Rachel Cusk and the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny

"Mumsnet really hate me" says the author of Aftermath.

I interviewed Rachel Cusk, author of Aftermath, the watercooler book du jour, for this week's New Statesman. Aftermath is a memoir of Cusk's separation from her husband of ten years, and it's pretty unsparing - "The blackness of hate flows and flows over me," she writes at one point.

It's conventional to say that Cusk divides opinion. Her 2001 memoir of motherhood A Life's Work was received with equal tinctures of rapture and revulsion, and it looks as if the same will be true of Aftermath. Cusk is fairly stoical about the reactions she incites - especially from women. "[Mumsnet] hate me," she says of the parenting website to which politicians these days pay rather too much attention. "They really hate me. They say such horrible things about me." "Navel-gazing, narcissistic, self-obsessed" is how one poster on the site described Cusk recently.

This has much to do with Cusk's determination to write about what she calls "the universal parts of life" (motherhood, marriage and so on), her outlook on which is decidedly bleak:

Human beings have a need, generally, to destroy things. The Freudian principle of civilisation is correct. There's always, always a difference between the family image and the reality.

In the piece, I ask if it's not so much Cusk's will-to-disclose so much as her commitment to turning her experience into aesthetically satisfying shapes that attracts such opprobrium. She tells me she isn't interested in writing in a more journalistic or discursive fashion about those "universal parts of life":

There has to be some creativity involved. I'm a novelist, not a social scientist or a commentator. I have some pretty forceful ideas about the world [but I] can really only speak about them from within the protection of a literary form.

There is something rather impressive about Cusk's commitment to what Jane Shilling calls, in her review of Aftermath (which also appears in this issue), the "difficult discipline of self-scrutiny".

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.