Interviews October 2005

Bleak House

Rachel Cusk talks about her new novel, In the Fold, which explores the dark underside of a modern British fiefdom
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book cover

In the Fold
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Rachel Cusk
Little, Brown
272 pages

There was a time when the countryside surrounding Bath, England, was a patchwork of rural fiefdoms. Paul Hanbury, the patriarch in Rachel Cusk's new novel In the Fold, is a peculiar throwback to this era. As his neighbors sell off their land to suburban developers, Paul proudly lords over his family and his modern-day manor, a remote Somerset sheep farm with the alluring name of Egypt Hill. Recalling his first visit to the Hanburys' farm, Michael, the story's rudderless narrator, notes, "Something happened to me almost as soon as I got there. I had an intimation... that my life was going to expand and expand and become beautiful."

Like Cusk's 1997 novel The Country Life, In the Fold is narrated by a character who flees the rote frustrations of modern life by taking refuge in the English countryside. When Michael first visited Egypt Hill as an impressionable university student, its would-be aristocrats appeared to be refreshingly exempt from social norms. Ex-husbands mingled comfortably with their ex-wives; nymph-like girls posed nude for visiting artists; precocious children danced and drank with adults. More than a decade later, when Michael is struggling to hold his marriage together after the birth of a new son, he readily accepts the Hanburys' invitation to help out on the farm during lambing season. Instead of finding peace of mind, however, Michael discovers that the carefree lifestyle of Egypt Hill is a façade, concealing a web of greed, deception, and old-fashioned patriarchy.

As an observer of this drama, Michael is passive and, at the same time, almost dizzyingly narcissistic. He sees himself and his own inner struggles in everything around him. Neat rows of apples in a supermarket become a metaphor for the sterility of suburban life. His wife's new boots seem to be sinister objects, designed to threaten and mock him. Even a simple drive down a country lane mirrors Michael's agonizing state of mind:

The road was like a pointless, rambling sentence that never succeeds in conveying information or reaching any meaningful conclusion. Under a heavy gray summer sky it passed by ragged farms and fields, by the static contemplation of cows and sheep, by yards strewn with the muddied metal skeletons of farm machinery, by more farms and fields and villages neither diminishing nor increasing but always in more or less the same quantity, so that a feeling I often used to have in those days was gradually forced on me, the feeling that I had unintentionally left the proper path of my life and was now lost and far from home.

Cusk's own life has lately been dominated by the logistical and emotional demands of motherhood. Her nonfiction book A Life's Work (2003) is a candid discussion of the identity crisis triggered by the birth of her first child, while The Lucky Ones (2004), a collection of short stories, explores this same theme in fictional form. In the Fold continues to probe the relationships between parents and children. As he watches the sheep of Egypt Hill deliver lamb after lamb, Michael tries to forget his wife, who feels "erased" by the demands of new motherhood.

Rachel Cusk spoke to me on October 2, 2005, from her home in Somerset, England.

Jennie Rothenberg



Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk

There's a familiar storyline in English literature that deals with leaving the court for the countryside. In Shakespearean plays, for instance, the forest is often the place where wrongs are righted and lovers come together. Did you consciously invert this tradition when you created the depraved family of In the Fold?

In the Fold is certainly a product of that tradition, and maybe a bit of a commentary on it as well. One reason I'm interested in the countryside is that there's not as much influx of other influences as there is in, say, London—and you tend to find a more thoroughly English way of living. Society in the English countryside is still strangely, quaintly divided. If black comedy and a certain type of social commentary are what you want, I think English rural communities offer quite a lot of material.

Although you've lived most of your life in England, you spent your earliest years in Canada and in Los Angeles. Does this give you the ability to write about English life from the perspective of a foreigner?

I was born abroad, but my parents were both English. Still, those few years of separation, and then coming back to England as an outsider, did give me an ability to see the country in a slightly detached way. I suppose I was made aware of what Englishness actually is because I only became immersed in it later in life.

You've also spent a good amount of time in Spain. All throughout In the Fold, Paul Hanbury's wife, Vivian, glorifies the Spanish lifestyle and contrasts it with the English one. Why did you choose to weave Spain into the plot in this oblique way, almost as though it were an offstage character?

To English people, Europe functions as a strange alternative universe. English people tend to choose a European country to express the suppressed part of their personality. So people who would like to be more arty and passionate become obsessed with Italy. People who'd like to be more intellectual and sophisticated become obsessed with France. The obsession with Spain has to do with feeling that at heart you're really a let-your-hair-down type of person. And this is, of course, so antithetical to the character of Vivian. She's absolutely the perfect person to be obsessed with Spain. In my mind, her obsession is very true to life as a quirk of English people.

Have you had any disillusioning experiences with bohemians that inspired you to invent a family like the Hanburys?

An English magazine recently approached me about this. They were so confident that the world I created for In the Fold must have been based on a real-life experience that they asked me to write an article for them about the bohemian family I had known as an impressionable adolescent. It's quite flattering, really, because there was no such family. But I've met people like that as an adult: those kinds of family groups who are obsessed with their own significance to the point of being publicity-seeking. I view this as a particularly English phenomenon, a ghost or bastard of our dead aristocracy. Perhaps it's simply in our nature to be a hierarchical and monarchy-obsessed society. You still find that idea of a clan or a house operating in people's lives.

Nearly every character in this book seems to be a frustrated artist. Michael is a musician who takes his violin out once a week to play at a local pub. Michael's wife, Rebecca, insists that she has latent creative potential. The Hanburys' daughter, Caris, aspires to be a painter of flowers. Why is it that none of these characters ever succeeds in living a truly artistic life?

That's definitely a major theme in the book—the idea that by calling yourself an artist, you're signifying that you think you're special in some way. I thought this would be quite an interesting thing to talk about in a fictional form. It appealed to my sense of humor. And really, this syndrome happens most often with people who imagine that they're writers. I chose to write about other art forms in this book, but what you'll hear most commonly is that people believe they have a book in them.

In your experience, what is it that separates that first, dreamy sense of "I am a writer" from the actual process of creating a work of art?

There are certain types of slightly hysterical human characters who, rather than creating, walk around with a sense of their own potential—it's as if they themselves were art objects. They feel as if their lives are written narratives, or pieces of music. In my book, the various women characters in particular have that sense of personal drama, that sense of their own destiny or importance. This becomes even more of an issue when you come from one of those self-aggrandizing families that I was talking about—it comes from having been told that because you're a member of this particular family, you're very important.

The women in the book all seem to feel that they've been wronged by men in some way. They spend a large part of the book blaming their husbands or their patriarchal families. In your opinion, are they justified in this rage?

In all of my books, but particularly in this book, I feel an enormous respect for all my characters. When I'm in the process of representing them, I agree with them and feel that they're absolutely right. At each turn, I believe that they are just in their indignation. I certainly didn't write the character of Rebecca, for example, in a disapproving spirit, even though she is an aggressive and annoying person in lots of ways. She's not a spoof of something; she's a real person in my mind. I have time and empathy for her position in life, just as I have empathy for the other characters.

You've written a lot about the inner turmoil that can come from having children—the stories in The Lucky Ones centered on this theme, as did your nonfiction book A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother. Why did you choose to explore this idea yet again through the character of Rebecca?

I'm interested in motherhood from all sides, really. I don't entirely understand the female ability to have a child without incurring the trauma of personality that results from becoming a mother. I felt that process of personal transformation very deeply in my own life, and it was very painful for me. So I am quite interested in the idea that motherhood could pass through you and fail to get you in some way, whether that's because you've been driven more mad than most people or whether you're just sufficiently selfish to remain immune to the experience of having a child. I was trying to explore that through the character of Rebecca.

Did writing about this process from the perspective of Michael, a male character, offer you any new insight into fatherhood?

Oh, God, no! I see fatherhood as a complete invention. When I was writing from Michael's point of view, it wasn't because I wanted to explore what it was like to be a man or a father. I think men and women are the same. Even as parents, I think we're the same. We're just conditioned to think that we're different.

Having said that, it's true that motherhood is a particularly vulnerable area. It's an open wound, really. A woman is exposed to being turned into a different kind of person by the experience of motherhood. So I suppose one couldn't quite say that Michael and Rebecca are going through exactly the same thing.

Is it a coincidence that while his wife deals with the emotional aftermath of childbirth, Michael runs off to Egypt Farm to help with the lambing?

It really is so funny! I always look at my books afterward and see that they're very symbolically constructed. I never realize it at the time, but I see later that all these different elements add up in an odd way. So I guess it does mean something.

In a sense, In the Fold is a mystery novel. We can sense right from the beginning that there's some great secret about the Hanburys' finances, and little by little, it all comes to light. There's also the issue of whether Adam will take over the farm after his father's death. But the plot seems to be almost secondary. It's the atmosphere and the protagonist's thoughts that dominate the book. Did you start writing In the Fold with a definite storyline in mind, or did you just begin with a certain mood or ambiance and spin the story out from there?

When I sat down to write this book the plot was just a simple, triangular structure in my mind: I started with the idea that something happened in the past, which led to a current state, which then needed to give in to something new.

When it comes to the specifics of the plot, I was very interested in the idea of male transference of family allegiance. That was one element. The other was a little story I heard about a farmer who had dismissed his wife in order to marry a wealthy woman because his farm was in financial trouble. It was just a modest little farm on a hill in Somerset with a few sheep on it, yet it was of incredible significance to him and his family. I just thought, God, that's some real scheming and plotting! This wasn't the sort of family I ended up describing in my book, but that was one place the story came from.

Your last book, The Lucky Ones, was a series of shorter vignettes, whereas In the Fold is tied deeply to one particular character. How did the writing process compare?

I found The Lucky Ones very difficult to write. My children were small, and I think that accounts for the episodic structure. I couldn't sustain a narrative. I had to take it in segments. And I found a lot of what I was writing about almost too difficult to contemplate. I felt I was dealing with subjects that were quite explosive for me at the time. I still find that book disturbing.

When I started writing In the Fold, I was reading lots of Chekhov, and I wanted to write a book that was like a play—a book where people just spoke and spoke and spoke. I hadn't written much dialogue for ages, and that was suddenly what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of a first-person narrator and not having to write these big pieces of prose that I'd gone for in the past. It was an easy book to write in a way.

In the Fold depicts two very different types of houses: old Georgian mansions, which are literally falling to pieces, and spiffy new developments, which are comfortable but soulless. Which sort of dwelling do you prefer?

Which do you think?

I'd guess the old Georgian mansion.

Well, it's a funny question in England. I felt that reviewers took little notice of that aspect of the book—the careless extension of human habitation into a land that has been there a very long time. When you live in a country where you're constantly being told that everything from the past is wonderful and significant, and you see that kind of expansion and change taking over, you get the impression that modern life is a very inferior sort of existence. I'm not exempt from that feeling. Although, perhaps at some point, everyone in England will admit that they actually hate old houses.

The characters in your book who live in new suburban houses seem to intentionally cut themselves off from the natural environment. One character insists that she doesn't want her house to have a view of the sea, even though it's right outside her door: "Why would you want to have this great big thing outside your window? I mean, why would you?"

I think that's one reason for the strange atmosphere of the new housing developments. They allow people to live in a totally neutral state where they don't have to look out the window and see something that stirs them in any way. Even many people who fancy themselves artists feel uncomfortable when they're made to think deeply about anything—beauty most of all.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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