by Rachel Cusk.
Faber, 198 pp., £16.99, June, 978 0 571 37794 7
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Is Rachel Cusk’s​ new book a novel, a series of essays or a philosophical inquiry? Parade sends the coin spinning on its edge every time you flip it. It’s the most musical work she has written, a punctus contra punctum, made up of stories that invert themselves in a dialectical fashion, propelled by a set of antinomies: male and female, parents and children, hardness and softness, freedom and responsibility. In some ways it recalls the work of Milan Kundera (lightness and heaviness, slowness and speed, good immortality and bad immortality), but Cusk shuns his bonhomie, his playful puppetry. Despite what some might judge a stylistic hauteur, her world teems with personages and anecdotes, echoes and counterfactuals. As she pivots among points of view – framing debates theoretically through her characters, shuffling through opinions and biases – a motif emerges, building to a credo, a cri de coeur.

The parade of the title is a parade of artists, all signified by the initial G – and this is the first clue that there is something musical about the book’s composition. It has a key signature, the key of Genius. In these various archetypal Gs, one can identify the shadowy outlines of Georg Baselitz, Louise Bourgeois, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Éric Rohmer. The unnamed narrator alternates third-person episodes with the first person, recounting scenes from her own life in France: some having to do with a G, others having to do with the body’s subjection to violence, both from without and from within. If this all seems baroque, the cool tone and precision of the prose cuts against that. As always in Cusk’s work, a singular voice provides the red thread through the labyrinth.

The first G we meet is an acclaimed artist who has begun painting upside-down portraits. It doesn’t especially matter whether the reader recognises this as a sketch of Baselitz, but it does seem a little on the nose as an allegory for an upside-down world. His wife turns out to be wildly drawn to the works: ‘When G’s wife first saw the upside-down paintings she felt as though she had been hit. The feeling of everything seeming right yet being fundamentally wrong was one she powerfully recognised: it was her condition, the condition of her sex.’ At the same time, ‘G believed that women could not be artists.’ (Baselitz has repeatedly claimed that women make bad painters.) G’s wife tells herself that ‘this was what most people believed, but it was unfortunate that he should be the one to say it out loud.’

A familiar script: the male genius and the helpmate who believes that ‘his success – his achievement – was also hers.’ Cusk will invert this set-up in the next chapter to see how the dynamic plays out when male and female switch roles. It puts Parade in dialogue with Cusk’s previous book, Second Place (2021), another hall of mirrors: a rewriting of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos, a memoir of her friendship with D.H. Lawrence. Cusk’s middle-aged female narrator, M, invites the ageing enfant terrible L to her ‘second place’, a guest-house on her property, so he can paint the landscape; she expressly wishes to see it ‘through his own eyes’. A contest of wills ensues: will the woman have her way, or will the man defeat her?

Second Place has a deliberately schematic framework: the binary of masculine (amoral, irresponsible) and feminine (utilitarian, dependent) leaves little room for play, though it presents itself as an experiment. Still, what woman who has enjoyed the company of male artists can deny the attraction, and the injustice, of the man who seizes freedom for himself? And what man can deny the ruthlessness required to be free to make art? From the very first sentence (‘I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris’) to the last, M is plagued by questions of freedom and authority: how can she believe she has ‘truly lived’ when a man like L exists? ‘Did he understand that by parading his freedom and the fulfilment of his desires in front of me, he was making me less free and less fulfilled than I had been before I walked in the door?’ In Parade, G’s wife observes that he ‘was not the first man to have described women better than women seemed able to describe themselves’, but she also perceives in his inverted portraits of her ‘a crystallised hatred that both objectified … and obliterated her’. Like L in Second Place, G is the embodiment of ‘a freedom elementally and unrepentantly male down to the last brushstroke’.

Meanwhile our unnamed narrator is living in Paris, displaced and disoriented after the owner of her sublet reclaims it out of the blue. Just when she has found a new flat and thinks that stability is within reach, she is attacked in broad daylight by a stranger on the street. In keeping with the contrapuntal narration, Parade really has two beginnings: a woman feeling ‘hit’ by her husband’s painting and another woman suffering a blow to the head. One story is a representation of an abstraction, the violence of which is gradually recognised; the second is a representation of the most violent immediate reality. We shall know truth, Cusk seems to suggest, by its force.

This first chapter is called ‘The Stuntman’. Three more follow: ‘The Midwife’, ‘The Diver’ and ‘The Spy’. They seem like cards drawn from a tarot deck, a modern arcana of types. A stuntman is an ‘alternate self’ who takes ‘the actual risks in the manufacture of a fictional being whose exposure to danger was supposedly fundamental to its identity’. One could say that G, by painting upside-down works, is a stuntman of a different kind. Another G, a Black artist, paints a cathedral on a tiny canvas: this is also an inversion, a stunt. But for the narrator, the stuntman was the woman who came out of nowhere and punched her in the head: ‘She was my dark twin … These were her offerings, the offerings of the stuntman: violence and silence.’

How else does one represent the trauma of a public attack? One is stripped of dignity, gawped at: ‘A crowd of people had gathered and in the moments before they began to react, they seemed simply to be looking at me as they might look at a picture in a museum.’ Shortly afterwards, the narrator goes to an exhibition of work by another G, a female sculptor based on Louise Bourgeois. The pieces that catch her eye are made of fabric, ‘a memorial in thread and cloth, a knitted cathedral. How could the female sex be commemorated in stone?’ Moments later the museum has to be evacuated: a man has thrown himself from a staircase onto the marble floor of the atrium. He too is a stuntman: ‘A group of medics came out carrying the body on a stretcher and bore it past us. It was covered with a blue tarpaulin. Carried like that, the man seemed to have attained a shocking freedom.’

It’s a lot to take in: we’re two Gs into the book and our narrator has been attacked and witnessed a suicide. Threaded throughout there are ekphrases of portraits and sculptures, all of them subject to gendered theorising, interrogated for their insights into freedom. Connecting Bourgeois’s spider sculptures to her works in cloth, the narrator notes: ‘The sculptures were a counter-fabrication: through the metamorphosis of art, the ugly insects became emblematic. They represented everything that is denied and suppressed in femininity.’ This is a companion piece to Cusk’s essay ‘Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric’ from 2011: ‘Cloth expresses the new legitimacy, soft and unprestigious, mediating between body and world, a record of female process.’ For the narrator of Parade, the femininity of woven fabric is emblematic of ‘repetition without permanence’.

If the Baselitz figure and his wife represent a typical gender script, the female G and her husband in ‘The Midwife’ represent a distorted mirror of that relationship. This G, perhaps an avatar of a Young British Artist who made it big, lives with her husband, daughter and nanny in a ‘fashionable neighbourhood’. There’s a country house, designed by an architect, and a separate studio ‘in a dirty and dangerous neighbourhood’. A friend, a fellow painter, suggests that G lives a double life, torn between the freedom of her art and the upper-middle-class comforts of her domestic life. But all is not well at home. The husband, acting out of some repressed resentment at being unsexed, takes up amateur photography. His subject is their young daughter, and his portraits of her are hung all over the house. There is something unsettling about them. He has ‘a knack for eliciting a certain expression from the child, whose innocence was tainted in the same instant as it was recorded’.

G has her own shameful self-doubts. When her daughter asks her why men are necessary, why the world can’t just be mothers and children, G shudders: ‘The answer seemed to be that there needed to be men because G thought men were superior. The idea of a world filled with mothers and children repelled her.’

A reckoning comes with a policeman’s knock on the door. He has been called to the house by a printer who saw something in the husband’s camera roll. But the husband standing in his swanky parlour turns on the charm: ‘My wife is an artist, he said, putting his arm around G. So it’s me who takes the family snaps. I obviously don’t have her talent, he smiled.’ He’s wormed his way out of trouble, but the marriage is broken. The husband knows it, telling G that she’s free to leave but the house and the child will remain with him. ‘He explained to her the reason in law why this was so. He told her the amount of money she would be liable for. But if that’s what you want, he said sadly, I won’t stand in your way.’

The world of the successful female artist and dependent husband is liable to perversion. If this were the end of it, we would have to hold it against Cusk for stacking the deck – though such stories are not uncommon. Something similar happened to Cusk herself, as she recounts in her divorce memoir, Aftermath (2012). Yet the story of G in ‘The Midwife’ is a counterpoint to the narrator’s account of her holiday on a farm (‘Mann’s farm’) run by a woman (‘Mann’s wife’) because Mann has descended into madness or dementia. She learns that he ‘had been selling parcels of the farm behind her back’. In ‘The Midwife’, a female head of household is an impostor. In the real world – the world of farms, for instance – wives and mothers keep a roof over children’s heads. We are the last stay against entropy.

‘The Diver’ picks up where ‘The Stuntman’ left off, in the aftermath of the suicide at the museum. The narrator is invited to dinner with some art world professionals involved with the G (aka Bourgeois) exhibition. To get to the trendy restaurant, she has to pick her way through the rubbish left over from a Bastille Day parade. ‘Just because people have thrown garbage all over the streets to celebrate their freedom, that means cripples have to walk?’, a fellow guest grumbles, limping to the table on a sprained ankle. This may turn out to be a discussion about the way some people’s freedom tramples on others. The museum director, for instance, is late to dinner because she had to deal with the police after the suicide: the man’s bid for freedom inconvenienced hundreds. She announces that she is stepping down from her position and leaving the art world:

Psychologists tell us that little children are proud of their own shit, and enjoy showing it to other people, until they are informed that their shit is disgusting and should be hidden, and I suddenly wondered whether artists somehow never got this message and kept on being proud of their shit and wanting to show it to people.

The discussion at the restaurant is all about G: how was she as an artist, a woman, a mother? What was the quality of her freedom, and did her freedom inconvenience those around her, people with their own right to freedom? Betsy, the woman with the sprained ankle, was once the recipient of G’s froideur – she was much kinder to young men – but Betsy doesn’t hold this against her: ‘G was selfish and cruel and egotistical – she was as bad as any man, and she was as good as any man. Better, in my opinion, because she lived two lives.’

This is an ideal Cusk has elaborated on before: ‘To have both motherhood and work was to have two lives instead of one,’ she wrote in Aftermath. This G is presented as someone who got to have her cake and eat it: by marrying and having children with a conventional breadwinner, and then leaning into her art when he died and left her well off. ‘At least G had the sense not to marry another artist,’ Betsy goes on to say, in one of the most disenchanted moments in the book: ‘A woman artist marries a male artist because she sees her ambitions mirrored in him … She thinks he’s the one guy who will understand her. But a male artist wants a slave, and when he marries a woman artist he gets the bonus of a slave who thinks he’s a genius.’ Another woman at the table objects: ‘It’s a terrible notion … that a woman can be an artist only if she refuses to love.’ A man responds: ‘Any woman is better off without love.’

‘The Diver’ is the longest chapter in Parade, a virtuosic set piece, and the least conclusive. Point and counterpoint chase each other in dizzying fashion; even the authoritative exchange about the impossibility of love is softened by the testimony of a male guest who explains the way he and his poet wife made their peace with her vocation and his own yearnings – once more, an inversion is involved. But his wife is not a G. As Betsy remarks of the Bourgeois character, ‘ordinary forms of happiness were beneath her.’

The final inversion brings us to an unexpectedly tender, auspicious conclusion. In ‘The Spy’, G is the filmmaker Éric Rohmer, who defies many of the shibboleths we have come to associate with the other Gs. He isn’t a stuntman, turning things upside down. He comes from a repressive Catholic background which he has never renounced and goes by a pseudonym to hide his work from his family. After a failed attempt at becoming a writer, he discovers the camera: ‘Invisibility was his conduit to self-expression … but while he was invisible he was free.’ ‘To see without being seen: for G there was no better definition of the artist’s vocation.’ This is the positive inversion of an earlier theory expressed by another G, a proxy for Paula Modersohn-Becker: ‘If one were to answer truthfully the question of what a female art might look like, it would have to be composed chiefly of a sort of non-existence.’

It’s clear that in contrast to G (Bourgeois), who was as good and bad ‘as any man’, G (Rohmer) is as good and bad as any woman, a prophet of male femininity like Rilke, who wrote to his friend Franz Xaver Kappus that ‘in the man, too, there is motherhood … physical and mental; his engendering is also a kind of birthing when he creates out of his innermost fullness.’ G’s films, which are slow and repetitive, observant and true, are also gentle. They may well be the best illustrations of Rilke’s promise in the same letter to Kappus that ‘man and maiden, freed of all false feelings and aversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as siblings and neighbours and will join forces as human beings in order to bear in common, simply, earnestly, and patiently, the difficult sex that has been laid upon them.’ G’s films are so true that they can only be filmed at the pace of real life, with as little cutting or editing as he can possibly manage. ‘The thrift and simplicity of G’s method,’ it turns out, leads to a body of work that ‘flowed quietly out into the world and seemed naturally to join the stream of life’. The book-length dialectic of Parade pivots from the idea that one shall know the truth by its violence – the coup de poing – to the idea of truth as patience, acceptance, close attention.

It takes a while to creep up on us – or at least it did me – that one repeated subplot of Parade is the demise of the parent. Our first G, the Baselitz figure, visits his declining father in a nursing home. Mann’s wife contends with her aged husband’s madness and returns to Germany to say goodbye to her dying mother. In ‘The Spy’, the narrator recounts her own mother’s death and funeral. We know from her essay collection, Coventry (2019), that Cusk had a difficult relationship with her parents, and the narrator notes that after her mother’s death ‘there was a feeling of lightness, a feeling almost of freedom. The violence of death had the appearance of a strange generosity. A capital sum had been returned to the living: we on the side of life had been in some way increased.’ The Rohmer character has a very different epiphany at his mother’s deathbed:

He detests men, detests all that they are. His belief is that women are the true creators: they are motivated to give, and in the generosity of their creativity they inadvertently make themselves slaves and henchmen. The creativity of men, which is not creativity at all but a mode of conquest, disgusts him.

When our parents go, the fetters fall away: we can finally assume our own authority. The narrator’s epiphany is that ‘our children taught us how to love, and slowly we began to understand the extent of what we had ourselves not received … We knew that we would be incapable of turning our back on our children. For the first time, an incapacity had the weight of riches.’ A fundamental contradiction is left unresolved. As created beings, we chafe. Only as makers – of art or children – are we fully achieved. Go forth and create, Parade concludes. The title reveals itself, at last, as a gradus ad Parnassum littered with false and all too human pretences.

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