Authors: Rachel Cusk
A Summer in Italy
Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: to get on the move, and to know whither.
D. H. Lawrence,
Sea and Sardinia
, 1513 (oil on canvas) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino) (1483–1520),
Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany/ © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; The Bridgeman Art Library
140 Portraits of Leo X (1475–1521) Cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi and Giulio de Medici (1478–1534) 1518 (oil on panel) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino) (1483–1520),
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy; The Bridgeman Art Library
The Catechism with a Young Girl Reading and the Initiate Making an Offering
, North Wall, Oecus 5,
(fresco) by Roman (1st century bc), Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii, Italy; The Bridgeman Art Library
At night I would often be woken by noise from the road, and afterwards would lie awake for hours, unable to sleep. The noise, which was of a strange drunken revelry, would usually begin long after the pubs had closed, though in the deeps of the night I never knew exactly what time it was. I was merely summoned by the sound of unearthly groans and shrieks outside my window that seemed to belong neither to the world nor to my dreams but somewhere in between. They might have been men’s voices or women’s, it was hard to tell. The noise they made came from a region that outlay human identity. Their long, inchoate monologues, vocalised yet senseless, seemed to name something that afterwards could not be specified, to describe what by daylight appeared indescribable.
This demoniacal groaning would often go on for so long that it seemed impossible it could be coming from living people passing on the pavements. It was the sound of lost souls, of primitive creatures bellowing far inside the earth. Yet I never got up to look: the noise was so unreal that it was only when it stopped that I felt myself to be actually awake. Then I would lie there, full of a feeling of insecurity, as though the world were a wildly spinning fairground ride from which my bed might work loose and be somehow flung away. The groaning sounds and the darkness and the carelessly spinning earth, offering me its fathomless glimpses of space, of nothingness: all this would run on for one hour or two or three, I couldn’t tell. The hours were blank and sealed, filled with grey information: one after another they were dispatched.
Then another sound would begin, dimly at first, a kind of humming or droning, steady and industrious. After a while it filled the room with its monotonous note. This was the sound of traffic. People were going in their cars to work. A little later a finger of wan light showed itself at the curtains. When I was a child the night seemed as big as an ocean to me, deep and static: you rowed across it for hour after hour and sometimes got so lost in time and darkness that it seemed as if the morning might never be found. Now it was a mere vacuum, filling up with human activity as a dump is filled with discarded objects. It was an empty space into which the overcrowded world was extending its outskirts, its sprawl.
We were living in Bristol at that time, and the slaving past of the city was always present to me, though in the middle-class district of Clifton its brutality was largely semantic, recalling itself amidst the boutiques and sofa shops of Whiteladies Road and Blackboys Hill. Yet it seemed to have seeped into the masonry, into the paving stones. I was often told that the beautiful Georgian terraces of Clifton had for years been neglected and threatened with demolition and that students and artists had lived there contentedly in conditions approximating squalor. But that was in the past: these days the slave-owners’ houses were smart again and unaffordable, the streets lined with beauty salons and expensive cars, the baize lawns of the private schools trodden by millionaires’ children from China, America, Japan. Clifton estate agents carried themselves with the preening significance of royal courtiers, while the fume-throttled city sprawled below, with its bombed-out centre, its ghettos, its miles of strange, impoverished housing, its uneasy atmosphere both of misrule and of a thorough-minded, inexorable division.
Something of the hard-heartedness of that imperial past seemed to live on in the people I met and spoke to every day. Man, woman and child, they found sensitivity intolerable. Nothing irked them more than the liberal conscience, unless it was an outspoken sense of injustice. These things impinged on
their free bigotry, and on the sense of humour that depended on it. They were not cold or unfriendly; quite the reverse. It was just that their philosophy formed an edifice of startling indelicacy amidst the fluted columns and porticoes, the classical perspectives and cloud-like silhouettes, the ancient parks and pavilions, the secret rotundas and rich, ornamented interiors that were their habitat. It was a philosophy composed of two primitive blocks: that everyone should work for what he had; and that what mattered were the good things in life.
Encompassing so little in and of itself, this was a philosophy that required, for the sake of texture, of content, a God – and indeed the churches of Clifton did a thriving trade, on the import and the export side alike. I encountered notions of Christian charity that might have come from the pages of a Victorian novel, so ignorant did they seem of the concept of social democracy, and was beleaguered everywhere by advertisements for the evangelical Alpha course, which, for an initiative that targets those who have lost their way in life, seemed in Clifton to be remarkably well attended. These advertisements took a somewhat startling form: one day I passed one and was driven to stop and look at it twice. It was a photograph of a man in climbing equipment standing in sunlight on the pinnacle of a mountain. I was surprised, almost affronted, by the caption, which read
Is there more to life than
I wasn’t entirely sure there was, nor ought to be. But I pondered it all the same. It had a profound effect on me, though not quite the one it intended. Whenever I thought of it, I felt myself drawing to the threshold of a revelation, a realisation so large that it was difficult to see its full extent.
Down in the city, the turgid river creeps between its sludge-grey banks. The Avon Gorge rises steeply to either side. A busy road runs down it: the roar of traffic echoes all along the chasm, rising and revolving like a vortex. Once there were mammoths here, and bears, and strange swimming dinosaurs with pointed beaks and close-set eyes. There is a placard by the gorge with drawings of these creatures, and a time-line. It is as
straight as a ruler: it runs through the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic and the Jurassic, through ice ages coloured blue. At the end there is the stub of humanity, smaller than an arrow head on its long shaft of time. Where it is going nobody knows. The line stops: the future is blank.
Every day at the same time I leave the house and walk my children to school. They are five and six. They each wear a navy-blue uniform, and carry a nylon schoolbag of the same colour. These things identify them, just as in their picture books the Romans are identified by their togas, the Victorians by their bustles and top hats. They are modern schoolchildren: they belong to their moment in history, which gathers them up in its great impersonal wave. Now and then they make a toga out of a sheet, or dress up in the crumpled raiment of an Indian squaw that lies with other costumes in a chest in their room. In the dim light of an English winter in an English provincial city, the forms of other eras vaguely suggest themselves, like mountains in mist. But none of it obstructs the passage of the arrow that flies on and on into its endlessly repeating blankness. They go to school and come back again, go and come back, go and come back. They are happy enough to do it, though they retain a certain neutrality, as though they have been promised an explanation and are patiently waiting for it to be given.
It is on their behalf that I nurture my deepest stores of repulsion for the God-advertisement and its insolent question. If there are to be lies, let them not concern the value of life, for not everyone has tired of it yet. Let them not denigrate the world, for there are those whose chance to see it has not yet come.
On New Year’s Eve we go to a party on Dartmoor. In the morning I wake in an unfamiliar bedroom and look through the window at the moor veiled with rain. The shrouded hills are desolate. They seem to extend on and on, into an indistinct kind of infinity. After breakfast the women sit on sofas, talking. Their children dart in and out. Sometimes they reach out
and catch one, to hold its squirming body and stroke its bright, fine hair. Their female forms are fixed and sculptural: though the children squirm, they are glad to be held by something so firm. The women are both shelter and shrine – they offer and at the same time they ask. They have agreed to stay still: it is the children who choose, between security and risk. It is important that they choose correctly. They mustn’t cling to their mothers; nor must they forget to swim past, close enough to be caught.
I stare through the window. From here it looks as though you could walk into the vista of grey hills and never stop, walk and walk without ever reaching anything you could call by its name.
In time we decided to leave Clifton and move elsewhere. Our friends were sorry to see us go. They did not believe that we would find a place we liked better, for it seemed obvious to them that we were afflicted with restlessness and with a love of the unknown that in their eyes was a kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found, for it is in the seeking itself that the punishment lies. Yet I had a terror of my own, which was the fear of knowing something in its entirety. To seek held no particular fear for me: it was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing that I shrank from.
Go we must: go we would. But where? In the novels I read, people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment’s notice, to wait out unpropitious seasons of life in warm and cultured surroundings. It was a cure for everything: love, disappointment, stupidity, strange vaporous maladies of the lungs. And for disenchantment, too, perhaps; for claustrophobia, and boredom; and for a hunger that seemed to gnaw at the very ligaments of my soul, whose cause was as hidden from me as were the means of its satisfaction.
We decided to go to Italy, though not for ever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see. Perhaps we would return to England; perhaps we would not. We put the house on the market and took the children out of their school. To this place, at least, we were never coming back.
The boat we are taking to France leaves from Newhaven, an hour from my parents-in-law’s house. The house is in the countryside. Outside, the village lies in ruminative silence. The hills are black and occasionally a cow bellows out of the blackness. We get up while it is still dark; an April darkness, damp, suggestive, faintly hopeful. It is half past four: it is the first stroke of the chisel on the block of our travels, this incision into the night, and the night is resistant. We prise it open, prise the children from their beds, stagger around thick-tongued and white-faced.
My mother-in-law has made breakfast. She moves around downstairs in her dressing gown, perfectly awake and composed. She has a significant air of readiness: she is like a part-time mythical functionary, a night worker, or one of those people in Shakespeare who appear only in the first and last scenes. Her big golden sombre-faced dog follows at her heels. She has made porridge, and rolls. The kitchen smells of new
bread. There is marmalade to go with the rolls. The dog sighs, turns around, settles down in a heap of golden fur on the red tiles by the hearth. My mother-in-law wishes she were coming with us. Yet just now she is so fixed in her setting, as we have never been: I have never known a place more home-like than this room in the moment before our departure. I imagine us towing the kitchen behind us, with its dog and oak table and eternal porridge-pot, across the plains to Florence and Siena.
The two children sit at the table and eat. They keep their rucksacks on while they do it. They do not talk of what it is they are leaving: the unknown has them in its thrall. On their last day of school their classmates presented them with cards and photographs and a present for each of them. When they saw these things, tears of surprise sprang from their eyes. They didn’t know they would require mementos. They had never held in their hands things of such finality. Now they say goodbye lavishly to the dog. Do they think they will ever see him again? It’s hard to tell. The future is still so incessant to them, coming out of its own blankness in wave after wave and then unexpectedly surfing them back to their own familiar shore. For all they know they might meet him in Italy, sauntering down a street in Rome with his tail wagging in the air, and they’d be more delighted than surprised if they did.
We drive for an hour across the Sussex Downs to Newhaven. For a while it is still dark; then slowly the darkness separates itself from the land. It lifts mysteriously away, leaving everything in a naked blue light. In that light England looks like a sleeping baby, looks somehow new and unmarked, with its soft hills and blue-tinted slumbrous fields and distant trees like tiny motionless clouds. Afterwards we go along the main road, past Brighton like a bright spill of gems over the hill down to the pale sea, past Lewes, and then we are amidst fields again, on the quiet winding road to Newhaven that is like journeying through a painting. I have noticed this before, this road’s picturesque aimlessness. It has an abstracted, dream-like quality. It has a disarming kind of
innocence before the thrust of departure, arousing a feeling of love for something already lost, something that perhaps no longer really exists.