Authors: Rachel Cusk
He hadn't asked the college whether his award â perhaps he had forgotten to mention that he had won it, alongside his friend Jenka â was a kudo or a kudos, but he supposed the college wasn't overly concerned with the grammatical perspective. It had been very
pleasant to win: his mother had been extremely happy, though he had had to ask her not to become unnecessarily emotional.
The others were dawdling along the waterfront and we stopped to wait for them to catch up. My phone rang and my older son's number appeared on the screen.
âGuess what I'm doing right now,' he said.
Tell me, I said.
âWalking out through the school gates for the very last time,' he said.
Congratulations, I said.
I asked him how the final exam had gone.
âSurprisingly well,' he said. âIn fact, I actually enjoyed it.'
I might remember, he said, that he had spent a lot of time revising a subject â the history of representations of the Madonna â that had never once come up in any of the past papers he had looked at. He had worked and worked at it, all the time doubting the rationale for these labours but unable to convince himself to stop. Opening the exam paper, the very first question had concerned that subject.
âI had so much to say,' he said, âthat I forgot I was in an exam. It was actually a pleasure. I couldn't quite believe it.'
He should believe it, I said, since it had a concrete explanation, which was that he had worked hard.
âI suppose so,' he said. There was a silence. âWhen are you coming home?' he said.
When we had finished speaking Hermann asked me if my child or children were good at maths. I said that neither of them had pursued that subject, which I sometimes worried was the consequence of my own interests lying in a different direction, so that I had involuntarily made some aspects of the world seem realer and more important to them than others. Hermann smiled delightedly at the impossibility of this idea: there was no reason, he said, to trouble myself on that account, since research had proved that parental influence over personality outcomes was virtually nil. A parent's effect lay almost entirely in the quality of his or her nurture and of the home environment, much as a plant will wilt or thrive according to where it is placed and how it is cared for, while its organic structure remains inviolable. His mother, for instance, recollected that she had ceased to be able to answer his questions without recourse to textbooks somewhere between the ages of four and five. His interest in maths, in other words, pre-existed any attempt to encourage or thwart him; unless I had gone out of my way to prevent my children from showing such an interest then it was unlikely that I had played any role.
I said that on the contrary I had known many people whose ambitions were the result of parental influence,
and many others who had been prevented from becoming what they had wanted to be. The children of artists had been â in my experience â particularly susceptible to their parents' values, as if one person's freedom became the next person's yoke. I found this idea peculiarly repugnant, I said, because it hinted at something beyond mere neglect or selfishness, a special kind of egotism that sought to eliminate the risks of creativity by enslaving others to its point of view. And there were other people who had acquired what we might regard as a God-given talent through sheer force of will. I didn't, in other words, accept the primacy of preordination: to return to his remarks about plants, what that analogy left out was the human possibility of self-creation.
Hermann was silent for a while, and standing beside the bridge we watched the broken shapes its reflection made in the water. He believed that Nietzsche, he said presently, had taken for his motto a phrase of Pindar's: become what you are. Perhaps, in other words, we could agree to disagree, as long as that phrase meant the same thing to both of us. 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. But the phrase was interesting insofar as it posited the fact of self as a truth, in a manner that made cogito ergo sum look frankly banal. An initial response might be to ask how something can become what it already is: he believed we had established some parameters for quite an interesting conversation on that subject. Perhaps if I found myself with some spare time over the next couple of days, we could continue it.
The rest of the group were drawing close and Hermann fell silent, counting them. The same number of people had arrived, he remarked, as had set out: he supposed he should consider the possibility, since he hadn't been paying them much attention, that one or more members of the group had been removed and replaced by others along the way, but all in all it was pretty unlikely. The venue was just on the other side of this bridge, he said: if I looked, I could see it from here. He hoped I hadn't found his company annoying, he added. He realised that he wasn't always able to tell whether his presence was wanted or not. But as far as he was concerned, it had been a very pleasant walk.
There was a long queue for food at the bar, where the waiters were having trouble operating the coupon
system. The room was a cavernous modern space with a high cantilevered glass ceiling, which had the effect of intensifying the din of music and conversation while at the same time making the people in the room appear dwarfed and small, so that the occasion seemed gripped by an atmosphere of panic to which the presence of so many reflecting surfaces only added. It was dark by now, and electric light rained down in crossing lance-shapes through the glass ceiling from the buildings outside while the black body of the river undulated just beyond the windows, with the human figures inside interposed in reflection on its churning surfaces.
The problem, the woman next to me observed, was that the coupons came in denominations that didn't match the prices of the food, and so the question of how to give change had not been resolved. Also, some people wanted to eat and drink more than others, yet we had all been given the same amount. She herself ate little, being small and also of a certain age; a grown man with an appetite would need three times as much. She could see, however, that as far as the festival was concerned, it would have been impracticable to have given their guests free rein with an infinite number of coupons, and also unfair to have discriminated between them on the basis of need, for who can ever say what another's needs are? And at
this point, she said, looking resignedly at the queue, at the head of which a number of waiters were lengthily conferring and studying the coupons in puzzlement while the people queuing were showing signs of increasing unrest, we're unlikely to get anything at all. We invent these systems with the aim of ensuring fairness, she said, and yet the human situation is so complex that it always evades our attempts to encompass it. While we are fighting the war on one front, she said, on another chaos has arisen, and there are many regimes that have come to the conclusion it is human individuality that causes all the problems. If people were all the same, she said, and shared a single point of view, it would of course make us much easier to organise. And that, she said, is where the real problems start.
She was a tiny, sinewy woman with a childlike body and a large, bony, sagacious face in which the big, heavy-lidded eyes had an almost reptilian patience, occasionally slowly blinking. She had attended my event this afternoon, she added, and had been struck as she often was by the inferiority of these occasions to the work that was their subject, which seemed to be circled with increasing aimlessness and never penetrated. We get to walk in the grounds, she said, but we never enter the building. The purpose of festivals like this one had become less and less clear to her,
despite the fact that she was on its board of directors, while the personal value of books had â for her at least â increased; yet she had the sense that the attempt to make a public concern out of a private pastime â reading and writing â was spawning a literature of its own, in that many of the writers invited here excelled at public appearances while producing work she found frankly mediocre. In the case of such people, she said, there are only the grounds: the building isn't there, or if it is, it's a temporary structure that will be swept away by the next storm. But she recognised, she said, that her age might have something to do with this jaded perspective. Increasingly she found herself turning away from the contemporary, back towards the landmarks of literary history. Lately she had been rereading Maupassant, and was finding it as fresh and as charming as on the day it had been written. Meanwhile, the unstoppable juggernaut of commercial literary success pressed on, though she had the sense that the marriage between the two principles â commerce and literature â was not in the best of health. A small adjustment in public tastes, she said, a thoughtless decision to spend one's money on something else, and the whole thing â the global enterprise of fiction publishing and its affiliated industries â could be gone in an instant, leaving the small rock of authentic literature where it always was.
She was wearing a tissue-like black shawl and she drew it back to hold out a small bony hand to me with numerous glinting antique rings on the fingers, introducing herself by a name so long and complex I had to ask her to repeat it. Just call me Gerta, she said, waving the question away with a thin-lipped smile: the rest of it was a pointless mouthful. In a few decades' time, she said, no one will care about such names any more, even though to their owners they were a sacred responsibility. She had four children, she said, and none of them cared in the slightest about their birthright or who might inherit what. Just don't leave us in a situation we might argue about, they had said to her recently, and it was true that her own generation had been beset by the most extraordinary rifts and feuds over questions of inheritance. But her children didn't care about money or land, perhaps because they had always had them and had seen how little good they did. Or rather, they had seen enough to know that only the finest of lines separated them from their forebears, and that all she had to do was weight the scales in one direction or another to condemn them to the same fate. They had urged her countless times to sell the family estates and enjoy the profits in her own lifetime, down to the last drop, she said, laughing, as though this feeble body of mine was capable of using up all our assets and turning
them to transient pleasures. Her own father, she said, had been extraordinarily parsimonious, in his later years living mostly off dry crackers and small cubes of cheese: he had been known to turn up at grand dinners bearing an opened bottle of supermarket wine from which he had drunk perhaps a single glass a few weeks earlier, when his hosts might have hoped for an offering from his extensive vineyards. It was this asceticism of her father's, she said, which she had always interpreted as a determination not to make a dent in the family fortunes, that stopped her selling or giving away what had been passed on to her. Yet now, she said, I wonder whether it wasn't in fact a kind of vice or an expression of his anger. He had painstakingly rebuilt those fortunes, decimated by two world wars, but it seemed to her that the trauma of early life did more damage than the trauma of history. When he was a child, she said, and the estate was in its heyday, the servants would kneel before his own father to offer him the fruits of the day's hunt or harvest. He had a nanny who killed his white rabbit as a punishment for some misdemeanour or other, and appeared the next day wearing the muff she had fashioned from its skin. It is impossible to recover, she said, from such grandiosity and such cruelty, or from the fatal combination of the two. History goes over the top like a steamroller, she said, crushing everything in its path, whereas
childhood kills the roots. And that is the poison, she said, that seeps into the soil.
Yet in her heart she believed that without history there was no identity, and so she couldn't ultimately understand her children's lack of interest in their past, nor their devotion to the cult of happiness. Theirs is a world without war, she said, but it is also a world without memory. They forgive so easily, it is almost as if nothing matters. They are kind to their own children, she said, kinder than our generation ever was, yet their lives seem to me to be without beauty. She paused and slowly blinked her eyes.
Perhaps fifteen years ago, she went on, when the youngest one was leaving home, my husband and I spoke about getting divorced, and though we both wanted to be free, in the end we weren't prepared to put our children through the pain of dismantling the world they knew. It seemed to be enough, that we had both admitted to each other how we felt, and so we have continued to live more or less as we were, she said, except with this admission between us. My husband farms the estate, because this is how he has always made himself feel necessary and useful, and I take care of the administration and other public duties arising from my interest in the arts. We speak to each other very little, she said, and because the house is so big we can sometimes go for days
without seeing one another. We have many house guests, she said, because the estate is in a very beautiful part of the countryside, and I have many writer friends who find it an ideal place to work, and perhaps it is the case that I make sure there is other company so that my husband and I are rarely there alone. Our children and our grandchildren come to stay, she said, always with their great mountains of plastic equipment and their special foods and electronic games, and they find us as they have always found us, except that what was once between us is no longer there. And I wonder, she said, whether we haven't done them a great disservice in sparing them this pain, which might somehow have brought them to life, at the same time as knowing that this couldn't possibly be true, and that it is only my own belief in the value of suffering that makes me think it. I am one of those who believes that without suffering there can be no art, she said, and I have no doubt that my love of literature in particular stems from the desire to be confirmed in that belief. Sometimes, she said, when I wake early in the morning I like to go and walk our land, because it reassures me that the decisions I've made are the right ones. Particularly in the mornings of early summer, she said, when the sun is rising through the mist, it has a beauty that can't be put into words. It is still the greatest joy I
know, she said, but it has its own cruelty too, because at its most beautiful, she said, it is capable of giving me the illusion that there would have been other, greater joys, had this one not been handed to me as my destiny. She smiled her thin-lipped smile. It may be the case, she said, that it is only when it is too late to escape that we see we were free all along.