Rachel Cusk: Lost in Translation
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There is a problem with Aftermath. The book is a confessional memoir about the breakdown of Rachel Cusk’s marriage, but one in which nothing is clearly confessed. The raw data is cooked, seasoned with analogy and masked by ladlefuls of rhetorical sauce, the basic ingredients disguised. Cusk is only interested in the terrible taste in her own mouth. Let me give you the flavour:

Y wants to know where my cruelty comes from and why I am so wedded to it. Cruelty is an aspect of civilisation, I say. Cruelty is part of power; it’s like the army; you bring it out when you need to. But all your cruelty is against yourself, he says. I laugh. He is displeased. Why do you laugh? he says sharply. I tell him I don’t have much time for the doctrine of self-love.

The penultimate chapter is populated by three characters, X, Y and Z. X is her ex (geddit?). Y is her shrink. Z is her new man. The letters imply anonymity, a sense that Cusk is doing the decent thing by not naming names. This, of course, is a sham. It’s no secret that Cusk’s ex-husband is Adrian Clarke, who gave up his law career to look after their children so that Cusk could get on with writing. Z is outed by Cusk herself in the book’s Acknowledgments as the writer Russell Celyn Jones. Only the shrink remains anonymous, and he doesn’t really count: he’s just there to allow Cusk to expound her theories on Civilisation (she has lots), and to self-lovingly declare her lack of self-love.

X, Y and Z also have a symbolic function. (In this book, everything means something else. The reader is never not translating.) As the final three letters of the alphabet, they herald an ending: the end of the memoir, the end of the marriage, the end of the aftermath.

The most important aspect of these letters, however, is the Paul-Austerish dash of the avant-garde they lend to the prose. The look of the thing, the sound of the thing, is crucial to Cusk’s project. Her writing sounds like Writing: an intelligent, quietly authoritative voice, framed in well-wrought sentences with tasteful punctuation and plenty of semi-colons. For example: ‘Form is rigid, inviolable, devastatingly correct; that is its vulnerability.’ And: ‘In adulthood I have learnt that to envisage is nothing: success is hard currency, earned by actual excellence.’ And: ‘Iphegenia, led out in her saffron-coloured wedding dress, is perhaps the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages, the death on which the whole enterprise is built.’

Hang on a moment – Iphegenia, killed by her father to placate the goddess Artemis, is the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages? What does this mean, exactly? That we kill our children to save our marriages? This obviously isn’t the case – so what does Iphegenia represent? Other than bunk?

* * *

The story has been told and retold in every major newspaper: Cusk was, by her own admission, unjustifiably outraged when she learnt that she would have to pay alimony to Clarke. (Cusk was the main breadwinner in the marriage.) ‘But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum, there in the heart of marital darkness.’ She experienced a similarly atavistic reaction to the idea that they would share childcare evenly: ‘They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.’

I suspect these confessions are what Cusk was referring to when she told Jenny Murray on Woman’s Hour that ‘even my harshest critic would say I’m harder on myself in this book than I am on anybody else’. Yet contained in each admission is the implication that Cusk was at the mercy of forces beyond her control. ‘The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge.’ Typically, the Ancient Greeks are drafted in to plead her case: ‘In Greek drama, to traduce biological roles is to court the change that is death, the death that is change.’ By which she means that she was the bread-winner and her husband the house-wife – for her, apparently, a fatal mistake already ineluctably enshrined in Greek drama.

This, essentially, is what Aftermath is: a book full of excuses. For the first time in her privileged, prize-winning life, Cusk feels that she’s failed, and she needs us to know that it wasn’t her fault. Her awareness of this failure is all-encompassing; everything that happens, to her or to other people, is related back to it. She picks her daughter up from D’s party and discovers that two other friends, S and P, have been invited to stay the night. The daughter, though wounded, is philosophical about her exclusion: ‘They probably didn’t even think about it. That’s just what people are like.’ For Cusk, however, this is just one more example of the world punishing her for her failed marriage. ‘I suspect a calculated cruelty somewhere in my daughter’s social misfortunes. It is as though she has been ostracised, cast out; as though her parents’ separation is a mark of shame that has led others to spurn her. Is this civilisation too?’ This monomania is dangerous:

Everywhere people are in couples. On the corner of my road I pass a man and a woman, kissing in the passing traffic. I pass a heavily tattooed couple coming back side by side from the shops, their arms full of purchases, their children in a line behind them like ducklings. I pass a man and a woman with Down’s Syndrome, holding hands. They make it seem so easy, to love.

In other, uglier words: even disabled people and people with tattoos can do this thing that I’ve failed at.

Who or what, then, is to blame for Cusk’s misfortunes? Well, history, for starters: tragically born into a post-feminist generation, Cusk feels trapped between the male values instilled in her by her parents (go to university, get a job) and the female role imposed on her by society and her own perfidious biology. Cusk’s binary brand of feminism weighs everything exclusively in terms of Male and Female. The first chapter of the book, written specially for Granta’s Feminism issue (No. 115, Spring 2011), applies these mad mathematics involved to modern relationships. In her own designer marriage, she decides to hand the chores out evenly. ‘My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female.’

In practice this doesn’t work out: having cast her husband in the role of housewife, Cusk begins to hate ‘his unwaged domesticity’. He enjoys what she calls ‘the prestige that is the mother’s reward for the work of bearing her offspring’, while she finds herself upholding their transvestite (her word) ideal alone. ‘I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one…. Sometimes my awareness of my own competence alarmed me.’ This section reaches an unintentionally comic climax when Cusk, concerned that the woman in her has ‘sickened’, gets a new haircut while on holiday in Paris. The cut is more dramatic than she’d anticipated – a bit of a shock, the sort of restyle that takes some getting used to. Or, as Cusk puts it:

Had a transformation occurred, or a defacement? I wasn’t sure. My husband wasn’t sure either. It seemed terrible that between us we couldn’t establish the truth. It seemed terrible, in broad daylight, in those public anonymous streets, not to know.

If all this seems a little OTT – it’s just a haircut, after all, it’ll grow out – then that’s because it isn’t just a haircut. It’s a symbol for Cusk’s increasing gender-anxiety. Almost all of Aftermath is secondary in this way: the reader is constantly required to play code-breaker, parsing page after page of extended metaphor and long disquisitions on Bible stories and Ancient Greek tragedies. Nothing escapes the heavy hand of significance, not even the children’s hamsters. (‘They can’t live together, for as a species they are too irascible.’)

There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that Cusk thinks it’s rather clever. Of course, metaphor can be clever – sometimes breathtakingly so. But indirectness on such a grand scale swiftly becomes tedious; and besides, many of Cusk’s lengthy comparisons are unsustainable. Reality is frequently bent out of true by the need for one thing to mean another. During a six-page-long visit to the (conveniently Greek) dentist in which Cusk’s rotten tooth represents her marriage (‘the tooth was beyond repair… the crooked shape of the root made it inaccessible to the long, fine instruments that would kill the nerves…’), she makes the following clumsy crossover from signifier to signified and back:

Was the pain more or less constant, he asked, or were there still phases of normality in which one could do and think of other things? Had we reached the point of crisis where our only experience was the experience of suffering, where our only need, our only desire was the desire to end it? It is terrible to desire the end of something, the absence of something: desire should belong to life, to presence and not absence. Once should be careful not to live in this inverted state too long; nor, he said, should one pull out a tooth unless it is absolutely necessary.

Note the slip in the second sentence, which is still, ostensibly, a question asked by the dentist: ‘we’ rather than ‘one’ becomes the subject of the pain. The real clunk, though, is the suggestion that ‘it is terrible to desire the end of something’. When I have toothache, I categorically, remorselessly desire its end.

The other reason for Cusk’s obfuscation is more complicated. On the second page of the memoir, she comes as close as she ever does to explaining why the marriage fails:

My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. I might say, by way of explanation, that an important vow of obedience had been broken.

We are meant to feel that we are being offered ‘the truth’, but Cusk’s byzantine equivocation, here and elsewhere, falls very short of that mark. She implicitly warns us to mistrust Clarke’s ‘story’, yet refuses to provide an alternative. Perhaps she expects us to think that the break-up of her marriage is unimportant, mere sordid detail in a book about the more poetic pain of ‘aftermath’. But by withholding full disclosure, Cusk inevitably creates the impression that the truth is unsayable, or at least, something she’d rather keep hidden.

Here’s one theory: Cusk, who freely admits that she ended the marriage, fell in love with someone else. The long section on the Oresteia seems to support this. Clytemnestra, in Agamemnon’s absence, takes Aegysthus as a lover.

But there is more.

After several pages of preamble about Clytemnestra’s tomb and the sacrifice of Iphegenia, we reach another quasi-confession:

In Agamemnon’s absence Clytemnestra has had to play his role: she has learned that she is capable of governing his palace, of ruling Argos, of commanding his underlings. So the mystery of his masculinity has been, to an extent, unveiled; the form of male and female has been tested and found to be limitation and lie.

So, nothing special or admirable or that different about maleness.

Alternatively, domesticity renders X unfanciable. Cusk wants a new, more exciting romance, free from this unsexy domesticity:

This new relationship with Aegysthus has been chosen by the new unisexual Clytemnestra. She is seeking a new form, a new configuration of female and male. She is seeking equality. Children will not be born from equality… for the pure peace of equality begets nothing.

To enable the new romance, she’s going to have destroy the old:

[Equality] is all aftermath, predicated on the death of what was before… Clytemnestra wants no more begetting. She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence. To reach aftermath, first there has to be the event itself.

But then, just as it feels as if we might be getting somewhere, Cusk gives us the slip, claiming that she can’t remember, your honour.

Silently I congratulate the couples I pass in the street… I know they have succeeded where I have failed, yet I can’t seem to remember why this is so… I… cannot remember what drove me to destroy the life I had. All I know is that it is lost, gone. The blackness of hate flows and flows over me, unimpeded. I let it come. I cannot remember.

The section on the Oresteia concludes with that bizarre claim that ‘Iphegenia… is perhaps the sacrifice that lies at the heart of all marriages, the death on which the whole enterprise is built.’ I have no idea what this means. Which is, after all, the point: by being unintelligible, Cusk remains unimpeachable.

* * *

In spite of those suave sentences, Cusk isn’t actually a very good writer – although it’s easy to see why her work has met with such acclaim. The Country Life, which won her a Somerset Maugham award, is billed as a satirical comedy (on the back, Tibor Fischer compares the prose to P G Wodehouse, Stella Gibbons, and Jane Austen). Criticising comedy can be difficult: if you aren’t laughing, then maybe the joke’s on you. And Cusk has another safety catch: her work is often feted as ‘Jamesian’, shorthand for any writing that’s hard to understand. Too often readers are dazzled by difficulty, automatically assuming that if the prose is opaque, then it must be terrifically clever. But difficulty does not entail good writing, just as baroque contortions do not necessarily entail comedy. Cusk is guilty of both charges. This is Stella, the heroine of The Country Life, waiting at a train station and worrying that the man coming to pick her up might not recognise her:

As I stood there, however, my suitcases picking me out like quotation marks, I found that my attempt to conduct this simple train of thought in a logical manner was strangely confounded. I saw that the station was deserted, but failed to register the significance of this sight in relation to my anxieties concerning my arrival and recognition. Indeed, my acknowledgement of the emptiness of my surroundings, rather than reassuring me as to the ease with which I would be noticed standing there, lacked all memory of the importance the state of the station had assumed in my thoughts previously. This, it soon became clear, was the fault of an entirely new anxiety, which at the sight of the deserted station – a sight I did not, as I have said, find reassuring in any case – now came to torment me. What surprised me was how quickly this second anxiety had superseded the first. It suggested a certain powerlessness to my position, as if my only existence, my only mental function, was to register with each passing second the uncertain outcome of the next.

Just in case you were wondering what this ‘new anxiety’ might be: Stella is worried that something might have happened to the man on his way to the station. (Yes, that really is all.)

Those suitcases ‘like quotation marks’: there is some merit amid the murk. In Aftermath, the ornaments on her grandmother’s windowsill include ‘King Charles spaniels with waterfalls of porcelain hair’. Of an encounter with an old friend, Cusk writes, ‘Our talk is the talk of episodes; the story itself never needs to be explained’. On her first date with Z, she is astute about the otherness of his face (as compared, you assume, to X’s, which she knew so intimately): ‘He seems different every time I look at him. His face and form change by the minute.’

But these are rare moments in a book filled with cliché and melodrama. Clichés are given the Cusk star treatment, primped and powdered and squeezed into figure-enhancing Spanx: ‘A trace of the familiar smell still remains; like footprints in the sand after the tide has washed over it, her impression is being gradually erased’; ‘I too was once in uneasy thrall to that image, directed by it as by a puppeteer unseen in the darkness of the wings.’ Imagery tends to be of the Wuthering Heights-style, ice-and-fire variety: ‘I feel as though I have walked out into a world that looked through the windows to be balmy and warm, only to discover that the sun was the frozen sun of winter, the dazzling light that of polar regions and glaciers’; ‘I look around at my family as though through a million-splintered pane of glass. The world on my side of the glass is as white and cold and silent as an Arctic plain.’

At times, reading Cusk feels like being fifteen again, experimenting with black nail polish and studded necklaces and listening to Nirvana on repeat. Towards the end of the book, X calls. ‘Our conversation is like chewing on barbed wire, like eating ground glass. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.’ When they speak again just four pages later, an uncannily similar exchange takes place: ‘Our conversation is like chewing on razor blades, like eating caustic soda. Our talk is a well that has been poisoned, but all the same I drink from it.’ Let’s be charitable and assume that this repetition is intentional, mimetic of the cage Clarke and Cusk have made of their relationship. No amount of charity, however, could explain away the following (my italics):

‘For there in the darkness, in the marital bed, I felt myself wheeling on the edge of a black chasm, wheeling with the planets in outer space, hurtling through a blackness rashed with stars.’ – Aftermath

‘For a moment a kind of chasm seems to open up beside her, disclosing a vast grey cityscape where the walls of the house ought to be.’ – Aftermath

‘I worked late into the night and eventually achieved something which, if far from perfect, at least skirted the neighbouring chasms of self-pity and vitriol with relative composure.’ – The Country Life

‘I had the dizzying sense of chasms of treachery yawning open behind me, forbidding retraction.’ – The Country Life

Another repeat pattern, this time clearly deliberate but no less irritating for it, is the title: the word ‘aftermath’ crops up a staggering eleven times, not counting the Afterword, in which Cusk credits Russell Celyn Jones for this inspiration: ‘to him I owe, among so many other things, the notion of aftermath that is the book’s elemental theme.’ There are also six references to jigsaws, the book’s cover image and the subject of the page-long metaphor at the start of the first chapter. Cusk the GCSE student, earnestly reformulating the question at the end of each paragraph.

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, another memoir written in the wake of trauma, is similarly obsessed with the motif of its title. As Didion explains at the beginning of the book, ‘in certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.’ This is the first of seven portentous references to blue nights, perhaps the most revealing of which deals with Didion’s hospitalisation following a fall. ‘During the three weeks [of my stay in hospital] I had allowed this year’s most deeply blue nights to come and go without my notice.’

Why is this significant? Like Aftermath, Blue Nights obscures its own centre. Quintana Roo, Didion’s adopted daughter, died aged 39 after several consecutive collapses requiring ICT. It wasn’t suicide, but Quintana had contemplated suicide; she was unhappy, and she drank. These facts have to be extracted from Blue Nights with tweezers and a pair of surgical loupes. Most of the focus is on clothes and houses, Didion’s fear of aging, the aesthetic details of Quintana Roo’s wedding. Looking at a pile of photographs from Quintana’s childhood, Didion recognises something she never saw at the time: ‘the startling depths and shallows of her expressions, the quicksilver changes of mood.’ ‘Depths and shallows, quicksilver changes’ – another recurring image. The painful implication is this: just as Didion missed the blue nights of New York while she was in hospital, so she also missed Quintana’s blue nights – the transition phase, the slide from health and happiness into unhappiness, sickness, despair.

Blue Nights has two modes. The first is dull repetition, punctuation-free pain. The book is constructed like a vast villanelle, a series of feedback loops. And with repetition, the authentic stupidity of grief begins to sound affected. Didion favours the single-sentence paragraph, often italicised. ‘This was never supposed to happen to her’ recurs at least four times. On several occasions, she subjects the reader to a torrent of rhetorical questions (as many as fifteen in one go). Another mannerism involves starting multiple sentences with the same phrase. On pp 15-16, there are four consecutive sentences beginning ‘In all of those intensive care units.’ On p 27, ‘He failed to mention for example’ begins three sentences. On p 48, ‘I had seen’ begins five sentences; on pp 135-6, ‘Only yesterday’ begins six. Used with this sort of frequency, the intended drama quickly loses its power.

Didion’s second mode is the photo-collage. There are many, many photographs described in this book; but there is also a structural similarity with collage, in that dates, details and images are simply laid down before us, one after another. The desired effect is one of guileless simplicity – this is how it was, all I can do is to show it to you. The actual effect is that of being forced by an elderly neighbour to flick through packet after packet of Kodak snaps, while listening to an endless monologue about when she moved to this house or that house. And the more you read, the more disturbing Didion’s concern with the material world becomes. Going through Quintana’s childhood wardrobe after her death, Didion remembers not the little girl but the provenance of her dresses:

I find the black wool challis dress I bought her when she was four at Bendel’s on West Fifty-seventh Street. When I bought that black wool challis dress Bendel’s was still on West Fifty-seventh Street. It was that long ago. Bendel’s became after Geraldine Stutz stopped running it just another store but when it was still on West Fifty-seventh Street and I bought that dress it was special, it was everything I wanted either one of us to wear, it was all Holly’s Harp chiffon and lettuce edges and sizes zero and two.

Blue Nights is heavily weighted towards this sort of detail. When a friend sends her eighteen previously unseen photographs of Quintana as a child, the description focuses almost solely on her clothes – not forgetting to mention that the turtleneck is cashmere, the denim jacket Levi’s.

These are all decisions: Didion is presenting us with selected highlights of a carefully-curated life. Photography promises candour, but by telling us so little it can’t help but lie.

There are obvious parallels with Cusk here, in that the truth is offered (by the photographs, by the unadorned prose style), then obscured. Like Cusk, Didion is hung up on failure. (The late Natasha Richardson, a near-contemporary of Quintana’s, provides an example of the perfect daughter, and Didion continually hints that maybe she could have done things differently.) Like Cusk, Didion is surreptitiously seeking absolution (by implying Quintana’s adoption lay at the root of her trouble). But there is a difference. Cusk’s drapery is deliberate; she doesn’t want us to know what really happened. With Blue Nights, the reader begins to feel that something much sadder is at work. Didion repeats her material because there is so little of it. She genuinely can’t remember – or rather, she can’t remember the bits that really matter.

* * *

Both Blue Nights and Aftermath are slim volumes with large print and widely-spaced lines (typically, a note at the end of Blue Nights draws our attention to the beauty of its Bodoni typeface). By contrast, Candia McWilliam’s memoir, What to Look for in Winter, is a dense 480 pages stuffed full of detail. The once-beautiful McWilliam recovered from decades of alcoholism in her late forties, only to develop blepharospasm, a rare condition in which the suffer’s eyelids clamp shut. Although her eyes themselves are in perfectly good condition, McWilliam experiences extended periods of functional blindness. As a result, much of What to Look for in Winter had to be dictated. The book chronicles her Scottish childhood, her mother’s suicide (she poisoned herself and crept into the nine-year-old McWilliam’s bed, where her daughter found her near death), McWilliam’s divorce from her first husband and separation from her second, her spell in rehab and the gradual loss of her sight.

What to look for in Winter is part memoir, part talking-cure – in the earlier stages, McWilliam suggests that by revisiting her past with directness and rigour, she might unlock whatever it is that has stopped up her sight. This wishful thinking grows and dies as the book progresses; the memoir was written piecemeal over several years, creating for the reader the unusual sensation of experiencing the story in ‘real time’. McWilliam is frank about the process of dictation, frequently referring to Liv, her typist, and even including a couple of anecdotes that Liv suggests. The chief advantage is the freshness it imparts to the narrative: by exposing her process, McWilliam reduces the barrier between reader and writer. At times, the prose feels more like conversation than writing.

The drawbacks are verbosity and repetition. Many of the sentences are over-long, and the book is shockingly unedited – almost cruelly so, considering that McWilliam couldn’t see to re-read it herself. Not all of the stylistic problems can be attributed to dictation, however. McWilliam has a weakness for antique diction: ‘As my eyes have closed, I have learned perforce a number of things’; ‘There had been Holland, Italy, Switzerland; nowhere outwith Europe’; ‘I suppose there had been some mongering of scandal’; ‘He would have known in every wise how to calm and console me.’ (A weakness shared by both Didion (‘Her choices, all’) and Cusk (‘But it is winter still’; ‘I too was once in uneasy thrall to that image’).) She is also, unhappily, a punster:

Kisses were connected with distraction and misdeeds – and, it’s true, stealing fruit. This book will be a struggle to find that Eden when they were both about, my oddly paired parents, both, incidentally, lovers of pears, and each devoted to a separate means of paring pairs.

Like Cusk, McWilliam likes to worm maximum value from her metaphors. The first chapter stretches the image of a paper umbrella, given to McWilliam by her mother, over three pages. (‘You have to open up to the possibility that your private pain is not to be held furled and weapon-like, but to be opened out as you fall, parachute and not ferrule, so that it may protect another, a collective shelter from the fearful rain’ etc etc.) But at least McWilliam has a talent for description: the ability to make the reader see the original object as itself, rather than a convenient figure for some aspect of her inner turmoil:

One of the last things my mother gave me was a paper umbrella; it must have been from Japan. Its wooden spars were webbed with an oily paper that smelled of pine resin and fish. When you put the umbrella up, the paper separated from itself with a faint disgustingness of sound, unidentifiable as yet to a child of eight, that would later reveal itself to be that of flesh separating from flesh or the frozen surface of a lake beginning to shiver apart.

There is nothing this good in Cusk.

Description and recall are the main pleasures of What to Look for In Winter, with its enormous cast of vividly-drawn characters (many of them famous) and atmospheric backdrops (Edinburgh, Colonsay, Cambridge, London, Karachi). A sample gem: ‘My McWilliam grandmother had a nice little bob held in place with a Kirby grip and read nineteenth-century novels to me; she had catchphrases such as ‘Would patrons care for a cup of hot chocolate?’, and ‘Would you v.s.k. close the door?’ where v.s.k. stood for ‘very sweetly kindly’.

Yet like the other two memoirs, McWilliam’s book suffers from a failure to tell the truth. In McWilliam’s case, omission occurs not because she can’t remember, or because she wishes to touch up her own image. When she is silent, it is because the truth would be too painful – for her, sometimes, but more usually, for someone else.

There is an interesting distinction to be made between ‘self-pity’ and ‘being hard on oneself’. Cusk announces that she’s been ‘hard on herself’; we immediately read this as self-pity, and we mistrust it. McWilliam, wary of self-pity, is genuinely hard on herself, and to this we attach a positive moral value. It is impossible not to pity her, or to like her. McWilliam feels she has done wrong, and that she must make amends for this wrong.

The form her atonement takes is a determined optimism, a staunch resolve to see the good in everything and everyone. While this is commendable, it is, ultimately, inevitably unpersuasive. When it comes to her own emotions, McWilliam can be unsparing. On learning that she would never see her mother again, she writes, like David Copperfield, ‘I walked around the quadrilateral autumn pavement, feeling important, shut out, and singular’. And, later, she confesses to ‘the unpleasant gratification of the event [the suicide], that could not be admitted… I knew that, for this probably very short time to come, no one would be unpleasant to me for being peculiar or showing off, or being fat, and that I would for a time be at the focus of something’. In her teens, McWilliam effectively swaps her father and his new family for the Howards of Colonsay, spending all her holidays with them. She owns a photograph of herself, aged six, tucked up in bed with her mother, aged 33. Both of them look happy. ‘When I moved to live with the Howards on Colonsay,’ she tells us, ‘I cut this photograph in half and put the little snap of me with their big professional photograph of their six children. God knows where it is now and I’ve lost the half with Mummy on it too.’

But when it comes to other people McWilliam defaults to a nervous, gushing tone that is not entirely credible. Fram, her second husband with whom she is still in love, has found a new girlfriend and moved in with this woman, her twins, and their father. McWilliam declares herself overjoyed by the situation: ‘On the whole I do not speak to people about it unless I’m fairly certain that they will understand, and the key to their understanding must be that I wholly accept all of this, since it is the source of Fram’s happiness, and to love someone properly is to wish them that.’ This is her take on Annabel, the woman who replaced her in the affections of her first husband Quentin: ‘I was happy that Quentin himself might be growing happier. I also knew, most importantly, that Annabel was kind and good. Later it was my pleasure to find that she is really, properly, funny. It’s like medicine.’ She even puts a positive spin on her parents’ deaths. Of her father: ‘Considering he was only just sixty-one, what a lot he did with his life. He’d meant to die. He hated falling to bits.’ And of her mother: ‘It’s one of the blessings my mother passed to me, that appetite for life in the face of death. And she did nothing but make the gift greater by her own sudden departure.’

The most obvious gaps in the narrative are, as in Didion and Cusk, transitional phases – how it all went wrong. Neither the collapse of her two marriages, nor her slide into alcoholism, are reported in any detail (although she describes the sensational apex of her addiction and subsequent recovery at length.) McWilliam shifts the emphasis from the depths of trauma to its surface in much the same way as Didion: by focusing on externals, in her case famous people and glamorous places. This description occurs soon after her break-up with Quentin, when she is lodging with her children in the big house at Wotton:

Behind this exquisite pavilion was a courtyard containing a long house that had at one point been where beer had been brewed for all the servants employed in the main house. In this house lived Graham C Greene and his family, including at one point his mother Helga, with whom Raymond Chandler had been in love. Quite briefly, Clarissa Dickson-Wright was his housekeeper, and once she babysat for me. At this point she and I were both what is called ‘practising alcoholics’. I had no idea.

And that’s all we get. The next paragraph blithely begins, ‘Every day when I woke up at Wotton, I was glad to do so. I suppose that means that one has found a place in the world.’

For all the omissions and the over-writing, however, McWilliam’s book still has the power to break your heart – most notably in her tortured non-description of what went wrong between her and her second husband Fram. ‘It was I who left him,’ McWilliam tells us, ‘something I think of and repent of maybe sixty times a waking day.’ Towards the end of their marriage, she had an affair, to which she attaches little emotional importance: ‘Perhaps I was at such a pitch of alcoholism, though I had kept it so well hidden, that Mark Fisher might have been anyone… I made an ass of myself, dislocated my children’s lives and misled another man as well as breaking Fram’s heart.’

There is disconnect here: McWilliam insists she was happy with Fram. During the lead-up to her affair, he was working a lot; she also found his mother difficult. But this is the closest she ever comes to criticism. Otherwise, the blame is all hers. Perhaps this is another problem with the ‘real-time’ narrative: Fram is still an enormous prop in McWilliam’s disabled, dependent life, so she can’t afford to tell the whole truth about him. Another Fram leaks through anyway: controlling, irritable, over-attached to his mother, capable of cruelty. On their wedding night, they go for an evening stroll and Fram amuses himself by pointing out a woman he finds attractive. McWilliam is hurt, but, perceiving this as her own weakness, she stays silent.

All three of these memoirs are damaged by their silences, though there is an authenticity to McWilliam’s voice that cannot be found in either Didion or Cusk. In a way, her story has all the impact of a real Greek tragedy – with the action happening off stage. It is telling that in a book about blindness, McWilliam has the good taste and humility not to compare herself to Oedipus. Cusk, on the other hand, hijacks the whole of Antigone to explain her broken marriage. ‘I feel a certain sympathy for Oedipus,’ she writes. Of course, she’s just like him: ‘We lack knowledge of the very things that drive us to our fate. We do not know what it is we do, and why…. Yet we are punished for these acts as thought they had been conscious.’

Excuses, excuses.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

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Milan Kundera