Authors: Rachel Cusk
The journalist had sat down on a nearby sofa and was leafing through his notes. He stood up to shake my hand, wearing an expression of great seriousness: he was very tall and entirely bald and his thick-framed glasses were so large they seemed designed to magnify his role as interrogator at the same time as offering the hope that he might not be seen. His skin was extremely pale and his large hairless head had a somewhat glimmering, preternatural appearance in
the dim room. The assistant offered him water, which he accepted with raised eyebrows, as though the offer had surprised him. Beside him on the table was a pile of books, the pages bristling with Post-it notes. He hoped I wasn't finding it too hot in the city, he said: he himself couldn't bear this time of year, since unlike most of his countrymen he had a very fair skin that suffered badly in the sun. He preferred the English climate, where even a summer's day had a caressing silkiness to it and the trees, to quote from Tennyson, laid their dark arms across the lawn, though of course the English themselves came here in their hordes â he grimaced with his rather plump pale mouth â to lie roasting on the beaches. He had wondered, he added, whether out of tact or courtesy or just plain shame they might desist from this habit in the light of their recent rejection of European membership, but there was no sign that this was the case.
âThere they sit,' he said, folding his arms and looking theatrically around himself with defiant bullishness, in imitation of these interlopers, âentrenched in the resorts and watering holes, unable to converse in any but their native tongue nor even to comprehend the implications of their own boorish stupidity. Like great big babies,' he said, somewhat resembling an oversized baby himself, âwho have managed to derail the whole family because no one made the effort to bring
them up properly. At one time I had a love affair with England,' he added, resuming his normal demeanour. âI loved its poetry and its irony â I loved it so much I cursed the fact I hadn't been born an Englishman. But now,' he said, âI feel lucky not to be one.'
The changing perspectives of identity, he went on, was a subject he sensed I had given some consideration to: was it not the case that one could believe oneself to be disadvantaged by things that later were proved to be assets, and conversely â and perhaps more commonly â that there were people who remained convinced they were the favourites of the gods until life taught them otherwise? As a scholarly boy with no sporting ability, for instance, he had regarded himself as seriously disabled until it was revealed that a good brain was worth far more than the knack of catching a ball. A friend of his had a phrase that always amused him: life, this friend said, was the revenge of the nerds, and this charming notion â that it was the bookish laughing stocks who ended up with the power â acquired certain nuances when one applied it to writers, for whom the question of power generally remained unresolved. A writer was only given power by the act of someone reading their book: this was perhaps why so many writers became obsessed with having their books made into films, since it dispensed with the arduous part of that
transaction. In the case of the English, their power was a memory, and the spectacle of them attempting to exercise it was as ridiculous as that of a dog dreaming it is chasing a rabbit.
It was his practice to read the entirety of an author's oeuvre, he added, seeing me glance at the pile of books, and not just the latest one, as so many of his colleagues did. He had often been surprised by how many authors seemed to feel that this constituted an investigation into their past life, as though the books had no existence in the public realm and he had somehow caught them out. On one occasion, an author was unable to remember anything at all about a book he had written a few years earlier; on another, a female novelist had admitted that she liked only one of the many books she'd written â books that her readers still bought and presumably read â and felt the others to be pretty much worthless. Still others â and this was admittedly far more common â seemed to value their work on the basis of the rewards and recognition it had received, and to have adopted the world's assessment of their own importance; but only, he added, adjusting his glasses, if that assessment was positive. What surprised him was that these writers seemed, when they embarked on their career, to have had no particular plan, and to have written books much as other people got up and went to work in the
morning. It was, in other words, simply their job, and was as provisional and exposed to the possibility of boredom and mundanity as any other job: they didn't know what the future would bring, though they subscribed to the same vague belief in progress as everyone else, and they were likewise liable to make much of their successes while blaming their failures on other people's ignorance, as well as on luck, which was the chief means by which they believed that certain others among their contemporaries had got ahead.
âI admit it has been something of a disappointment to me to make these discoveries,' he said, âbecause I revere literary art, and though I accept that an early novel even by a great master might lack the depth and complexity of a later work, I don't especially want to feel that by reading an author's oeuvre I am merely watching them stumbling through life, only marginally less blindfolded than everyone else.'
He had always been compelled by provocative and difficult writing, he went on, because this at least proved the author had had the wit to unshackle himself from convention, but he had found that in works of extreme negativity â the writings of Thomas Bernhard were an example he had been considering lately â one nonetheless eventually hit an impasse. A work of art could not, ultimately, be negative: its material existence, its status as an object, could not help but be
positive, a gain, an addition to the sum of what was. The self-destructive novel, like the self-destructive person, was something from which in the end you remained helplessly separated, forced to watch a spectacle â the soul turning on itself â in which you were powerless to intervene. Great art was very often brought to the service of this self-immolation, as great intelligence and sensitivity often characterised those who found the world an impossible place to live in; yet the spectre of madness was so discomfiting that it made surrender to the writing unfeasible; one stayed on one's guard, as a child might stay on its guard against a mad parent, knowing itself ultimately alone. Negative literature, he had noticed, got much of its power through the fearless use of honesty: a person with no interest in living and hence no investment in the future can afford to be honest, he said, and the same dubious privilege was extended to the negative writer. Yet their honesty, as he had said, was of an unpalatable kind: in a sense it went to waste, perhaps because no one cared for the honesty of someone who was jumping the ship the rest of us were stuck on. The real honesty, of course, was that of the person who remained on board and endeavoured to tell the truth about it, or so we were led to believe. If I agreed that literature was a form that took its life-blood from social and material constructs, the writer could do no more than stay within
those constructs, buried in bourgeois life â as he had recently read it described somewhere â like a tick in an animal's fur.
He paused, searching for something in his notes, while I observed the extraordinary pallor and tenderness of his hairless head bent over the pages. Presently he looked up again, fixing me in the giant orbs of his glasses. The question he wished to discuss with me, he said, was the question of whether I believed there was a third kind of honesty, beyond that of the person who leaves and that of the person who stays; an honesty to which no moral bias could be ascribed, that is interested neither in debunking nor in reforming, that has no compass of its own and can describe evil as dispassionately as virtue without erring on the side of one or the other, that is as pure and reflective as water or glass. He believed certain French writers had become interested in this question, he said â Georges Bataille came to mind as an example â but to him they went no further than positing honesty as amoral, in other words as refusing to differentiate between good and bad and offering no judgement on one or the other. His question was more, in a sense, old-fashioned: could a spiritual value be attached to the mirror itself, so that by passing dispassionately through evil it proved its own virtue, its own incorruptibility? Did I not, in the end, thirst for that proof, to the extent
that I might consider evil as a subject?
For the sake of fairness he ought perhaps to tell me, he added, that he was known in this city as a maker and breaker of reputations: a bad review from him could kill a book, and so one consequence of his own honesty was that he had many enemies, which meant that when he brought out a book of his own â he had so far produced three volumes of poetry â the knives, as they say, were out. These attacks had resulted in his work not gaining the recognition it might otherwise have received: he had applied for numerous academic fellowships in the States, as well as for literary posts in this country, and had been unsuccessful, yet his power as a critic remained undiminished; indeed, if anything it was constantly increasing, to the extent that he was acquiring an international reputation. Friends of his had advised him that if he wanted to make it as a creative writer, he should stop savaging other people's work, but you might as well ask a bird not to fly or a cat not to hunt; and besides, what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free? And that was without even mentioning the moral duty of the critic to correct the tendency of culture likewise to err towards safety and mediocrity, a responsibility you couldn't measure in dinner invitations.
What he couldn't tolerate above all else, he went
on, was the triumph of the second-rate, the dishonest, the ignorant: the fact that this triumph occurred with monotonous regularity was one of life's mysteries, and he was well aware that in pitting himself against it he ran the risk of succumbing to the same despair that made the literature of negativity so impotent. Too much time among the Pharisees and not enough with the devil himself: this was how, he said, the question of evil had come to interest him. He was only twenty-six â he was aware, he said, that he looked much older â and when he had alluded to those writers who seemed to have no overarching plan and who claimed not even to know what was going to happen in the book they were currently writing, as though their work were the result not of careful thought or artistic competence or merely hard work, but of divine inspiration or worse, imagination, he was not describing himself. He wouldn't start a piece of writing without knowing precisely where it was going to lead any more than he would leave his house without knowing what his destination was or without his keys and wallet. Such claims were the bane of our culture, he said, because they imputed a kind of feeble-mindedness to the arts, where men and women in other fields were proud of their self-discipline and competence. He expected, he said, that I would agree with this assessment, since he had
deduced from my work that if I had an imagination I had the sense to keep it well concealed.
âAnd there is no better hiding place,' he said, âthan somewhere as close as possible to the truth, something all good liars know.'
He was looking up at something over my shoulder and I turned to see the assistant standing there. She was very sorry, she said, but the interview had now run its allotted course, and since the next interview was for television and involved precise timings, we would have to bring things to a conclusion. The journalist immediately began to remonstrate with her and a lengthy exchange ensued, in which he spoke very quickly and forcefully and she replied very slowly, repeating certain phrases and nodding her head with sympathetic regret, until finally he began irritably to pack his books and notes back into his briefcase. Her training with the airline, she said, as she led me away towards the lifts, had come in handy more times than she might have expected in this job. She had to admit this journalist was one of her trickier customers, and his interviews nearly always ended with the same argument, since he seemed to take such a long time to get round to asking a question and when he did, discovered that he himself had the best answer for it. She mildly rolled her eyes and pressed the button to call the lift. In fact she had gone to the same school
as him, she added, and often saw him at family occasions, but whenever they met through work he pretended not to know her. At home he is very polite and nice, she said wistfully, as well as being the only one prepared to talk to the grandmothers, who will listen to him for hours on end.
The hotel had given permission for a temporary studio to be set up in the basement, she said as the lift went down, and though it didn't look quite as professional as their usual set, the illusion was actually quite convincing. We emerged into a large, low-ceilinged space where several people were absorbed in adjusting wires and lights amid piles of camera equipment. In the far corner, surrounded by bare concrete walls and packing cases, a small segment of a room had been recreated, with tall bookshelves and pictures and a threadbare Persian rug on which two antique chairs had been placed at a conversational angle. A number of very bright lights were trained on it, giving it the appearance of a golden book-lined island, with the men working in a kind of purgatorial gloom just beyond its shores. A slender woman with a wide pale face elaborately made up for the camera approached us and held out her hand. She wore a high-necked blouse with long buttoned sleeves and her long thick pale-gold hair was drawn smoothly back in a ponytail, like a studious princess with the book-lined island as
her home. She would be conducting the interview, she said in English, and once the men had sorted out a small problem with the sound equipment we could probably get started straight away. She turned and said something to the assistant and the two of them talked back and forth for a while, sometimes laughing and laying a hand on one another's arm, while the men silently and absorbedly worked at the equipment, plugging and unplugging long trailing wires and rummaging in the big black camera cases that lay open around them on the floor. Presently the interviewer indicated that they wanted us to take our places, and we went and sat on the antique chairs among the bookshelves, where the bright light caused everything around it to fall into half-darkness, so that the cameramen became obscure figures moving through the murky shadow. A man who was evidently the director stood just at the edge of the light, issuing instructions to the interviewer while she slowly nodded her head, occasionally looking at me out of the corner of her painted eye and giving me a complicit smile.