Authors: Rachel Cusk
âMy mother is very kind to us,' she said, âdespite the fact that I am the first member of my family to get divorced and that this is a stigma on her, which she can't quite bring herself to let me forget. She looks
at my son when she knows I am watching her and she puts her hand over her mouth as if some priceless object had just fallen to the floor and smashed to pieces in front of her eyes. She treats him like he has a terrible illness,' she said, âand perhaps he has, but if so it's up to him to survive it, even if other people are sympathetic to him.'
The child had in fact recently broken his leg playing football, she went on, and the injury had mysteriously developed into a viral infection whose cause or cure the doctors couldn't seem to find. He was in hospital for a month and bedridden for two months after that, and this experience had brought about a profound change in his character, she said, because he had always been very physically active and obsessed with sport, from whose rules and rewards he had seemed to take his ethos for living. As the witness of his parents' divorce, for instance, he was forever trying to figure out which side he should be on, and who had won and who lost in each of the many battles being played out before his eyes. It was natural, obviously, for him to side with his father, with whose male values he identified and with whom moreover he did many of the activities he enjoyed; and his father had shown little restraint in exploiting that loyalty at every opportunity, inculcating in him as he did so the beginnings of a much greater tribal identity by which, she could see,
the child's entire life and character would be shaped. That tribe was one to which nearly all the men in this country belonged, and it defined itself through a fear of women combined with an utter dependence on them; and so despite her best efforts it was only a matter of time, she realised, before her son's questions about right and wrong found their answer in the low-level bigotry with which he was surrounded and to which everything was encouraging him to submit. Nevertheless, whenever he complained that his father had said one thing and she another, she refused to offer an opinion on which of them was right, as he was imploring her to. Make up your own mind, she would say; use your brain. He would often become upset by her response, and this was the proof that her ex-husband was giving him the most partisan accounts of their situation, because the child simply couldn't cope when there was no side for him to be on; in other words, when there was no point of view. Yet the effort of using his brain was far less appealing than the easy prospect of believing his father's stories; that is, until he was physically immobilised for a three-month period.
In bed he had entered what at first seemed to be depression, becoming silent and listless and struggling to show an interest in anything, and this was followed by a period of anger and frustration which, though different, was just as bad. Incapacitated as he
was, and removed from the field of action, the facts of his life became much clearer to him. One of those facts was that his father rarely called or came to see him; another was that his mother was never far from his bedside. One morning, she said, I came into his room with some breakfast for him on a tray. I had been up working since six o'clock because I had a piece to deliver later that day, and I hadn't yet showered or brushed my hair. I was wearing my glasses and my oldest clothes and I didn't have any make-up on, and he looked up at me from the bed and he said to me, Mama, you look so ugly. And I said yes, this is what I look like sometimes. At other times I wear make-up and nice clothes and I look pretty, but this is also what I am like. I don't always please you, I said, but I am just as real this way as the other way.
She paused and turned her eyes through the windows towards the car park, where the other delegates could be seen gathering for the bus. The wind blew their hair sideways and flattened their clothes against their bodies.
When he got out of bed, she continued presently, he was a quieter and more thoughtful person, and he even accepted the news that he would not be able to play any sport for at least another year with good grace. In a way I am grateful, she said, for his illness, even though at the time it felt like the last straw and as if there was
no end to my bad luck. It seemed so unfair, she said, that while his father was driving around in his sportscar and visiting his girlfriend at her villa on the coast, I was stuck in a tiny flat in my hometown with a sick child and my mother calling five times a day to tell me it was all my fault for being too outspoken and continuing to work after I got married. In this country, she said, the only power women recognise is the power of the slave, and the only justice they understand is the slave's fatalistic justice. At least she loves my son, she said, although I've noticed that the people who love children the most often respect them the least.
A tall, bulky, sombre-looking man had entered the lobby and was standing not far from us looking absorbedly at his phone. With his thick black curly hair and black beard and large pouchy immobile face, he looked like one of the giant, pitted statues of Roman antiquity. When she noticed him Sophia's face lit up and she darted forward to touch his arm, whereupon he looked slowly up from the screen with a marked unwillingness, while his large, faintly sorrowful eyes registered the nature of the interruption. Sophia spoke to him trillingly and rapidly in her native language and he replied slowly and sonorously, standing quite still while she became very animated, her posture constantly changing and her hands gesturing and fluttering while she talked. He was
much taller than her and held his head very erect so that when he looked down at her his eyes appeared to be half-closed, which gave the impression that he was either bored or mesmerised by their conversation. After a while she turned to me, and laying her hand once more on his arm, introduced the man as LuÃs. He is our most important novelist at this moment, she added, while his head lifted even further and his eyes threatened to close entirely. This year he has won all five of our major literary prizes for his latest book. It has been a sensation, she said, because the subjects LuÃs writes about are subjects our other male writers would not deign to touch.
I was surprised to hear this assessment of LuÃs, after Sophia's earlier remarks about male writers and their tendency to eclipse her, and I asked what subjects those were.
Domesticity, Sophia said very earnestly, and the ordinary life of the suburbs, the ordinary men and women and children who live there. These were things, she reiterated, that most writers would consider to be beneath them, pursuing instead the fantastical or the noteworthy, gathering around themes of public importance in the hope, she didn't doubt, of increasing their own importance by doing so. Yet LuÃs had trounced them all with his simplicity, his honesty, his reverence for reality.
I write about what I know, LuÃs said, shrugging and looking over our heads at something in the distance.
He is being modest, Sophia said with her bell-like laugh, because he worries he would betray the world he writes about by becoming arrogant. Yet in fact he has given it a new dignity, one that is unique in our culture, where the divisions between rich and poor, between young and old, and most of all between men and women have seemed insurmountable. We live with an almost superstitious belief in our own differences, she said, and LuÃs has shown that those differences are not the result of some divine mystery but are merely the consequence of our lack of empathy, which if we had it would enable us to see that in fact we are all the same. It is for his empathy, she said, that LuÃs has received such acclaim, and so I believe he should congratulate himself, rather than feeling ashamed for being praised.
LuÃs looked most unhappy while all this was being said, and his response was a profound silence that lasted until the organisers called us to the bus that had drawn up outside. We drove along wide, empty roads whose pale concrete surfaces were fissured and cracked and thronged with weeds, circumnavigating the strange, unpeopled landscape of the vast dock, whose block-like impenetrable shapes extended as far as the eye could see, and then re-entering the shabby, discursive
network of suburban streets on the other side. The day was grey and windy beneath a low sky, so that where the human dimension appeared it looked fretted and oppressed: the awnings of restaurants and shops were flapping, litter was bowling along the pavements, the breeze was tugging hanks of smoke from outdoor braziers into the air, scattered groups of pedestrians were clutching their bags and coats and pressing forward with bowed heads. When we arrived at the street where the restaurant was, it was blocked: the road had been entirely dug up since the day before, and was now a trench marked off by incident tape that snapped and fluttered in the wind. The bus manoeuvred its way into a side street and then made a lengthy series of slow turns, while its occupants discussed this new development, eventually dismissing it with head-shaking and resigned shrugs. Finally the bus found a place some distance from the restaurant to let us off, and people began to walk alone or in groups back to where we had been. We passed through a concrete lot surrounded by decrepit graffitied buildings, where laurel trees were putting out their red spiky flowers. A strange music came in eddies on the wind from somewhere nearby: it was the sound of someone playing a pipe or flute, and presently a boy could be seen standing half-concealed in the shrubbery in the ruins of a graffitied wall, the instrument lifted to his lips.
It was typical, the man beside me said as we clambered over the makeshift walkway that had been put up over the former street, that these roadworks should have appeared without warning and apparently by magic, when the organisers could have chosen one of any number of restaurants in the area for us to visit three times each day, and one should be slow, he said, to attribute this inconvenience to a lack of information, because it was quite possible the organisers knew about it all along but were unwilling to change their arrangements. It would be easy to believe, he said, that the people of this country were beset by feelings of powerlessness, but it could just as well be called stubbornness, because they refused to change even when change was a possibility. He himself worked for their most important national newspaper and had had frequent opportunities to see this phenomenon at first hand: one day he would be sent to cover a major political crisis or human disaster and the next to report on the supposed appearance of the Virgin Mary on a rock somewhere in the countryside, and would be expected to treat these two events with equal seriousness. Just as there might be an explanation for the appearance of the roadworks, he said, so there ought to be for the lady in blue: you can't have one without the other, he said, and so people accept the mystery of the roadworks as a way of avoiding asking themselves the bigger questions.
We had entered the restaurant by now and had sat down at the long table reserved for the delegates that stretched all along one side of the room. The other side was always crowded, and the noise and laughter that emanated from there contrasted with the awkwardness of the long table and the fixity of its set places, to which the delegates were increasingly reluctant to consign themselves, knowing their fate would thus be settled for the duration of the meal, and against which they had started to make pacts before crossing the threshold as to who would sit where. Only a few feet away on the other side of the room people were gathered in noisy, ebullient groups, embroiled in meals that appeared to have no beginning and no end and to which the waiters, threading through the crowds with dishes borne on silver trays above their heads, kept adding more and more developments.
The man beside me unfurled his thick white napkin with a flourish and tucked it into the collar of his shirt. He was somewhere in his sixties, with a bald nut-brown head and an expression of cynical humour in his small round eyes. He had read my book, he said, and would be interviewing me for his newspaper, but in considering what to say to me a novel idea had occurred to him, which was to treat me as one of my own characters, with himself granted the power of narrator. This was not the kind of approach
he generally adopted in literary interviews, of which he had done a perhaps excessive number, considering all the other matters he was expected to cover for the paper: tomorrow, for instance, he had to attend the cup final, an irksome assignment since he found the crowds and their mad excitement over something that after all happened without fail every year particularly tiresome, and as he had said he had often found himself writing about religious miracles one day and state corruption the next. Interviews with literary authors he usually enjoyed, but all the same he saw it as his task to bring himself to their world, researching their lives and reading their previous work and generally boning up on the issues they concerned themselves with. But this time, perhaps because he had been so busy and because there were so many authors at the conference requiring his attention, he had approached my book without much in the way of context. In fact he had only finished it late last night, returning to his room after dinner, and it was as he was going to sleep that the idea of acting as its author had come to him. It interested him that he had been led to believe he could assume that power: usually novels had the opposite effect on him, in that he couldn't ever imagine writing as the author had written, or indeed, in some cases, wanting to; even thinking about it exhausted him, and he sometimes
found himself wishing these prodigies had a little less energy, because every time they wrote something new they also created his obligation to respond to it. The tremendous effort to conjure something out of nothing, to create this great structure of language where before there had been only blankness, was something of which he personally felt himself incapable: it usually rendered him, in fact, quite passive and left him feeling relieved to return to the trivial details of his own life. He had noticed, for instance, that my characters were often provoked into feats of self-revelation by means of a simple question, and that had obviously led him to consider his own occupation, of which the asking of questions was a central feature. Yet his questions rarely elicited such mellifluous replies: in fact, he usually found himself praying that his interviewee would say something interesting, because otherwise it would be left to him to make a newsworthy piece out of it. Going to sleep, as he had said, he had suddenly felt inexplicably empowered in that regard, as though he had realised a far simpler question than those he usually asked â and perhaps, indeed, only one â would unlock the whole mystery for him. The question he liked the most â and this was the one he intended to ask me, in his new role as narrator â concerned what I had noticed on my way here, and if his â or rather my â theory was correct, by asking me
that question, the question of what I had noticed on my way here, he would enable me to write the whole interview for him, so to speak.