Readings — From the May 2018 issue

Dinner Party

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By Rachel Cusk, from Kudos, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Cusk is the author of nine previous novels.

We entered the restaurant and sat down at a long table reserved for the writing-­conference delegates that stretched all along one side of the room. The other side was crowded, and the noise and laughter that emanated from there contrasted with the awkwardness of the long table and the fixity of its set places, to which the delegates were reluctant to consign themselves, knowing their fate would thus be settled for the duration of the meal.

A woman I recognized from an all-female panel discussion in Amsterdam that I had once participated in entered the restaurant and, seeing an empty place beside mine, came and sat down in it. She reminded me of her name—which was Sophia—with the pragmatic directness of someone who accepts rather than fears the likelihood of such things being forgotten. In that same moment, a writer who was one of the best-known novelists at the conference entered and could be seen striding toward the other end of the table and then bypassing it entirely, taking a seat alone at a small table in the very farthest corner of the restaurant. Sophia gave a little gasp of frustration and, standing up, said that she was going to find out why Luís was insisting on sitting alone. She trod lightly off in her high-heeled boots, returning after some minutes with a truculent-looking Luís in tow.

“We won’t allow this depressive behavior,” she said to him with a trilling laugh. “We’re going to keep you in the land of the living.”

Luís sat down with an expression of undisguised irritation and promptly joined the other men in discussing football, whereupon Sophia turned to me and meekly said into my ear that while she realized Luís could give the impression of being arrogant, in fact his success was painful for him and caused him to suffer from intense guilt, as well as from feelings of overexposure.

“Unusually for a man of this nation,” she said, “and perhaps for any man, he has been honest about his own life. He has written about his family and his parents and his childhood home in a way that makes them completely recognizable, and because this is a small country, he worries he has used them or compromised them, even if for readers in other parts of the world it is just the honesty itself that comes through. Though, of course, if he were a woman,” she said, leaning more confidentially toward my ear, “he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care.”

She sat back so that the waiters could put the dishes on the table. They contained a brown, strong-smelling puree, and Sophia wrinkled her nose and said that this dish had a name that could be translated more or less as ‘“the parts no one would eat otherwise.” She took a tiny spoonful and dabbed it on the edge of her plate. A Welsh novelist now appeared, his hair stiffened by the wind and his shirt unbuttoned to show his flushed neck. After some hesitation, he sat down in the only remaining seat, beside Sophia, smiling warily to show his narrow yellow teeth. When he asked her what was in the dishes, she did not repeat her translation but merely smiled graciously and said that it was a local delicacy made of ground meat. He reached forward and piled some onto his plate. We would have to excuse him, he said: he was extremely hungry, having attempted to walk out along the coast and instead become increasingly entangled in a series of industrial complexes and housing developments and shopping precincts, all of which appeared to be in a state of semiruin and were more or less deserted, yet to which all roads unerringly led, so that finally he was forced to clamber over walls and verges in the attempt to get to the water, finding himself at last in a cordoned-off concrete expanse surrounded by barbed wire and what looked like numerous watchtowers, being held at gunpoint by three men in uniform. He had wandered, apparently, into a military zone, and it took all his scant linguistic resources to explain to these men that he was not a terrorist but a writer attending the literary conference.

Luís’s attention had been caught by this narrative, and he launched into an account of the country’s socioeconomic decline, which had been precipitated, he said, by the financial crisis nearly a decade earlier, whose reverberations, in places like this one, were still being felt. The Welsh novelist used this diversion as the opportunity to eat, nodding his head frequently while he dispatched his first course and then, satisfied, sitting back in his chair. His own region of Wales, he said when Luís had finished speaking, was similarly on a more or less unrelievedly downward trajectory, though it had barely completed its evolution into the modern era in the first place. There were still families, he said, in which only a generation earlier the elders had spoken no En­glish. The novel he was currently writing was an attempt to revive that vanished world. He had interviewed countless people, most of them—for obvious reasons—elderly, and had built up a quite extraordinary picture in terms of his preparatory notes. Nothing remained, one old lady had said to him, of the world she knew: not one blade of grass was the same.

Luís had been listening with an impassive expression on his great moody face, his fingers occupied with tearing small sections from a piece of bread and rolling them into hard little balls that he then dropped on the table around his plate.

“My mother once told me,” he said, “that at harvesttime when she was a child, the village held a day of festival, and the farmers would always leave one last field to mow on that day. It was a tradition that they left a circular patch in the middle of the field unmowed, working in from the edges of the field rather than up and down in straight lines as they usually did. All of the frightened wildlife that normally had the opportunity to run away was therefore trapped in this circle,” he said, “which got smaller and smaller as the men mowed around it, so that in the end there were a great number of creatures cowering there. The village children had already been armed with shovels and picks and even knives from the kitchen, and at a certain moment they were permitted to come forward and descend on the unmowed circle in a cheering mob to kill the animals, which they did with great pleasure and gusto, spattering themselves and one another with blood. My mother cannot think about these episodes,” he said, “without becoming upset, even though at the time she participated in them quite happily. When I started to write,” he said, “it was because I felt the pressure of her sensitivity, as though it were an affliction or an unfinished task I had to take from her, or something she had bequeathed to me that I had to fulfill. Yet in my own life, I have been as doomed to repetition as anyone else.”

“But that is completely untrue,” Sophia exclaimed. “Your life has been completely transformed by your talents and what you have made of them—you can go anywhere and meet anyone, your praises are sung all over the world, you have your nice apartment in the city, you even have a wife,” she said with a pleasant smile, “whom you don’t have to live with and who is devoted to bringing up your child. If you were a woman you would certainly find your mother’s life hanging over your head like a sword, and you would be asking yourself what progress you had made other than to double for yourself the work she had been expected to do and receive three times the blame for it.”

The waiters had by now removed the dishes of puree and were bringing the next course, a small molded shape that Sophia portentously described as being made of fish, and of which she again took only the tiniest amount. When the dish was passed to Luís he waved it away and sat hunched and unoccupied in his chair, staring at the wall above our heads, where various nautical items had been hung as decorations. It was interesting, Sophia said now to the Welsh novelist, that he had repeated those words of the old lady, because she had recently heard almost exactly the same words herself, although in a very different context. Her son had not long ago gone to stay for a few days with his father, and had come upon a cache of photograph albums that her ex-husband had taken with him when they separated.

“When my son found the albums in a cupboard,” she said, “he was in a way seeing my life with my ex-husband for the first time, since much of it he was too young to remember. When he came home after the visit,” she said, “he told me about finding the albums, which he spent the whole morning going through because his father had gone out to play tennis with some friends and had left him alone. You are in the pictures, Mama, he said to me, except it isn’t actually you. I couldn’t recognize you. It isn’t that you look older. It’s that everything about you has changed. Nothing is the same as in the photographs, not your hair or your clothes or your expression, not even your eyes.”

While she spoke her eyes grew larger and more brilliant, and it seemed possible they were filling with tears, yet she continued to smile in a way that made it clear she was practiced in keeping her composure. The Welsh novelist looked at her with polite concern, an expression of faint alarm on his face.

“Poor kid,” Luís said gloomily. “Why does this bastard arrange a tennis match in the first place?”

“Because that way,” Sophia said, smiling more graciously than ever, “he knows he deprives me of my freedom and peace of mind even when I have some time to myself. If he took care of our son during their weekends together,” she said, “he would in a sense be giving something to me, and he has devoted his life to making sure that is something he will never do, even through the medium of our child. In court,” she said, “he fought me for custody, and I know that many of my friends were shocked that I opposed it, because they thought that, as a feminist, I ought to promote equality for both sides, and also because there is the belief that a son needs his father in some special way, to learn how to be a man. But I don’t want my son to learn to be a man,” she said. “I want him to become one through experience. I want him to find out how to act, how to treat a woman, how to think for himself. I don’t want him learning to drop his underwear on the floor,” she said, “or using his male nature as an excuse.”

The Welsh novelist raised a finger hesitantly and said that he hated to disagree, but he felt it was important to point out that not all men would behave as her ex-husband had, and that male values were not merely the product of enshrined selfishness but could include such things as honor, duty, and chivalry. He himself had two sons, as well as a daughter, and he liked to think they were well-balanced individuals. He recognized he was very lucky in that he and his wife had a good marriage, and he found that their differences were generally complementary rather than the source of conflict.

“Is your wife also a writer?” Luís said, toying indifferently with his napkin.

His wife was a full-time mother, the Welsh novelist said, and both of them were satisfied with that arrangement, since his literary revenue very fortunately meant that she didn’t have to earn money and could instead help him find the time he needed to work. In fact, he said, she did do a bit of writing in her spare time and had recently written a book for children that had been quite a surprise hit. When their children were smaller, she used to tell them stories involving a Welsh pony called Gwendolyn, and in the end there were so many of these stories, all following one from the other so as to keep the children’s attention night after night, that the book, she had said, literally wrote itself. Obviously he himself was too subjective to be able to offer an opinion on the adventures of Gwendolyn, but he had shown it to his agent.

“My ex-wife and I used to tell my son stories,” Luís said gloomily, “and we read to him in bed every night, but it hasn’t made the slightest difference. He doesn’t pick up a book from one day to the next. My ex-wife and I,” he said, “have done everything in our power to get along with each other since our separation and to reassure my son that he was not the cause of it, but his response has been to show absolutely no curiosity about life. He sits in his room day after day, motivated to do nothing but watch television and eat pastries.”

Sophia, who had been becoming increasingly agitated while Luís spoke, now interrupted him.

“But you aren’t helping him,” she said, “by treating him as a fragile thing and shielding him and covering up your conflict, when the consequences of that conflict are right in front of him every day. Children have to survive hardship,” she said, while Luís somberly shook his head, “and you have to let them, because otherwise they will never be strong.”

By now the waiters had brought the final course, an oily fish stew of which no one except the Welsh novelist was eating very much. Luís looked with a harrowed expression at Sophia, and sadly pushed his plate away from him as if it were the offer of her optimism and determination.

“They are wounded,” he said slowly. “Wounded, and I don’t know why this particular wound has been so deadly in the case of my son, but since I gave him the wound it is my job to tend to him.”

There was a silence while the waiters cleared the dishes, and even the men opposite, who had sustained a conversation about the leadership qualities of José Mourinho for all this time, stopped talking and gazed ahead of them with blank, satiated expressions.

“After my son found the photographs in his father’s house,” Sophia said, resting her slender arms on the table, whose white cloth was littered with crumpled napkins and wine stains and half-eaten pieces of bread, “and made the observation that I was not the same person I had been, not even in the molecules of my skin, I became for a while very confused and depressed. It suddenly felt as if all my efforts since the divorce to keep things the same, to keep my own life recognizable to me and to my son, were in fact false, because underneath the surface not one thing remained as it was. Yet his words also made me feel that for the first time someone had understood what had happened, because while I had always told the story to myself and others as a story of war, in fact it was simply a story of change. While my son was away for those few days visiting his father,” she said, “I had arranged to spend time with a man and had invited him for the weekend to our apartment. When I heard footsteps on the stairs and the key turning in the lock, I suddenly became confused as to which of the men I’ve known in my life was about to walk through the door. It seemed to me in that moment,” she said, “that I had made too much of the distinctions between these men, when at the time the whole world had appeared to depend on whether I was with one rather than another. I realized that I had believed in them,” she said, “and in the ecstasy or agony they caused me, but now I could barely recall why and could barely separate them from one another in my mind.”

Sophia’s audience at the table were becoming visibly uncomfortable, twitching in their chairs and allowing their eyes to rove, embarrassed, around the room, except for Luís, who sat very still and watched her steadily with an impassive expression.

“When my son made those comments to me about the photographs,” she said, “I realized that he had taken the burden of perception from me, which to my mind was inseparable from the burden of living and of telling the story. The effect on me was an incredible sense of freedom. You have to live,” she said to Luís, reaching her hand imploringly to him across the table, and he reluctantly reached out his own hand and gave hers a squeeze before withdrawing it. “No one can take that obligation from you.”

One of the organizers came to the table and said that the bus was now ready to take us back to the hotel. Outside the restaurant, the Welsh novelist remarked that things had got pretty intense back there. 

“I wondered whether Sophia was making a bit of a play for Luís,” he said in a low voice, glancing to either side of him, where the ruined walls of the buildings showed dark voids behind their crumbling edges and the wind sent the weeds growing along the roadside rocking back and forth. “Actually,” he said, “I think they’d make quite a good couple.”

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