Authors: Rachel Cusk
The rest of the bar was empty except for a small fair-haired man who sat in a leather booth with a book on the table in front of him. When he saw me he held it up so that I could see its cover. He looked at the back jacket and then looked at me and then looked at it again.
âYou are nothing like your photograph!' he exclaimed reproachfully, when I was close enough to hear.
I pointed out that the photograph he had chosen for the cover was more than fifteen years old.
âBut I love it!' he said. âYou look so â guileless.'
He began to tell me about another of his authors, whose book photograph showed a slim and lovely
woman with a long, fair waterfall of shining hair. In the flesh she was grey-haired and somewhat overweight and unfortunately suffered from an eye condition that obliged her to wear glasses with thick bottle-like lenses. When she appeared at readings and festivals the contrast was most obvious, and he had occasionally raised the delicate question of using a more recent photograph, but she wouldn't hear of it. Why should her photograph be accurate? So that she could be identified by the police? The whole point of her profession, she said, was that it represented an escape from reality. Besides, she preferred being that sylph with the waterfall of hair. In some part of herself, she believed that that was who she still was. A degree of self-deception, she said, was an essential part of the talent for living.
âShe is one of our most popular authors,' he said, âas you can imagine.'
He asked me how I liked the hotel and I said that I had found its circularity surprisingly confusing. Several times already I had tried to go somewhere and found myself back where I started. I hadn't realised, I said, how much of navigation is the belief in progress, and the assumption of fixity in what you have left behind. I had walked around the entire circumference of the building in search of things I had been right next to in the first place, an error that was virtually guaranteed by the fact that all the building's sources of natural
light had been concealed by angled partitions, so that the routes around it were almost completely dark. You found the light, in other words, not by following it but by stumbling on it randomly and at greater or lesser length; or to put it another way, you knew where you were only once you had arrived. I didn't doubt that it was for such metaphors that the architect had won his numerous prizes, but it rested on the assumption that people lacked problems of their own, or at the very least had nothing better to do with their time. My publisher widened his eyes.
âFor that matter,' he said, âyou could say the same thing about novels.'
He was a delicate-looking man, dapperly dressed in a blazer and striped shirt, with neatly slicked-back flaxen hair and angular silver-framed glasses and a smell of ironing and cologne. His slightness made him seem even younger than he was. He was very fair-skinned â the flesh at the cuffs and collar of his shirt was so white and unmarked it almost looked like plastic â and his pale-pink mouth was as small and soft as a child's mouth. He had been occupying his senior position in the firm for eighteen months, he said now: before that, he had worked on the marketing side of things. Certain people had expressed surprise that one of the country's oldest and most distinguished literary houses should be put in the hands
of a thirty-five-year-old salesman, but since he had taken it in that short time from the brink of insolvency to what looked set to be the most profitable year in the company's long history, the critics had one by one fallen silent.
He wore a faint smile while he spoke, and his light-blue eyes behind their glasses glittered with the diffidence of light glittering on water.
âFor example,' he said, âonly a year ago I would not have been able to sanction our investment in a work such as this one.' He held up the book with my photograph on it, in what was either accusation or triumph. âThe sad fact,' he said, âis that in that period even some of our most illustrious writers found themselves for the first time in decades having their manuscripts rejected. There was a great groaning,' he said, smiling, âas of afflicted beasts bellowing from the tar pit. Certain people could not accept that what they regarded as their entitlement to have whatever they chose to write â whether or not others wished to read it â put into print year after year had been questioned. Unfortunately,' he said, lightly touching the thin steel frame of his glasses, âthere was in some cases a loss of courtesy and control.'
I asked him what, besides the jettisoning of unprofitable literary novels, explained the company's return to solvency, and his smile widened.
âOur biggest success has been with Sudoku,' he said. âIn fact I have become quite addicted to it myself. Obviously there was an outcry that we should be sullying our hands in that way. But I found that it died down quite quickly, once those less popular authors realised it meant their work could be published again.'
What all publishers were looking for, he went on â the holy grail, as it were, of the modern literary scene â were those writers who performed well in the market while maintaining a connection to the values of literature; in other words, who wrote books that people could actually enjoy without feeling in the least demeaned by being seen reading them. He had managed to secure quite a collection of those writers, and apart from the Sudoku and the popular thrillers, they were chiefly responsible for the upswing in the company's fortunes.
I said I was struck by his observation that the preservation of literary values â in however nominal a form â was a factor in the achievement of popular success. In England, I said, people liked to live in old houses that had been thoroughly refurbished with modern conveniences, and I wondered whether the same principle might be applied to novels; and if so, whether the blunting or loss of our own instinct for beauty was responsible for it. An expression of delight
came over his fine, white-skinned face and he raised his finger in the air.
âPeople enjoy combustion!' he exclaimed.
In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion, not just the burning of substances that have lain in the earth for millions of years but also of knowledge, ideas, culture and indeed beauty â anything, in other words, that has taken time to develop and accrue.
âIt may be time itself,' he exclaimed, âthat we are burning. For example, take the English writer Jane Austen: I have observed the way in which, over the space of a few years, the novels of this long-dead spinster were used up,' he said, âburned one after another as spin-offs and sequels, films, self-help books, and even, I believe, a reality TV show. Despite the meagre facts of her life, even the author herself has finally been consumed on the pyre of popular biography. Whether or not it looks like preservation,' he said, âit is in fact the desire to use the essence until every last drop of it is gone. Miss Austen made a good fire,' he said, âbut in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted.'
There was, he added, a generalised yearning for the ideal of literature, as for the lost world of childhood, whose authority and reality tended to seem so much greater than that of the present moment. Yet to return
to that reality even for a day would for most people be intolerable, as well as impossible: despite our nostalgia for the past and for history, we would quickly find ourselves unable to live there for reasons of discomfort, since the defining motivation of the modern era, he said, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind.
âWhat is history other than memory without pain?' he said, smiling pleasantly and folding his small white hands together on the table in front of him. âIf people want to recapture some of those hardships, these days they go to the gym.'
Similarly, he went on, to experience the nuances of literature without the hard work involved in reading, say, Robert Musil, was for a number of people very pleasurable. For instance, as an adolescent he had read a great deal of poetry, particularly the poetry of T. S. Eliot, yet if he were to pick up the
today he didn't doubt it would cause him pain, not only because of Eliot's pessimistic view of life but also because it would force him to re-enter the world in which he had first read those poems in all its unvarnished reality. Not everyone, of course, spends their teenage years reading Eliot, he said, but it would be hard to pass through the education system without at some point having to grapple with one antiquated text or another, and so for most people the act of reading
symbolised intelligence, quite possibly because in that formative time they had not enjoyed or understood the books that they were obliged to read. It even had connotations of moral virtue and superiority, to the extent that parents worried there was something wrong with their children if they didn't read, yet these parents had quite possibly hated studying literature themselves. Indeed, as he had said, it might even be their forgotten suffering at the hands of literary texts that had left behind this residue of respect for books; if, that is, psychoanalysts are to be believed when they say we are unconsciously drawn to the repetition of painful experiences. And so a cultural product that reproduced that ambiguous attraction, while making no demands and inflicting no pain in the service of it, was bound to succeed. The explosion of book clubs and reading groups and websites overflowing with reader reviews showed no sign of dying down, because the flames were constantly being fed anew by a reverse kind of snobbery that his most successful writers thoroughly understood.
âMore than anything,' he said, âpeople dislike being made to feel stupid, and if you arouse those feelings, you do so at your own cost. I, for example, like to play tennis,' he said, âand I know that if I play with someone who is a little better than me, my game will be raised. But if my tennis partner is too far beyond
me in skill, he becomes my tormentor and my game is destroyed.'
Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent. What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it. It was entertaining, in a way, to see Dante awarded a single star out of a possible five and his
described as âcomplete shit', but a sensitive person might equally find it distressing, until you remembered that Dante â along with most great writers â carved his vision out of the deepest understanding of human nature and could look after himself. It was a position of weakness, he believed, to see literature as something fragile that needed defending, as so many of his colleagues and contemporaries did. Likewise he didn't set much store by its morally beneficial qualities, other than to raise the game â as he had said â of someone correspondingly slightly inferior.
He sat back in his seat and looked at me with a pleasant smile.
I said that I found his remarks somewhat cynical, as well as strikingly indifferent to the concept of justice, whose mysteries, while remaining opaque to us,
it had always seemed sensible to me to fear. In fact the very opacity of those mysteries, I said, was in itself grounds for terror, for if the world seemed full of people living evilly without reprisal and living virtuously without reward, the temptation to abandon personal morality might arise in exactly the moment when personal morality is most significant. Justice, in other words, was something you had to honour for its own sake, and whether or not he believed that Dante could look after himself, it seemed to me he ought to defend him at every opportunity.
While I was speaking my publisher had been stealthily removing his eyes from my face in order to look at something over my shoulder, and I turned to see a woman standing at the entrance to the bar gazing around herself nonplussed with her hand shading her eyes, like a voyager peering into foreign distances.
âAh!' he said. âThere's Linda.'
He waved at her and she gave a jerky gesture of relief as though she had been struggling to find us, though in fact we were the only people there.
âI went to the basement by mistake,' she said when she reached our table. âThere's a garage down there. There are all these cars sitting there in rows. It was horrible.'
The publisher laughed.
âIt wasn't funny,' Linda said. âI felt like I was in
something's lower intestine. The building was digesting me.'
âWe are publishing Linda's first novel,' he said, to me. âThe reviews so far have been very encouraging.'
She was a tall, soft, thick-limbed woman made even taller by the elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals she wore on her feet, whose glamour sat incongruously beneath the black tentlike garment she wore and her general air of awkwardness. Her hair was dishevelled and fell past her shoulders in matted-looking hanks, and her skin had the pastiness of someone who rarely goes outdoors. She had a round, loose, somewhat startled face and her mouth hung open while she looked in amazement through large red-framed glasses at the wedding party on the other side of the bar.
âWhat's that?' she said in puzzlement. âAre they making a film?'
The publisher explained that the hotel was a popular venue for weddings.
âOh,' she said. âI thought it was a joke or something.'
She slumped down heavily in the booth, fanning her face and plucking at the neck of her black garment with the other hand.
âWe were just talking about Dante,' the publisher said pleasantly.
Linda stared at him.
âWere we meant to have studied that for today?' she said.
He laughed loudly.
âThe only topic is yourself,' he said. âThat's what people are paying to hear about.'