Between art and life

<strong>The Last Supper</strong>

<em>Rachel Cusk</em>

Faber & Faber, 219pp, £16.99

In the back of the car, on the way to the Italian paradise that is the subject of this memoir, Rachel Cusk's children play a game called Sweet and Sour. "They wave and smile at everyone who passes," she explains. "The Sweets wave and smile back. The Sours don't. The children keep a tally on a piece of paper . . . the census of the human disposition finds that people are in general more sweet than sour."

Cusk also keeps a tally, but hers is a little different. "If there are to be lies," she declares, in response to a sign outside a church in her current home, Bristol, "let them not concern the values of life, for not everyone has tired of it yet." Well, maybe not, but she gives a mighty good impression of someone who is tired of hers. Her neighbours in Britain, says Cusk, "found sensitivity intolerable". They hated "the liberal conscience" and held a philosophy "composed of two primitive blocks". She does not, and decides to leave. Her friends, apparently, are sorry to see her go.

In the car near Rouen, Cusk muses on "the human instinct for beauty, why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly". Her husband announces that he "has tired of his name" and, "at 41, wishes to change it". With so much ennui around, it's a wonder they managed to pack, but there is, it seems, energy enough to sneer: at the memory of the package tourists at Bristol Airport, at the fellow guests at a pension en route in France, untroubled by their inability to "create something beautiful", at families "pedalling sedately on their bicycles" and at tourists who marvel at "sublimity and passion" but leave the sights with their composure intact.

In a house in the Garfagnana, she falters, briefly, in her quest for something she can "identify only by its absence". "Did we come all the way here to behave exactly as we do at home?" she asks. "What exactly are we meant to do?" Luckily, this soon becomes clear. They should do art. And so they do. Boy, do they do art. In Lucca, they gaze at a Tintoretto. In a village near Arezzo, they meditate on a fresco cycle by Piero della Francesca. In the house they rent up the road, they devour books on Renaissance painting and Vasari's Lives of the Artists and learn, in galleries, cathedrals and churches, "to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat deboning a Dover sole".

Soon, they learn other things, too. In a process that is clearly a metaphor, they learn to cleanse their palate of their British culinary promiscuity ("curry one night and enchiladas the next") and "understand" instead the "holiness" of spaghetti alle vongole. They learn, in a series of matches with a Scottish neighbour and a British hotelier's wife, to play better tennis. And they learn that in art, unlike life, or at least unlike in Cusk's life, it is possible to combine feeling with reality.

What Cusk does not learn, and doesn't need to learn, is how to write. As always in her work, there is a scattering of archaisms ("commence", "venture", "outlay") that sometimes gives the prose an archness verging on the pretentious, but the intensity of her gaze can also give rise to descriptions of beauty and precision. Alert to nuance, she will catch the "blanched severity" in a face, the sadness "that you see in the eyes of people who were unhappy children", the self-consciousness of an American honeymooner with "the faux-heroic look of a Kennedy". And her descriptions of Italian food - pizza "like a smiling face" that "assuages the fear of complexity", dough "as pliant and soothing" as a mother's breast - are pure joy.

Which, bafflingly, is a quality largely absent from this account of a physical and spiritual journey. Enchantment, yes - a hypnotic sense of being lulled into a different psychic space - but really there is not much in the way of joy and passion. Not much in the way of warmth, either. "To look at a painting," she concludes, "is to feel looked at, comprehended yourself. It is to experience empathy." Well, perhaps. Empathy is something she herself seems rarely able to muster, however. In its place, there is a quivering sensitivity, a Greeneian chip of ice that even the Italian sun cannot melt.

Actually, it does, but only once. In the Bay of Naples, she loses control at last. After a near-drowning, and a rescue that involves cutting her hands and feet on the ragged rocks, Cusk shouts at her children and can't stop. It is a moment of catharsis. This strange, irritating and occasionally beautiful book is almost worth reading for those screams alone.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression