faye, takes on a hapless persona, a character who is always uncomfortable, but not afraid to express that discomfort, as if everyone should feel that way. She’s not afraid to be a bummer and I found this quality enchanting, the unapologetic quality of it. London is hostile, but Athens is too bright, the sunshine harsh and disorienting. For Faye, in the first two books, this discomfort comes from heartbreak, but heartbreak that goes deeper than the romantic kind. She, and her children, are survivors of the rending of their domestic life, the obliteration of certainties in the life the family had built together. In the first two books she is stumbling in the rubble, still obligated to tend to the needs of students, to men wanting an audience, to malicious neighbors, to her children, in this state of aftershock.
The grim tone is a foil to the funny scenes and could perhaps lead one to miss the humor. When Faye’s plane “neighbor, ” who has twice taken her out on his boat for a swim in the Greek heat, and who, with each of his monologues has revealed the straight-out lies he told about his two wives and himself, makes a pass at Faye, the action is startling and somehow hilarious. Maybe because we’re jolted to attention with live action actually taking place, as opposed to happening via a second- or third-hand account. But it’s also the description of the man’s advance itself, where she depicts him as moving like some kind of prehistoric caveman creature.
There’s also the scene in Transit, back in Britain, set in a posh country house, where a glamorous set of guests and their children have gathered, their complex troubles attendant, too. Faye’s gourmand cousin, who is peevishly trying to develop the children’s picky palates, sets down plates of tiny roasted fowl before all, and the children scream and weep at the dead little animals, candles blazing all around them, illuminating and flushing their faces like a painting. It’s a perverse and funny kind of climax near the very end of the book before Faye slips away from the mess the next morning.
I haven’t talked to anyone in person who has read the trilogy, though I’m frequently praising Cusk to reader friends, so maybe my proselytizing will lead to a chance to discuss it. In the meantime, I’ve read all of the reviews and profiles of Cusk online. The critical consensus seems to be that Kudos, the last book, is the culmination of the three. My theory is that this is because it’s the one that deals most explicitly with the publishing industry and its troubled marketing apparatus, with the fake and tedious aspects of the book fair, with the parrying done by writers at the after-panel dinners. It’s like how film critics love films about film-making and the film industry, the insider’s view of the process makes you feel closer to it.
But I think Faye/Cusk could make anywhere interesting – I remember starting Outline and being dazzled by how she made that familiar ritual of flight takeoff and the safety demonstration seem alien and new. And while it could be argued that Outline, too, is about the writing life (teaching a workshop), this is more the framework than the atmosphere or substance of the book, which are concerned with the sense of separation that comes from traveling, being away from home, taking in others’ pain. Faye is preternaturally sensitive while also standing behind glass. In Transit, the middle book, we see more of Faye because she’s at home. It’s full of a different tension. As she seeks to rebuild her life, most visibly by renovating dilapidated apartment, there’s an underlying anxiety about how quickly anything can be destroyed. Her monstrous downstairs neighbors, for example, befoul her attempts at starting fresh. The novel is full of shattered glass: the glass door at her hairdressers destroyed by a nervous boy slamming the door, the window of Faye’s car, which she has locked in the keys, smashed by her inconsiderate date, who wouldn’t wait to get his stuff. She must stand waiting with the car alarm wailing.
My favorite of the three was Outline, maybe simply because it was my first encounter with Cusk’s writing, but I think also because it so tangibly conveys the feeling of travel: the launch of the journey on the plane, the increasing sense of separation from home life, the intensity that weather, every new face and street corner takes on, because it is new, and because of the knowledge that it is all temporary.
There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause. This feeling was perhaps what had once driven his people to roam the world, seeking the home that would cure them of it. It may be the case that to find that home is to end one’s quest, I said, but it is with the feeling of displacement itself that the true intimacy develops and that constitutes, as it were, the story. Whatever the kind of affliction it is, I said, its nature is that of the compass, and the owner of such a compass puts all his faith in it and goes where it tells him to go, despite appearances telling him the opposite. It is impossible for such a person to attain serenity, I said, and he might spend his whole life marvelling at that quality in others or failing to understand it, and perhaps the best he can hope for is to give a good imitation of it, as certain addicts accept that while they will never be free of their impulses they can live alongside them without acting on them. What such a person cannot tolerate, I said, is the suggestion that his experiences have not arisen out of universal conditions but instead can be blamed on particular or exceptional circumstances, and that what he was treating as truth was in fact no more than personal fortune; any more than the addict, I said, ought to believe that he can regain his innocence of things of which he already has a fatal knowledge.
From Kudos, by Rachel Cusk
I finished this last book in Cusk’s incredible “Outline” trilogy today, and I’m still pondering this passage. Faye is responding to a young interviewer who’s trying to persuade her that she would be happy if she lived somewhere sunny. Her response appears to be that the questing dissatisfaction that drives her shouldn’t be attributed to her personal misfortunes, and that it is not ultimately a quality that she can or perhaps even wants to reject. This follows on one of the central questions Faye/Cusk seems to be asking: What does suffering bring? What does it make possible?
I’m excited to be teaching a creative writing course for beginners with the International Writers’ Collective at the American Book Center in The Hague this spring. All of the details are here. UPDATE: The class is full!
This struggle to get the words out of my mouth took me right back to a year in my childhood when I did not speak at all. Every time I was asked to speak up, to speak louder, the words ran away, trembling and ashamed. It is always the struggle to find language that tells me it is alive, vital, of great importance. We are told from an early age that it is a good thing to be able to express ourselves, but there is as much invested in putting a stop to language as there is in finding it. Truth is not always the most entertaining guest at the dinner table, and anyway, as Duras suggests, we are always more unreal to ourselves than other people are.
I’ll be reading at Verso, a multidisciplinary literary and arts event put together by the lovely people at Versal journal. There will be performances and presentations by a dancer, an astronomer, novelist, and more. It will be good! Details below.
Sunday, April 14, 2019, 7-11 p.m. Mezrab Veemkade 576, Amsterdam (map) Event page and link to Versal journal here.