|FABER & FABER|
the observer Sun 25 January 2009
A longing for the warm south has a fierce hold over writers from northern climes, from Keats and Byron to DH Lawrence and Jan Morris. But this essentially romantic urge, which is capable of inducing writing of a peculiar beauty and rapture, has inevitably coarsened with the advent of mass tourism. The summer spent en famille in Tuscany, as epitomised by Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and John Mortimer's Summer's Lease, has become a matter of cliché. It smacks of bourgeois escapism and it doesn't, on recent evidence, guarantee good writing.
Praise be, then, for novelist Rachel Cusk, who brings to her three-month sojourn in Italy a characteristic strangeness and charm. Cusk has described herself, repeatedly, as a realist, and both her novels and her memoir of motherhood, A Life's Work, are distinguished by an unflinching anatomisation of the domestic. Yet her writing is the opposite of mundane. It is elevated by a style that depends for its impact on the sustained and extended use of metaphor. By repeated application of this device, she transfigures the drab, daily round of school runs and squabbling toddlers into an exalted, terrible realm.
This artfulness is immediately set to work in The Last Supper. Cusk opens with an account of her determination to leave Bristol. Dissatisfaction has set in; she dislikes the city's slaving history, is bothered by the ranks of drunks who file by her window at night. These are ordinary complaints; the language in which they are phrased is anything but. "The noise they made came from a region that outlay human identity," she writes. "Their long, inchoate monologues, vocalised yet senseless, seemed to name something that afterwards could not be specified, to describe what by daylight could not be described ... it was the sound of lost souls, of primitive creatures bellowing far inside the earth." And if the Georgian terraces of Clifton have temporarily mutated into an outer circle of hell, well, everyone knows where Paradiso is to be found.
The decision is quickly made irrevocable. Cusk's two daughters are taken out of school, the house is sold and the family sets off, laden with toys, tennis rackets and a leather-bound backgammon set, in search of the glorious south.
As the title suggests, Cusk's gaze falls on art and food, and her take on both is unusual and alluring. The notion, largely acquired through the auspices of the River Cafe, that Italy is the land of infinitely varied culinary delights is enjoyably challenged. "We eat sheep's milk cheese and tomatoes. We eat the rough white bread. It is strange to eat the same things over and over again... it is not that we dislike this new, narrow range of satisfactions: on the contrary, the idea of eating at a wider scope begins to seem more and more grotesque." So much for Chocolate Nemesis.
Travelling through Tuscany, the family visits paintings: Piero della Francesca's austere portraits, Raphael's melancholy Madonnas. Cusk's commentary loops between the corporeal and the metaphysical. She is acutely attuned to the human dramas, noticing the "almost baleful" gaze of the infant Christ, the weary posture of an ageing Eve. At the same time, she is perceptive about the intentions of high art, aware that these seemingly accurate forms in fact urge the viewer to "seek a truth that lies beyond human concerns. I keep this with me as the days pass ... the man rising from his tomb, full of terrible knowledge."
Beautiful as her reflections are, it is the human characters that quicken the narrative into life. Cusk seems prone to uncanny, dreamlike encounters, and of these, two stand out: the elderly bachelor who puts the family up for a night in an empty chateau, and the family of women who lure Cusk into a barn filled with elegantly dressed mannequins with bright, human eyes. And then there is Jim. Jim is the book's central and most mysterious figure, a Scottish emigrant who acts as unofficial fixer to the holidaying English in the village in which the Cusks temporarily reside.
The account of their burgeoning friendship is lengthy, troubling and includes some hilariously brutal games of tennis ("We strive and struggle but are as powerless as those victims lashed to the altar in the glaring heat, from whom the satisfaction of supremacy must be exacted"). Jim's love life is discussed, his past relentlessly carved open for inspection. At last, as the family prepares to travel on, Jim writes "a kind of love letter, except that the love is mostly too damaged to be recognised". It is uncomfortable to read this sequence, which uses the event of the letter to launch a disquisition about knowledge and possession that seems, in the context, cruelly abstract.
But Cusk's capacity for lacerating observation does not exclude herself. As she proved in A Life's Work, she has the ability to examine microscopically her own behaviour as a mother without giving in to the consolations of self-pity. Her children come into sharpest focus at the book's end, but it is Cusk herself who is exposed: "I am ashamed. I try to stop shouting but I can't. I can't." There are those who will condemn Cusk for such episodes, but her honesty should be consoling.
In an essay on her 2005 novel, In the Fold, critic John Mullan noted that the narrator's voice relied on "a habit of similes", the favourite form of which begins "as though". It appears that the tic has stuck, for the device is likewise to be found on almost every page of The Last Supper. The effect, albeit perhaps less consciously wielded than Mullan suggests, remains transfigurative. Everything becomes something else: an art gallery is transformed into heaven, a sunbathing couple into refugees from Fitzgerald. As such, it would be impossible to travel in search of Cusk's Italy, for her Florence is almost entirely a state of mind. But that is not to underestimate the delights of visiting this fine, exultant book.