A few extracts of Rachel Cusk’s new memoir, Aftermath; On Marriage and Separation were published in the The Guardian recently, to the usual cries of shame and derision that Cusk had a) brought her private life into public view and b) complained, whined, made too much fuss over the small matter of divorce.  These are the sorts of comments that make me despair over the interpretative abilities of my fellow citizens, not to mention their capacity for sympathy. The other point to make is that they clearly had not read Cusk’s clever, muscular prose with anything like attention. She is a profoundly literary writer who marshals an analytic perspective that works most readily at the level of primitive emotions. This short memoir, really a series of interconnected essays, functions by means of a web of extended metaphors, as if the toxic matter of what really happened is something that Cusk cannot pick up with anything other than verbal tongs. In other words, the business of a marriage gone sour and an acrimonious divorce are barely mentioned, in favour of a prolonged meditation on what comes afterwards, the aftermath with its extraordinary degree of disorientation for those concerned.

The French theorist, Luce Irigaray, has a concept for describing the absence of identity that succeeds a poorly attempted separation, and she calls it ‘dereliction’. Derelict people are not yet quite themselves again, but neither are they merged as they were before. In consequence they must inhabit a genuine no man’s land, a place of catastrophic uncertainty, loss of personal boundaries and an inability to love, something which sounds unimportant but which has far reaching consequences for our sense of humanity. My thoughts immediately went to this concept when I was reading this memoir, as an accurate representation of what Cusk is suffering. But really, Cusk has plenty of analogies on hand herself. In the opening chapter, she recalls a history teacher, Mrs Lewis, with a particular liking for the Dark Ages, the aftermath to the collapse of the Roman empire. The darkness, Cusk points out, is both aftermath and prelude:

‘The etymology of the word ‘aftermath’ is ‘second mowing’, a second crop of grass that is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganisation that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity: were betrothed to civilisation , as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomisation. Better, in Mrs Lewis’s view, to live the compartmentalised, the disorganised life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilised unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.’

Once you’ve got the hang of Cusk’s metaphorical voice, it’s very effective. In the passage above, she suggests that her own personal dark age has its significance as part of an ongoing process that is inevitable, but which for all its apocalyptic suffering has its own possibilities and promises. The aftermath is bewildering but rich, in comparison to Cusk’s sense of civilisation, as the organised married state, the one where everything has its place and is known and officially validated. She also has a cosmic thing going on, whereby the cold loneliness of planets seems to gesture towards the extreme sense of isolation separated people feel, after the merged years of marriage. But small incidents of daily life are all steeped in the unspeakable grief of loss and failure too. There was a particularly memorable trip to the dentists, in which a doomed tooth whose roots have grown crooked must be extracted. ‘It may have been bent by the pressure of other forces, but there appeared to be an aspect of fate to it, too, the response of its own nature to the available conditions.’ In the heavily metaphorical world of the essays, who could fail to imagine Cusk’s marriage growing deformed and painful through its inevitable submission to the forces and pressures of circumstance? I liked this use of analogy a great deal, as it transcended the he-said, she-said of ordinary marital strife to touch a deeper vein of emotional significance.

Cusk also draws heavily on the Ancient Greeks, with readings of the plights of Clytemnestra, Antigone and Oedipus interspersing her more personal recollections. The idea is to avoid the mythology of Christianity, which she thinks provided the basis for our sentimentalised views of marriage and the family, and tap into something deeper and darker, more violent and wild. I almost enjoyed these parts the most, as Cusk is a brilliant reader of the stories. But there was so much that I admired here, incredible sentences on every page; the writing and the thought behind it were both outstanding.

But I can see that it is a memoir that will annoy a lot of people. Those looking for an ordinary realist account of marital breakdown will be disappointed. Others who want to see some sort of Doris Day perkiness and noble stoicism will be disappointed, too. And some will consider Cusk’s use of cosmic metaphors to be too grand and inflated for mere personal problems. Myself, I like honesty. If there are people out there who have behaved beautifully during a divorce and calmly stepped over the wreckage of a broken family life, I think they must be exceptional individuals. Relationships are intriguing precisely because they take place at the level of our most vulnerable and fragile selves, and for most of us, their collapse opens up a situation for which the word trauma is probably not too strong. It’s interesting that the last essay in the collection is a short story, about a young au pair who witnesses the breakdown of the couple she works for.  It’s inclusion is perplexing, unless we read it as an account of what happened to Rachel Cusk, but written from an outsider’s point of view. And if we read it that way, then it seems to imply that what ‘actually happened’ is still so raw and unprocessed that Cusk simply cannot write it from a position of mastery or comprehension yet, that the distance of metaphor or fiction is a necessity for dealing with incidents of such magnitude. I would have thought that whatever else their qualms, most people who have been through the pain of divorce could relate to that.



21 thoughts on “Aftermath

  1. This is such a thoughtful and perceptive piece. I haven’t read Cusk’s book, thought I am keen to, having read this review. But the review has its own power, with its deep comprehension of the depth of grief and pain that is inevitable in family breakdown, and for which there seems to be so little acknowledgement in our modern world. It is now a commonplace experience, so maybe that fools us into thinking that the emotions it triggers are commonplace too. And they are far from that, taking most sufferers to uncharted extremes of emotional pain: as you say “the unspeakable grief of loss and pain”. I agree that trauma is not too strong a word.

    • Voula thank you so much for your lovely and extremely sympathetic comment. I think that pain is itself hard for people to imagine in its absence, and emotional pain may seem even more nebulous. But the felt experience is altogether different and very hard to tolerate at times, I think.

      • Thank you for your kind response. I am reading Aftermath now… and I agree with so many of your comments about it… it’s heartbreaking… I feel so sorry that Rachel Cusk gets such a bad press about it. They take a comment out of context “my children belong to me” and really harass her about it. Yet in the book, she acknowledges how primitive and irrational that feeling is.

  2. Isn’t it sad that people who go through this aren’t allowed to feel bad–or not too bad and for not too long. Even I feel like I really should be better now, as if there is some set time limit and once you’re past it it’s time to buck up and just get on with life. It really isn’t so easy–I think I can relate well to Cusk, though her situation sounds worse. It’s a pity that people are so judgemental and critical about people who show their emotions–as if that’s the wrong way of doing things. I will have to look for this book (though the metaphorical prose might be too heavy for me). Your post alone interprets/describes it all so well!

    • Danielle, oh the ghastly ‘buck up’. I think it mostly comes from people who are subject to very harsh inner critics themselves, but it is one of the least helpful things you can ever say to someone who’s suffering. And things take the time they take, alas, one cannot argue with what is. I think you might be very interested in this book, and I certainly don’t think you’d find it hard. See if your library gets it in – then you can take a punt on it and try the first chapter!

  3. I am even more eager to read this now I’ve read your excellent review. It’s interesting that the newspaper extracts chose to focus on the personal much more than the metaphorical material, the latter surely being the more interesting. They also emphasised her discovery that feminism hadn’t prepared her for her most visceral feelings – was that in fact a major theme of the book, or was that a bit of a misrepresentation?

    • Helen, I’m so glad you mentioned the feminism as I wanted to write about it in the review but had already gone on too long! The question of Cusk’s feminism is fairly uppermost in the first few essays, although it does diminish over the course of the book. But it was clearly something that really got to her. She picks away at this feminist question repeatedly, without really coming to any conclusions, the prose chasing its own tail. Whatever her husband said (and I presume there was more than just that one remark) it really got her goat. But everything around the breakdown of the relationship seems very unresolved to me, and so the question never gets tidied neatly away.

  4. Divorce or separation… This is such an incredibly painful experience most of them time, I can’t understand why people do not understand why a writer would want to explore this in writing. It seems this is a topic you return to often. I’m interested insofar as it is also about grief. How can it not be and coming out intact of a separation or another major loss is not a small thing. Your post reminded me a bit of Joan Didion. I find grief a hard thing and am shocked how much people who don’t know anything about it seem to know how much is “sane” and how much is “dysfunctional”. I liked Arlington Park a lot and wouldn’t mind reading this.

    • Caroline, that’s a very good analogy with Joan Didion. Julie Birchill makes it, in the only other review I’ve seen of this book that doesn’t condemn it one way or another. I think in general our culture places enormous store on individual happiness and fulfillment, and is distinctly uneasy with negative emotions. Grief at death is appropriate, but other kinds of grieving can be treated with short shrift. I think you would like this book and I’d love to know what you make of it.

  5. I agree with all you say. I have only glanced through this and cannopt claim to have read it page for page but at no stage did I find her style whingeing and I thought she picked out the key issues of the aftermath with great skill.

    • oncealibrarian – well I am very happy indeed that you should think that. There is a darkness to her writing that seems to me perfectly appropriate, but I certainly didn’t read it as whingeing. Do you think you might read it? I’d be interested to know what you think.

  6. Litlove thank you for this, you are the first person who has made me want to read the book. So much vitriol written about it, this is like a breath of fresh,kind air.
    Great to meet you a couple of weeks ago too x

    • dovegreyreader – the entire comments section of the Guardian online makes me depressed with its relentless vitriol. Something really bad must happen to people who suddenly find they can be anonymous and still express themselves! I would love to know what you make of this, so I do hope you read it. And it was SO nice to meet you at the Bloomsbury do, after all these years!

  7. This sounds really well done, the kind of memoir I would enjoy reading for sure. I have a couple of Cusk’s novels on my shelf that I hope to get to one of these days. Now I am going to have to add this memoir to the list.

    • Well naturally I thought of you when Cusk was getting down to those Greek plays! I would love to know what you think of this. I confess that in the past I’ve read her fiction and not got on with it too well, but that may well have been a case of wrong book at wrong time. I read her memoir of motherhood and thought it was amazingly good, and this was excellent to my mind, too. I should perhaps revisit her fiction, having written all of that!

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