There was much bustle over in the UK last month, in the pages of The Guardian, in particular, with Telegraph readers jumping in too, about the release of Rachel Cusk’s new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, which was excerpted in both papers. Back in June (“Thoughts on reading, breathing, writing, and grief“), I wrote here about an earlier excerpt in Granta (titled “Aftermath,”at least some of which is the same as the recent selections; something that strikes me as both annoying and admirable). When the Granta piece was freshly out, I found Cusk’s account engaging, compelling, and deeply interesting, most especially because of the multitude of contradictions in her actions and beliefs, most of them acknowledged by her.
In the newspapers, the readers’ comments have spent a great deal of time shredding her, assailing her “narcissism” and expressing abundant concern for her daughters and ex-husband, while showering a remarkable amount of vitriol on Cusk, a well-known literary writer on that side of the pond, though less so here. I have found this whole spectacle quite curious. The attacks, while occasionally about Cusk’s prose or narrative structure, have been for the most part extremely personal, condemning her actions and Cusk herself, as a mother and wife/ex-wife/girlfriend or partner.
To me, this vitriol makes clear how raw, and interesting, her account is. People are angry at the person for writing about gender roles, gender relations, and about conflicting and inconsistent responses to them. (Who among us as has never been inconsistent? Particularly when it comes to matters as intimate as those brought on by family relationships.) These (newspaper) readers are angry at the woman for investigating herself—and in the process revealing something of (her) family life and therefore its participants. (I’m certain there are children in the world who are more in need of assistance, concern, even public-hand-holding, than Cusk’s. Even were one to consider books to be weapons—a dubious argument—children suffer from far worse. I don’t think we need a list here of the world’s evils surpassing over-publicity.) The fever-pitch of push-back suggests the book needed to be written. Why not engage with the content, of the life as well as the telling, rather than pass judgment on the individual who lived it? It’s a shame that publication means Cusk is slammed for sharing too much, when instead we might better see the inconsistencies around us, and in ourselves.
As Frances Stonor Saunders writes in her review for The Guardian,
“What detains us is her cool, clinical examination of the remains, the truths that are returned when she scrapes at the marrow of experience.”
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation was released in the UK on March 1st and will be published in the States in August.
Apropos of Cusk’s memoir and ambition (I daresay, still not deemed a “feminine” trait), I came across this epigraph used by Deborah Feldman in her new memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots:
“For we pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self-denial, anxiety and discouragement.”
– from Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
At first glance, this appears to be a glass half-empty—look again, and there’s a glass half-full, a bit more yet waiting in the pitcher. I love an excuse to return to Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery’s books go on my list of memorable childhood pleasures, the kind with enough depth to carry more than just straight-forward happiness. Such books, the memories they create, don’t just tell us a story, they push and probe our boundaries and our sense of the world. I look forward to sharing this spunky (and thoughtful! more on this in the next post) heroine with my sons.
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There will be more on the subject of motherhood and divorce here in coming months. My mother has a memoir coming out this spring on the same subject…
Biting the Moon:
A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood
by Joanne S. Frye
Here’s a taste of the advance praise…
“The power of this book is that it speaks to people in many walks of life, men as well as women, single parents and parents in couples, people across generations….. Readers will be captivated.”
—Jane Lazarre, author of Inheritance: A Novel
“This memoir makes a real contribution to the ever-growing body of testimonial literature that contemporary feminism has given rise to. I applaud the difficult truth-telling it embodies.”
—Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments: A Memoir
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I had a great time at the last Pen Parentis literary salon (I always do!), including a conversation with musician and novelist Suzzy Roche. I surely won’t do justice to the memory she recounted there, but, in brief, it involved a really moving story about watching a cow give birth, and thereafter watching the newborn calf stand. Part of what hit me so intimately about the story was the through-line it shared with a story my mother has told (which is included in her new memoir) about one of our cows (yup, as a small child we lived on a farm and had a handful of cows, go figure!) giving birth. Afterwards the cow ate the placenta, as cows do. Both stories, at their core, have to do with the intimacies of maternal connection and letting go; both also address single parenthood. Suzzy Roche’s new novel, Wayward Saints, takes on some of these themes too, along with grief, creative artistry and need.
Also at Pen Parentis, a wonderful reading by Eleanor Henderson from her novel, Ten Thousand Saints (set in NYC’s East Village in the 1980s) and a gripping excerpt from Myfanwy Collins‘ debut novel, Echolocation, published by an intriguing new small press, Engine Books. Now that my mind is running through books and stories, I feel I could go on and on…but I’ll stop now. The next post has been awaiting its leap onto the net for a month (a month!) already, so you’ll hear something more from me soon….
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~ Next up… “How shy are you…?” ~