Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rachel Cusk

My friend Nancy once mentioned that she figured out how many books she read in an average year and then figured out how many books she might be able to read in a lifetime. The figure was staggeringly low to both of us. How would I ever get to all the fantastic books on my reading list. Would I ever get to all the classics I wanted to read? 

Now with Goodreads my reading has become increasingly planned.
Whole swathes of my reading are dedicated to particular topics: 20th century Ukrainian history, 19th century British women in India, Canadian historical fiction. This doesn't leave room for a lot of spontaneity, except, as my children like to say, except sometimes. Sometimes your public library's collection of Ukrainian history is so thin, that you start to browse the shelves. I did this recently, looking at the history section of my local branch to see what else I could find. And, I stumbled upon a book by Rachel Cusk about traveling in Italy. I've never really thought too much about traveling in Italy, or the writer Rachel Cusk, but something about the paperback made me pick it up, and it was a welcome break from reading about the Ukraine. So far, nothing good every happens in Ukrainian history, and certainly not in Jewish Ukrainian history. Ever.

In Rachel Cusk's book "The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy," Cusk leaves England for Italy with her husband and two kids. Unlike most travel memoirs with their detailed itineraries and clear-set goals, Cusk's book has a dreamy aimlessness.  She and her family drive through France and stay in old chateau. They reach the south and swim in the sea before it is warm. They look at art and meet people in castles. Cusk's slightly laissez-faire ramblings, her charming writing style and her fine use of simile lure the reader into the heat of traveling in Italy, into the basilica of Francis Assis and the Umbrian hills without cliché. While Cusk travels to see Italian art, it is the description of the people she meets along the way that are really compelling. An older French bachelor who hosts the family for a night in an empty chateau, some small American girls who befriend her daughters, and an expatriate Scot who challenges Cusk and her husband to dueling tennis games in the Umbrian heat all lingered in my thoughts after I finished reading the book.

Cusk's memoir lead me to her fiction, and I recently gobbled up two of her novels, "Outline" and "Transit," which are part of a planned trilogy. Although I loved these books, I struggle with how to describe them. They are about a writer named Faye, who is divorced. In one book she is remodeling her flat. The people who rent below her are unspeakably horrible and spread terrible rumours about Faye because they do not like the construction noise. But this is not what the story is about. There isn't really any "about" in this novel. Instead the books tell a series of stories about Faye and the people she knows, about their lives and emotional struggles. Together these stories come together to form a new kind of novel, or what many critics have called, the reinvention of the novel. There's also a certain violence that rips through many of the scenes: a teenage boy's violent reaction to a haircut, an unwanted and somewhat disgusting kiss, but Cusk writes about these with such elegant tone that it turns the violence into something less threatening, something muted. It's on these muted notes that the story turns and caught my attention. The many small plots drive the story forward, but at the end of the book the reader is left with a different impression of both story and the shape of a novel. 

These novels not driven by plot allow the reader to focus on the beauty of the writing. Cusk writes rich, elegant and thought-provoking prove that I am happy to lose myself in. I've read a few other books like this recently, books that don't ask "what happens next," but take you on a journey through language.  I'm thinking of Jon McGregor's amazing "Reservoir 13," a book which sounded like it might be a whodunit, about a girl who disappears, but turns out to be more about the town around the disappeared girl, and how her disappearance affects and doesn't affect their lives. It's a book that explores loss and how it affects us over time, but it does it unlike any other author I've read before. 

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