I had spent the evening in the company of a famous writer, who was actually nothing more significant than a very lucky man. I met him at an art gallery opening, from which he took sufficient pains to extricate me that my vanity was gratified. I didn’t get sexual attention very often in those years, though I was young, and I suppose good-looking enough. The trouble was, I had the dumb loyalty of a dog. This writer was of course an insufferable egotist, as well as a liar, and not even a very believable one; and I, alone in Paris for the night, with my disapproving husband and child waiting back at home, was so thirsty for love I would drink, it seemed, from any source. Truly, Jeffers, I was a dog – there was such a heavy weight inside me, I could only writhe senselessly like an animal in pain. It pinned me down in the depths, where I thrashed and struggled to get free and swim to the brilliant surface of life – at least, that’s how it looked from below. In the company of the egotist, tramping from bar to bar in the Paris night, I intimated for the first time the possibility of destruction, the destruction of what I had built; not, I assure you, for his sake, but for the possibility he embodied – which had never once occurred to me until that night – of violent change. The egotist, permanently drunk on his own importance, sliding breath mints between his dry lips when he thought I wouldn’t notice and talking about himself non-stop: he didn’t actually fool me, though I admit I wanted him to. He gave me plenty of rope to hang him with, but of course I didn’t hang him – I played along, half believing it myself, which was more of the luck he’d evidently had all his life. We said goodbye at two in the morning at the entrance to the hotel, where he visibly – to the point of unchivalrousness – decided I wasn’t worth whatever risk to his status quo our spending the night together would have represented. And I went to bed and hugged the memory of his attention until the roof seemed to lift off the hotel and the walls fall away and the huge starry darkness embrace me with the implications of what I felt.
Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented? Do you understand it, Jeffers? I have wanted to be free my whole life and I haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe. I believe Tony is free, and his freedom doesn’t look like much. He gets on his blue tractor to mow the tall grass that has to be cut back for spring and I watch him calmly going up and down in his big floppy hat under the sky, back and forth in the noise of the engine. All around him the cherry trees are welling up, the little nubs on their branches straining to burst into blossom for him, and the skylark shoots into the sky as he passes and hangs there singing and twirling like an acrobat. Meanwhile, I just sit staring straight in front of me with nothing to do. That’s all I’ve managed as far as freedom is concerned, to get rid of the people and the things I don’t like. After that, there isn’t all that much left! When Tony’s been working on the land I rouse myself to cook for him, and go out to pick herbs from the garden and to look in the shed for potatoes. At that time of year – the spring – the potatoes we store in the shed start to sprout, even though we keep them in complete darkness. They throw out these white fleshy arms because they know it’s spring, and sometimes I’ll look at one and realise a potato knows more than most people do.
The morning after that night in Paris, when I got up and walked beside the river, my body barely felt the ground: the green glittering water, and the worn slanted stone walls of palest beige, and the early sun shining on them and on me as I moved through them, made such a buoyant element that I became weightless. I wonder whether that is what it feels like to be loved – by which I mean the important love, the one you receive before you know strictly speaking that you exist. My safety in that moment felt limitless. What was it, I wonder, that I saw to make me feel that way, when in reality I was anything but safe? When in fact I had glimpsed the germ of a possibility that was soon to grow and rage like a cancer through my life, consuming years, consuming substance; when a few hours later I would be sitting face to face with the devil himself?
I must have wandered along for quite some time, because when I came back up to the street the shops were open and there were people and cars moving around in the sun. I was hungry, and so I started to pay attention to the shopfronts, looking for somewhere I could buy something to eat. I’m not good in that situation, Jeffers: I find it difficult to answer my own needs. The sight of other people getting what they want, jostling and demanding things, makes me decide I would rather go without. I hold back, embarrassed by need – my own and other people’s. This sounds like a ridiculous quality, and I’ve always known I would be the first to be trampled underfoot in a crisis, though I’ve noticed that children are also like this and find the needs of their particular body embarrassing. When I say this to Tony, that I would be the first to go under because I wouldn’t fight for my share, he laughs and says he doesn’t think so. So much for self-knowledge, Jeffers!
Whatever the truth is, there weren’t many people about that morning in Paris, and the streets where I was walking, which were somewhere near the Rue du Bac, were entirely devoid of things to eat in the first place. Instead the shops were full of exotic fabrics and antiques and colonial-era curios costing several weeks of an ordinary person’s wages, and of a particular fragrance which was the fragrance, I suppose, of money, and I looked in the windows as I passed, as though I were considering making a purchase of a large carved-wood African head at that early hour of the morning. The streets were perfect chasms of light and shade and I made sure to stay in the sun, walking without any other purpose or direction. Presently, ahead of me, I saw a sign that had been set out on the pavement, and on that sign was an image. The image, Jeffers, was of a painting by L, and it was part of an advertisement for an exhibition of his work at a gallery nearby. Even from a distance I recognised something about it, though I still can’t say quite what it was, because though I had vaguely heard of L, I had no real idea when or how I had heard of him, nor of who he was or what he painted. Nonetheless he spoke to me: he addressed me there on that Paris street, and I followed the signs one after another until I arrived at the gallery and walked straight in through the open door.
You will want to know, Jeffers, which of his paintings they’d chosen for the advertisement and why it affected me in that way. There is no particular reason, on the surface, why L’s work should summon a woman like me, or perhaps any woman – but least of all, surely, a young mother on the brink of rebellion whose impossible yearnings, moreover, are crystallised in reverse by the aura of absolute freedom his paintings emanate, a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke. It’s a question that begs an answer, and yet there is no clear and satisfying answer, except to say that this aura of male freedom belongs likewise to most representations of the world and of our human experience within it, and that as women we grow accustomed to translating it into something we ourselves can recognise. We get our dictionaries and we puzzle it out, and avoid some of the parts we can’t make sense of or understand, and some others we know we’re not entitled to, and voilà!, we participate. It’s a case of borrowed finery, and sometimes of downright impersonation; and having never felt all that womanly in the first place, I believe the habit of impersonation has gone deeper in me than most, to the extent that some aspects of me do seem in fact to be male. The fact is that I received the clear message from the very beginning that everything would have been better – would have been right, would have been how it ought to be – had I been a boy. Yet I never found any use for that male part, as L went on to show me later, in the time I will tell you about.
The painting, by the way, was a self-portrait, one of L’s arresting portraits where he shows himself at about the distance you might keep between yourself and a stranger. He looks almost surprised to see himself: he gives that stranger a glance that is as objective and compassionless as any glance in the street. He is wearing an ordinary kind of plaid shirt and his hair is brushed back and parted, and despite the coldness of the act of perception – which is a cosmic coldness and loneliness, Jeffers – the rendering of those details, of the buttoned-up shirt and the brushed hair and the plain features unanimated by recognition, is the most human and loving thing in the world. Looking at it, the emotion I felt was pity, pity for myself and for all of us: the kind of wordless pity a mother might feel for her mortal child, who nonetheless she brushes and dresses so tenderly. It gave, you might say, the final touch to my strange, exalted state – I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it. I had read my Freud often enough, and could have learned from there how silly it all was, but it took L’s painting to make me really see it. I saw, in other words, that I was alone, and saw the gift and the burden of that state, which had never truly been revealed to me before.
You know, Jeffers, that I am interested in the existence of things before our knowledge of them – partly because I have trouble believing that they do exist! If you have always been criticised, from before you can remember, it becomes more or less impossible to locate yourself in the time or space before the criticism was made: to believe, in other words, that you yourself exist. The criticism is more real than you are: it seems, in fact, to have created you. I believe a lot of people walk around with this problem in their heads, and it leads to all kinds of trouble – in my case, it led to my body and my mind getting divorced from each other right at the start, when I was only a few years old. But my point is that there’s something that paintings and other created objects can do to give you some relief. They give you a location, a place to be, when the rest of the time the space has been taken up because the criticism got there first. I don’t include things created out of words, though: at least for me they don’t have the same effect, because they have to pass through my mind to get to me. My appreciation of words has to be mental. Can you forgive me for that, Jeffers?
There wasn’t another soul in the gallery that early in the morning, and the sun came through the big windows and made bright pools on the floor in the silence, and I stepped around as joyfully as a faun in a forest on the first day of creation. It was what they call a ‘major retrospective’, which appears to mean you’re finally important enough to be dead – even though L was barely forty-five then. There were at least four big rooms, but I ate them up, one after the other. Each time I stepped up to a frame – from the smallest sketch to the biggest of the landscape works – I got the same sensation, to the point where I thought it was impossible I’d get it again. But I did: over and over, as I faced the image, the sensation came. What was it? It was a feeling, Jeffers, but it was also a phrase. It will seem contradictory, after what I’ve just said about words, that words should accompany the sensation so definitively. But I didn’t find those words. The paintings found them, somewhere inside me. I don’t know who they belonged to, or even who spoke them – just that they were spoken.
A lot of the paintings were of women, and of one woman in particular, and my feelings about those were more recognisable, though even then somehow painless and disembodied. There was a small charcoal sketch of a woman asleep in bed, her dark head a mere smudge of oblivion in the tousled bedclothes. I admit a kind of silent bitter weeping did come from my heart at this record of passion, which seemed to define everything I hadn’t known in my life, and I wondered if I ever would. In many of the larger portraits, L paints a dark-haired, quite fleshy woman – often he is in the painting with her – and I wondered whether this smudge in the bed, almost effaced by desire, was the same person. In the portraits she usually wears some kind of mask or disguise; sometimes she seems to love him, at others merely to be tolerating him. But his desire, when it comes, extinguishes her.
It was in the landscapes, though, that I heard the phrase the loudest, and it was these same images that stayed smouldering in my mind over the years, until the time came that I want to tell you about, Jeffers, when fire broke out again all around me. The religiousness of L’s landscapes! If human existence can be a religion, that is. When he paints a landscape, he is remembering looking at it. That’s the best I can do to describe the landscapes, or describe how I saw them and the way they made me feel. You would doubtless do far better. But the point is for you to understand how it was that the idea of L and his landscapes recurred all those years later and in another place, when I was living on the marsh with Tony and thinking quite differently. I realise now that I fell in love with Tony’s marsh because it had precisely that same quality, the quality of something remembered, that shares and is inextricable from the moment of being. I could never capture it, and I don’t know why I needed it to be captured at all, but that is as good an example of human determinism as we’re likely to lay our hands on for now!
You will be wondering, Jeffers, what the phrase was that came out of L’s paintings and spoke itself so clearly to me. It was: I am here. I won’t say what I think the words mean, or who they refer to, because that would be to try to stop them living.
This is an excerpt from Second Place by Rachel Cusk, out with Faber & Faber and FSG.
Image © Antón Osolev