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.