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6 March 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 2:57am

A writer with a splinter of ice in her heart

Rachel Cusk discusses her controversial divorce memoir, motherhood, and why the denizens of Mumsnet

By Jonathan Derbyshire

“They hate me. They really hate me. They say such horrible things about me,” the novelist and memoirist Rachel Cusk observes cheerfully. She is talking to me about the denizens of Mumsnet, the parenting website whose discussion forums are as reliable a guide to the ­collective id of a certain stratum of reasonably affluent, reasonably liberal middle-class womanhood as one is likely to find.

“[She] is the very worst kind of public figure,” wrote one poster on a Mumsnet thread, discussing a newspaper extract from Cusk’s new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. “She writes about everything that happens to her, good and bad, with a navel-gazing, narcissistic, self-obsessed tone and she moans and moans.” That was one of the more temperate contributions.

Aftermath is a memoir of Cusk’s separation and eventual divorce from Adrian Clarke, a former human-rights lawyer to whom she was married for ten years. (This was Cusk’s second marriage. Her first, to Josh Hillman, a banker, lasted barely a year. “We should never have got married,” she has admitted.) And it’s not the first time she has written about what she describes to me as the “universal parts of life, experiences that happen to everyone, but seem sometimes only to be happening to you”.

An earlier book, A Life’s Work (2001), about becoming a mother, attracted vituperation and admiration in more or less equal measure. Cusk’s attempt to limn the “strange reality of motherhood” was so unsparing that one reviewer urged that it be kept out of the reach of all pregnant women. The new book is similarly unflinching in its depiction of the breakdown of her marriage (“The blackness of hate flows and flows over me,” Cusk writes at one point). “Human beings have a need, generally, to destroy things,” she tells me. “The Freudian principle of civilisation is correct. There’s always, always a difference between the family image and the reality.”

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The accepted journalistic shorthand when writing about Cusk is that she “divides opinion”. As Jane Shilling, herself the author of a recent memoir (on middle age), points out, other women writing in a similar vein also “get it in the neck for ruthless narcissism”. Yet there is often a viciousness to the attacks on Cusk that can’t be explained simply by her readiness to, as her critics would have it, violate the privacy of those closest to her.
You could argue that her daughters didn’t ask to be written about in the way they are in Aftermath. But they didn’t ask to be born, either. “Children,” she has said, “have to share their parents’ destiny to some extent, like it or not.” That logic is evidently too austere for many tastes. Though it doesn’t apply to those, not family members, who sued Cusk for libel in 2009, forcing her publisher to withdraw The Last Supper, her memoir of an extended holiday with her husband and children in Italy.

Looking back in 2008 on the reception for A Life’s Work, Cusk recalled: “One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences?” I was reminded of this when reading a Mumsnet commenter write: “It seems to me that her very florid articulateness is a large part of the reason . . . she attracts such dislike.”

Consider the introduction to A Life’s Work, in which she describes the book as a “letter addressed to those women who care to read it, in the hope that they find some companionship in my experiences”. There is a characteristic fastidiousness about that last formulation, a studied costiveness – for “companionship in experience” is not quite the same as sisterhood, say, or solidarity.

Perhaps, then, the animus Cusk attracts has as much to do with her writerly withholdings, her obsessive shaping and patterning of her material, as it does simply with what she chooses to disclose? Reviewing Aftermath, Julie Burchill describes Cusk setting about her task “with all the care and deliberation of a monk illuminating a medieval manuscript”. And Shilling, in her review of the book, praises the author’s commitment to the “difficult discipline of self-scrutiny”. (Reviewers often don’t do Cusk the courtesy of paying attention to the writing when considering her memoirs; though the ad hominem treatment is arguably an occupational hazard for any memoirist.)

Difficulty, discipline and rigour are qualities that Cusk prizes. She has compared novel-writing to the making of “small manoeuvres” in the “shrouded space of [one’s] imagination” and once wrote that she couldn’t imagine ever explaining to the other members of a book group to which she briefly belonged just “how difficult it is to make things life-like”. She admires the North American laureates of domestic interiority – strenuous noticers such as John Updike and Alice Munro. And she abhors the kind of state-of-the-nationism to which she thinks the English are addicted – the sort of novel in which the hero is built from an “armoury of technical, political and sociological information yet . . . casts no shadow”.

How deep does her commitment to truth-telling, to making things “life-like”, run? Someone who knew Cusk slightly in the 1990s (her first novel, Saving Agnes, was published in 1993 and won the Whitbread First Novel Award) and who judged a literary prize with her, says: “She has that splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene talked about.”

I ask Cusk if – since Aftermath, like A Life’s Work, is partly a book about the politics of domestic work and childcare – she’d ever considered writing something more discursive, less memoiristic. Her answer is emphatic, but also slightly obfuscating. “For me, there has to be an expressive element in it, otherwise I don’t want to do it. 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 – obviously I do. But I suppose I can only really speak about them from within the protection of a literary form.”

Maybe that’s why they hate her?

Jane Shilling’s review of “Aftermath” is in The Critics, on page 44

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