Authors: Rachel Cusk
We both listened while he gave us the details of the event in which we were participating. He would introduce us, he said, and then there would be a few minutes of conversation, before the readings began, in which he would ask each of us two or three questions about ourselves.
âBut you already know the answers, right?' Linda said.
It was a formality, he said, just to allow everyone to relax.
âIce-breaking,' Linda said. âI'm familiar with the concept. I like a little ice in things though,' she added. âI just prefer it that way.'
She talked about a reading she had done in New York with a well-known novelist. They had agreed beforehand how the reading would go, but when they got on stage the novelist announced to the audience that instead of reading they were going to sing. The audience went wild for this idea and the novelist stood up and sang.
The publisher roared with laughter and clapped his hands so that Linda jumped.
âSang what?' he said.
âI don't know,' Linda said. âSome kind of Irish folk tune.'
âAnd what did you sing?' he said.
âIt was the worst thing that's ever happened to me,' Linda said.
The publisher was smiling and shaking his head.
âGenius,' he said.
Another reading she did was with a poet, Linda said. The poet was a kind of cult figure and the audience was huge. The poet's boyfriend always participated in her public performances, going around the audience while she read, sitting on people's laps or fondling them. On this occasion he had brought with him a giant ball of string and he had crawled up and down the rows, looping the string around their ankles so that by the end the whole audience was tied together.
The publisher gave another roar of laughter.
âYou must read Linda's novel,' he said, to me. âIt's quite hilarious.'
Linda looked at him, quizzical and unsmiling.
âIt isn't meant to be,' she said.
âBut that is exactly why people here love it!' he said. âIt reassures them of the absurdity of life, without causing them to feel that they themselves are absurd. In your stories you are always the â what is the word?'
âThe butt,' Linda said flatly. âIs it hot in here?' she added. âI'm stifling. It's probably the menopause,' she said, and made quotation marks in the air with her fingers: âIce melts as woman writer overheats.'
This time the publisher did not laugh, but merely looked at her with bright neutrality, his eyes unblinking behind their glasses.
âI've been on tour so long I'm starting to pass through the stages of ageing,' she said to me. âMy face hurts from having to smile all the time. I've eaten all this weird food and now this dress is the only thing I can fit into. I've worn it so many times it's become like my apartment.'
I asked her where she'd been before coming here and she said she had gone to France, Spain and the UK, and before that had spent two weeks at a writers' retreat in Italy. The retreat was in a castle on a hill in the middle of nowhere. For a place promoting solitary contemplation, it was pretty hectic. It belonged to a countess who liked to spend her dead husband's money on surrounding herself with writers and artists. In the evenings you were expected to sit at the dinner table with her and supply stimulating conversation. The countess selected and invited the writers personally: most of them were young and male. In fact there was only one other woman writer there besides Linda.
âI'm fat and forty,' Linda said, âand the other one was gay, so you can go figure.'
One of the writers, a young black poet, had escaped on the second day. The countess had been particularly proud of capturing this poet: she boasted about him to anyone who would listen. When he announced his intention of leaving she went wild, alternately begging and demanding an explanation, but he was unmoved by her distress. It was not the right place for him, he said. He was not comfortable there and would not be able to work. And he had packed his bag and walked the three miles down into the village to get a bus, since the countess refused to help him by ordering a taxi. She had spent the rest of the two weeks coldly savaging him and his work to anyone who would listen. Linda had watched him disappear off down the long winding drive from her room. He walked with a light, bouncing stride, carrying his small knapsack over his shoulder. She very much wanted to do the same thing, while knowing at the same time that she couldn't. The reason appeared to be the enormous size of her suitcase. Also, she wasn't sure she could have walked three miles in her shoes. Instead she had sat in her antique-filled room with its beautiful view of the valley and whenever she looked at her watch, believing that an hour had passed, she would find that barely ten minutes had.
âI couldn't write a word,' she said. âI couldn't even read. There was this antique telephone on the desk and I kept wanting to call someone up and get them to come and rescue me. One day I finally picked it up and it wasn't connected â it was just a decoration.'
The publisher let out a brief, high-pitched giggle.
âBut why should they rescue you?' he said. âThere you are, sitting in a castle in the beautiful Italian countryside, with your own room and nobody bothering you and complete freedom to do your work. For most people that is a fantasy!'
âI don't know,' Linda said dully. âI guess it must mean there's something wrong with me.'
Her room in the castle was full of paintings and exquisite leather-bound books and costly rugs, she went on, and the linen on the bed was luxurious. Every last detail was in perfect taste and it was all scrupulously clean and polished and scented. After a while she realised that the only imperfect thing in it was herself.
âOur whole apartment could have fitted into that one room,' she said. âThere was this big wooden wardrobe and I kept opening it thinking I might find my husband living in there, spying on me through the keyhole. But in the end,' she said, âI guess I sort of wanted to find him in there.'
There was a terrace with a beautiful swimming pool
right underneath her window but she never saw anyone swim in it. There were loungers placed around it and if you went and lay on one, a servant would automatically come out and bring you a drink on a tray. She had witnessed this mechanism several times without testing it herself.
âWhy not?' the publisher said amusedly.
âIf I went out there and lay down and the servant didn't come out,' Linda said, âit would have meant something terrible.'
Every morning the countess would emerge in her gold wrapper and lie on one of the loungers among the flowers in the sun. She would open her wrapper and reveal her skinny brown body and she would lie there like a lizard, sunbathing. After a few minutes one of the other writers would always walk past, as if by chance. Whoever it was would talk to the countess, sometimes for a long time. From her room Linda would hear the sound of them talking and laughing. These other writers, she went on, mocked the countess behind her back in discreet and witty ways that left no evidence that could be used later against them. Whether this was because they loved her or because they hated her Linda couldn't tell, but after a while she realised it was neither. They didn't love or hate anything, or at least so that you could see; it was just that they were in the habit of never showing their hand.
At mealtimes the countess would take only the tiniest bites of the food, and then she would light a cigarette and smoke it very slowly before stubbing it out in her plate. She dressed for dinner in gowns that were tight and low-cut and she was always dripping with jewellery â gold and diamonds and pearls â on her arms and fingers and around her throat, as well as suspended from her ears, so that she made a centre of light in the shadowy dining room. It was impossible, in other words, to be unaware of her: she would watch the people around the table with a rapt, glittering, hawk-eyed expression, prowling the conversation like a predator monitoring its hunting-ground. Because they were conscious of her, everyone made an effort to say witty and interesting things. Yet because she didn't conceal herself the conversation was never real: it was the conversation of people imitating writers having a conversation, and the morsels she fed on were lifeless and artificial, as well as being laid directly at her feet, so that the spectacle of her satisfaction was artificial too. They all worked hard at this contrivance, Linda said, which was puzzling because she couldn't see what any of them were actually getting out of it. The countess, she added, wore her hair piled so high on her head that it made her neck seem exceptionally fragile, so that you felt you could reach out and snap it in two with your hands.
At this remark the publisher gave an alarmed shout of laughter and Linda looked at him expressionlessly.
âI didn't actually snap it,' she said.
Those mealtimes were a torture, she resumed presently, not just because of what she now realised was their atmosphere of mutual prostitution, but also because she felt so tense that her stomach was one big knot and she couldn't eat the food. In fact she probably ate even less than the countess herself, and one evening the countess turned to her, her coruscating eyes open in wonder, and expressed surprise that Linda was so large, since she ate so little.
âI thought she might be angry about it,' Linda said, âbecause the maid was having to take away my plate full of wasted food, but in fact it was the only time she showed any interest in me, as though her idea of friendship with another woman was just sharing moments of self-torture. And in fact whenever the maid came to clear the table or to bring new courses I had to stop myself from getting up and helping her.'
At home she generally avoided doing housework, she went on, because those kinds of chores made her feel so unimportant that she wouldn't have been able to write anything afterwards. She supposed they made her feel like an ordinary woman, when most of the time she didn't think about being a woman, or perhaps didn't even believe she was one, because at
home it wasn't a subject that came up. Her husband did most of the domestic work, she said, because he liked doing it and it didn't have the same effect on him that it did on her.
âBut in Italy I started to feel that if I did the chores it would justify my existence,' she said. âI even started to miss my husband. I kept thinking about him and about how critical I always am of him, and increasingly I couldn't remember why I criticised him, because the more I thought about him the more perfect he became in my head. I started to think about our daughter and about how cute and innocent she is, and I completely forgot the fact that being with her sometimes makes me feel like I'm trapped in a room with a swarm of bees. I always fantasised about going on a writing retreat,' she said, âand being able to sit in the evening and talk to other writers, rather than spending my time in our apartment arguing with my husband and daughter about stupid things. But now all I wanted was to be there again, despite the fact that I'd been counting the days until I could get away. One night I called them,' she said, âand my husband answered the phone and he sounded just the tiniest bit surprised when I said it was me. We talked for a little while and then there was this silence and eventually he said, what can I do for you?'
The publisher burst out laughing. âHow romantic!' he said.
âSo I ask him what's going on over there,' Linda went on, âand he says, nothing, we're just pootling along. My husband has the habit of using these cutesy English words,' she added. âIt's kind of irritating.'
âSo the man you were missing wasn't him,' the publisher said, with a satisfied air of deduction.
âI guess not,' Linda said. âIt kind of brought me to my senses. Suddenly I could see our apartment completely clearly. We were talking on the phone and I could see the stain on the carpet in the hall where one of the garbage bags once leaked and the kitchen where the cupboard doors are all crooked and the bathroom sink that has a crack the exact same shape as Nicaragua,' she said. âI could even smell the drain smell that there always is in there. Things got better after that,' she said, folding her arms and looking over at the wedding party across the bar. âI actually had a good time. I had second helpings of pasta every night,' she added. âIt was worth it to see the look on the countess's face. And I admit some of the others turned out to be stimulating, as advertised.'
Still, after two weeks she could see it was possible to have too much of a good thing. There was a man there, a novelist, who was going straight on to another residency in France, and then another one in Sweden after that: his whole life, as far as she could see, consisted of writerly sinecures and engagements, like a
whole life of eating only dessert. She wasn't sure it was healthy. But one evening she did get talking to a writer who told her that every day, when he sat down to write, he would think of an object that didn't mean anything to him and would set himself the task of including it somewhere in that day's work. She asked him for examples and he said that in the past few days he had chosen a lawnmower, a fancy wristwatch, a cello and a caged parrot. The cello was the only one that hadn't worked, he said, because he had forgotten when he chose it that his parents had tried to make him learn the cello when he was a child. His mother loved the sound of the cello, but he was terrible at it. The wailing noise he made wasn't what she'd had in mind at all and in the end he gave it up. âSo the story he writes,' Linda said, âis about some kid who's a cello genius and it's so exaggerated and unbelievable he has to throw it away. The point about these objects, he said, is that they're meant to help him see things as they really are. Anyway,' Linda said, âI said I would try it because I hadn't written one word since I'd been there, and I ask him to give me something to start me off and he suggests a hamster. You know,' she said, âthe little furry thing in the cage.'