Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The assumption of fixity

He believed that Nietzsche, he said presently, had taken for his motto a phrase of Pindar's: become what you are. [...] If he understood me correctly, I ascribed to outside factors the capacity to alter the self, while at the same time believing the self capable of determining or even altering its own nature. He recognised that he had been very fortunate in that no one, as yet, had tried to stop him being what he was; I myself had perhaps not been so lucky.

Kudos, by Rachel Cusk, is a kind of vanishing act. After getting to know the narrator in the first two books of the trilogy, she is strangely absent from this novel. She has disappeared into the crowd of people she meets.

It's a lovely, breezy kind of book, recording conversations of substance, so I find it a little disconcerting to learn nothing about her. When last we left off, she was freshly divorced and renovating her London flat. Now we know only that she is on a book tour.

Doing the literary festival circuit, she is interviewed a few times, but the journalists take centre stage.

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 s 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.

She is suddenly no one. Of a fellow writer, she reports,

When she wrote she was neither in nor out of her body: she was just ignoring it.

It feels like those conversations she listens in, chooses to be part of, and summarizes for me must hold some clue to the person she is, must be some signpost to the message I'm supposed to take from this.

I hadn't realised, I said, how much of navigation is the belief in progress, and the assumption of fixity in what you have left behind.

I get a glimpse of the bigger picture when the subject of Louise Bourgeois comes up. For a better explanation than I could  give, see Kate Taylor's article in the Literary Review of Canada: "Rachel Cusk: Mother as spider — Being a woman and an artist in the world."

So there's a lot to mull over in this slim volume.

Her description of her life had struck me, I said to her now, as that of a life lived inside the mechanism of time, and whether or not it was a life everyone would have found desirable it had seemed at the very least to lack a quality that drove other people's lives into extremity, whether of pleasure or of pain. [...]That quality, I said, could almost be called suspense, and it seemed to me to be generated by the belief that our lives were governed by mystery, when in fact that mystery was merely the extent of our self-deception over the fact of our own mortality.

Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn't sure I would ever discover whether this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for.

"I admit," she said finally, "that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I've avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck."

(I've always assumed that my life was a result of luck, things held together and worked out despite my poor decisions and inadequate planning. Things plod along in a general direction, without the fixed point of ambition.)

I particularly enjoyed the conversation with Hermann, the young man who led the festival participants through the first city to the reception venue. He wisely observes that

He had come to the conclusion that most questions were nothing more than an attempt to ascertain conformity, like rudimentary maths problems. 

(I have come to the same conclusion in recent months. We all want to believe that we're normal.)

Reading Kudos made me feel accomplished and smart for a little while. 

She never said anything unless she had something important to express, which made you realise how much of what people generally said — and he included himself in this statement —  was unimportant.


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