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Rachel Cusk
Part II: On Cusk's Other Works

“Like journeying through a painting1”: Travel Writing and the Exploration of Textual Boundaries in Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper

Isabelle RANNOU

Résumés

Se présentant comme le récit d’un voyage en famille, The Last Supper, A Summer in Italy de Rachel Cusk rappelle d’autres récits de voyage parce qu’il remet en question la traduction verbale de l’expérience vécue. L’auteur, qui a choisi comme destination l’un des hauts lieux de l’esthétisme, commence par se poser la question de la relation subtile entre la création (à travers de nombreuses références à l’histoire de l’art) et la représentation du quotidien. Quelques reproductions d’œuvres picturales et de clichés pris pendant ce séjour ponctuent la rédaction des souvenirs de ce voyage et semblent prolonger la tentative de Cusk pour capturer la nature éphémère de l’ordinaire tout en permettant au lecteur de mesurer les pouvoirs respectifs du récit et des illustrations visuelles qui viennent à son appui. La collaboration entre les média visuels et verbaux aboutit à dessiner une autre quête dans ce récit qui, au-delà de l’exploration des outils formels que met à disposition son genre, célèbre la figure de l’artiste.

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  • 1  Rachel Cusk, The Last Supper. A Summer in Italy (10). The pictorial analogy appears as Cusk descri (...)
  • 2  One should note, however, that the Cusks' stay in Italy covers mostly springtime, at least in Tusc (...)
  • 3  The book was composed after the publication of the memoir, A Life's Work,in 2001.
  • 4  See, for instance, Vanessa Guignery’s introduction to Récits de voyages et romans voyageurs. Aspec (...)
  • 5  The word is used by the publishing company Faber & Faber in their presentation of the book.
  • 6  In this sense, the piece conforms to what French critic Alain Schaffner has noted in an article ab (...)
  • 7  Jean Viviès in “Mort à Lisbonne: le dernier récit de Henry Fielding (The Journal of a voyage to Li (...)

1Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper is described on the back cover of the original edition as “a wonderful travel book about life on the most famous art trail in the world.” The piece, however, should not be reduced to yet another account of “a summer in Italy”2 by an English novelist. The writing, which provides dense material for analysis, is a departure from conventions in several ways. Signalling an excursion within Cusk’s work into the genre of travelogues,3 the book enables the author to pursue and renew her reflection on the question of identity which is centralto her previous work, as she explores textual boundaries and brings new light to the question of travel writing itself, and writing about art. The semantic and meta-textual implications of the concept of boundaries has been amply discussed in relation to travel writing,4 where it is both understood as the physical delineation of spatial and cultural spheres and as a metaphor for the hybrid status of the text. My goal is not to retrace the contours of an established criterion; rather, it is the extent to which Cusk cultivates this polyphony that I wish to investigate. This paper will not linger on the otherwise delightful digressions on the horrors of modern tourism or the fascination with Italian food. Instead, I will concentrate on the formal and aesthetic implications of a textual journey which takes us from words to images and back again, combining, in the process, the generic concerns inherent in the travel writing tradition and the author’s own literary quest. The icono-textual device displayed in the “memoir”5 allows us to consider some of the codes of the composite travel book. The various illustrations that punctuate the recollection, whether copies of Renaissance paintings or (not so) mundane holiday snapshots, enable Cusk to measure the respective power of the verbal and the visual to capture the transitory nature of what she calls “the living moment” (LS 51). If, as remarked by Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, writing and travel have been intimately connected since Homer (Hulme and Youngs 4), Cusk’s book reminds us that the relation between the visual arts and literature has been just as enduring. I hope to shed light on how the challenging collaboration of both verbal and visual media helps reflect on the dynamics of the genre Cusk has chosen to explore while tracing an implicit self-portrait of the author as an artist within the very aesthetic history she re-writes and re-creates,6 thus exemplifying what Christine Montalbetti identifies in Le Voyage, le monde et la bibliothèque, as a constant oscillation of travel writing.7

  • 8  Helen Carr, “Modernism and travel (1880-1940),” in P. Hulme and T. Youngs, op.cit., 82.

2Presenting the journey to Italy as a quest for artistic beauty, The Last Supper necessarily refers back to a dense tradition of literary explorations which surfaces in the narrative through intertextuality. However, in the very process of aligning her initial motive with that of previous works, Cuskunderlines the uncertain boundaries of a text whose definition remains problematic. By journeying, quite literally, through layers of history and discourses, the piece locates itself within and outside the canon it takes up. Travel writing, and more specifically the reference to the Italian tour are indeed, as Helen Carr describes, “shabby remnants of the tapestry of otherness their predecessors had woven and of which travel writers became increasingly aware” (82).8 From the outset, the account of the journey undertaken posits a clear intention to place itself within an established frame, at the crossroad between art and literary history.

3The chosen destination, praised by the forerunners of the educated tourist for the aesthetic treasures it houses, does not come as a surprise and Cusk traces, in bold type, the beaten trail she is following. When she wonders where to go to escape the dreadful greyness of her Bristol home, literature immediately provides the answer that could suit her personal need:

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 hidden from me as were the means of its satisfaction. (LS 8-9; myemphasis)

4D.H. Lawrence kicks off the substantial list of references, soon followed by Forster and Huxley, among others. Quite expectedly, the excursion isn’t so much a confrontation with the unknown, or the foreign, as the search for an ideal to which to return. Much store is set by the delayed encounter with Italy, the land of art par excellence, since it allows the author to ponder the complex workings of memory and creation. The text which sets out to verbalise this return must therefore convey a sense of this history and does so by establishing connections between several strata of representation to include its own.

5There is nothing surprising either, consequently, in the combination of references which permeate the book, since they too are a salient principle of travel writing, which often blends accounts of the journey undertaken with aesthetic digressions. Cusk, the art historian, quotes and echoes Giorgio Vasari, sometimes extensively, as when dealing with the life and works of Raphael (LS 143). Like the Italian master, whose work she incidentally comes across in the rented Tuscan house, she proceeds to recount the Lives of the iconic Artists of the Renaissance whose work she discovers or, rather, whose “trail” she painstakingly follows. The very choice of the book’s title, an obvious Biblical and pictorial theme, frames the journey itself within an intertextual and artistic dialogue which is echoed in the chapter headings, which point to previously verbalised references, re-framed, as it were, as they are inserted within the narrative. The very use of deictic phrasings for some (“The Pregnant Madonna,” “The Veiled Lady” and of course, the eponymous work: “The Last Supper”) stresses the historical precedence of what has been seen (or read), written or painted. Cusk reminds the reader that the role of art is to counter oblivion, “to fill in its blankness, to program it with meaning and significance” (LS 97) for “only in art is a record kept of an instant, that the next instant doesn’t erase” (LS 216). The piece thus sets out to provide a space for images and words to be recalled, for their artistic potential to be restored. The layers of discourses co-existing on the page mimic the complex mechanisms of memory that what she calls “the kindness of our curatorial age” (LS 51) might require. A form of preservation of this “pre-deceased ancestor, aestheticism” (LS 48) is thus formulated through the act of re-telling. The list of illustrations, copies of paintings by Italian masters (Tintoretto, Piero Della Francesca, Raphael or Cimabue), whose names precede the account per se, function as a programmatic incipit. Not relegated to the final pages of the book, as one might expect, they excite and guide the visual imagination of the knowledgeable reader— modelled on Cusk herself, who explains, when reading a book about Piero Della Francesca, that names are familiar (LS 61).

  • 9  The reflection is triggered by the news that Piero della Francesca's vista is threatened by govern (...)
  • 10  See Vanessa Guignery's account of Alain de Botton's essay on travel writing, “Voyage au cœur du vo (...)
  • 11  See Marie-Madeleine Martinet's work on the tradition of the writing of the Italian journey and its (...)

6That the book should combine familiar pictorial references, while it may be an expected device, also fits another concern. The exhibited insistence on the “curatorial” finality,9 enhanced through the semiotic assembling of verbal and visual forms, calls attention to the text as a reflection on the creative process. The move from the domestic yet estranged English setting in favour of a familiar “idealised” Italy (LS 176) is prompted by a lack of beauty which, naturally, manifests itself as a form of visual deficiency. The English landscape of grey, desolate hills, is epitomised in the view from the window of “the moor veiled with rain” (LS 7). The disappointment experienced at the outset of the family’s travels is echoed in the first sparse pictures provided in the book, until the rather clichéd transition takes place, from darkness to light. When reaching the Mediterranean sea, the narrator voices relief: “We have closed the door on England as one would close the door on a dark and cluttered house and walk out into the sun” (LS 35). Paintings and photographs, physically inserted through the illustrations but also described in various ekphrases, punctuate the journey and its narrative beyond the mere factual account. In that perspective, the piece cannot be seen as a purely mimetic attempt at representing the reality of the journey, but as a study of its representation itself (or secondary presentation).10 Just as the viewing of frescoes by Piero Della Francesca “has to be arranged,” (LS 70) the text exhibits careful planning: “How else,” Cusk wonders, “could I understand our experiences unless I gave them a shape?” (LS 185) The seemingly pedestrian references to the history of painting, an expected feature of any Italian travelogue,11 increasingly point to the concern of the narrator who underlines the absolute necessity of capturing instants through words, just as they can be captured and transcended through artistic creation. As she sets out to find beauty in Italy, Cusk launches on a quest for language and reflects on the representation of the everyday which, if not kept alive through the ordering process of writing, threatens to disintegrate. In the process, The Last Supper, a work on art, attempts to develop into a work of art.

  • 12  See Regard 14-16. Regard notably refers to what Stephen Greenblatt underlined in Marvellous Posses (...)
  • 13  This aspect surfaces early on with the mention of the textbook Contatti! in the first chapter (LS (...)

7 The unfixed framework Cusk adopts allows her to scrutinise and challenge the impossible verbal translation of lived experience. The potential loss involved in the process of translation is a recurring source of concern for the narrator, as it is for critical discourse on travel writing. But the treatment of this inadequacy and the gaps it implies provides, coincidently, a form of gain, in the imaginary possibilities it suggests. The digressions on the unsatisfactory relation between words and things distract the narrative from the alleged purpose of the travelogue which aims, as Frédéric Regard recalls while simultaneously stressing the limits of the endeavour, at maintaining the experience unmediated by metaphors or similes.12 It is precisely through these literary devices, which, according to John Mullan, form an established stylistic penchant in Cusk’s writing, that the author explores this troubling question. The experience of the journey, whose account necessarily implies alteration, is thus reflected in the topos of the “foreign language,” the exotic other the author tries to learn and includes in the narrative through the rather delightful sections dedicated to the Italian textbook with its rehearsed if not caricatural scenes played out by the “usual cast of characters” (LS 41): “the American businessmen” engaging “passing females” in “witless conversation,” “the brisk Italians” who bide their time “ordering gnocchi at Mamma Rosa’s restaurant,” and the Englishmen, Jeff and Bill, “who present themselves almost daily at the doctor’s surgery in a condition of mild hysteria.” The chapter, aptly entitled “Italian in Three Months” (LS 39), is ironically echoed through the appearance of “paperbacks” in the first house the family rents.13 The books, “Extra Virgin” and “Tuscany for Beginners, Love and War in a Hot Climate,” attract the attention of the narrator; she feels “[their] gracious owner must have allowed [them] to remain there either ironically or by mistake” (LS 59), thus unmistakably pointing to her own authorial intentions in focusing on the manual’s filtered, clichéd and artificial perspective.

8Of course, linguistic explorations constitute an inherent part of any piece of travel writing. Jean Viviès has remarked that the initial journey towards the unknown begins with words, those at the author’s disposal, which are quickly deemed inadequate (Lignes de fuite 2003. 9). Foreign words are almost idealised in the text, as the Italian verbs Cusk writes down before they reach Italy, preserving them from being spoiled through utterance (LS 13). Translation appears as a potential threat: “What will become of these qualities when they pass through the dark tunnel of translation?” (LS 40), she later asks. Yet these gaps, conventionally made manifest in the visual shifts in typography breaking the sequence of familiar words, trigger the imaginary musings (sometimes the confusion, as when “cha-cha” is taken for “ciacia”) of the narrative voice. Finding an adequate language is one of the goals of the journey itself. The problem is formulated in linguistic terms: “the [...] blankness that I feel when I try to express myself in Italian and I cannot find the words to do it. Sometimes I find a word that is similar to the one I wanted and I use that instead” (LS 134). Translation also affects the representation of the experience, the reality or, to quote Cusk, “the moment that breaks and foams” (LS 217).

  • 14  This is also the case for the reader who pauses to contemplate, dissect, muse.
  • 15  See Philippe Antoine's preface to Roman et récit de voyage, 6.
  • 16  We can borrow the analogy suggested by Liliane Louvel – whose works on the word-image relations in (...)
  • 17  The appearance of the Madonna del Prato (or pregnant madonna) is delayed, and an unrelated photogr (...)

9To the metaphorical power of words should be added that of images, the quarrelling sister of the literary, which equally interrupts and inspires the verbal rendering here. Just as the exotic sound of italicised words stimulates the author’s imagination and alerts her to the possibility of otherness, illustrations physically insert a hypothetically exotic, if not foreign, scene.14 Paintings prompt descriptions and pauses in the narrative and its reading, while the expected, postcard-like photographs provide the curious or visually-deprived readers with “picturesque” (LS 58) cypresses or olive trees, the customary components of the Tuscan scenery. But the supposed ability of the photographic to provide a direct access to reality is just as problematic as it is with language. The question of semiotic translation should not, I think, be viewed in a unidirectional and therefore restrictive light, where text or image would provide an impossible equivalent of the other. The question, in fact, lies not so much in the authenticity of the rendering, or a convincing sense of realism, as in the ambivalence of the task of representation. In an article on travel writing, Philippe Antoine suggests that the premise of referential writing is compatible with an acute consciousness of the artifice at work in the language used allowing the various signals of referentiality and fiction to coexist without it being a contradiction (Gomez-Géraud and Antoine 6).15 The iconographic elements of travel writing material (the customary companion to the written experience) provide a clear illustration of such duality, as they function collaboratively with words, while each medium retains its specificity.16 The titles in The Last Supper thus appear systematically under the paintings reproduced (along with the date and the artist’s name). This seemingly furthers the identificatory logic which structures the initial steps of the journey and, generally, the insertion of the various illustrations follows a regular pattern: the picture is introduced in the narrative, where it is described. Tintoretto’s painting is the first in a series of works clearly introduced in the text. But this regularity is subverted at points, which triggers modulations in the reader’s experience. A photograph might come in the place of the expected painting (which might be delayed).17 Such resistance, both of language—which intermittently escapes understanding—and of images—which sometimes escape the conventions of an otherwise well-defined layout principle—suggests that the text leaves room for variations and deploys its artistic potential beyond the expected programme of the travel book and its controlled response.

10Sometimes, no illustration is provided, leaving the reader’s curiosity suspended, and his/her imagination free to construct a possible rendering. It is the case with a photograph of Matisse by Cartier-Bresson (LS 102) and, most important and frustrating, with the picture of Rachel Cusk herself, taken by her daughter, we are told, but which doesn’t appear to bring a satisfying identification and thus a sense of (semiotic) closure. The text fills the gap but leaves room for interpretation:

I am a woman of thirty-nine, casually dressed, with a white bandage on her foot. The place where I sit, in the right angle of the curb and the wall, is so old that the stones have been worn into rounded shapes. In a minute I’m going to get up: I won’t be there anymore. It is almost as though I am not there at all. It is the stones that are really there, not me. Maybe one day I’ll go back and sit in the same place, to prove something. But all the same, I look happy. I am smiling. (LS 202)

11Indeed, if not for words, she would not be there at all, nor would the stones appear in the text. The moment she describes is gone, but is indirectly secured through prose, just as the snapshot, not physically included in the account, captured a necessarily frustrating copy of it. This echoes what the narrator mentioned earlier about knowledge: “Its presence is painful, because it signifies that what was known is no longer there” (LS 167), a comment which could recall Roland Barthes’s moving essay on photography and its ambivalent link with loss in La Chambre claire.

  • 18  Referring to Genette, Christine Montalbetti stresses the blurred boundaries between life and ficti (...)

12On several occasions, just as there are disruptions in the expected sequence of illustrations, the veil of the Italian ideal can be lifted to reveal an unexpected worldliness. Bertrand, the French owner of the guest house they spend a night in, and whose fairy-tale like property seems to be detached from the trivialities of tourism, eventually needs “reality” (in the shape of guests) to “measure his creation against” (LS 32). The book’s title follows a similar progression; the mention of Tintoretto’s Last Supper (LS 51) is reinterpreted, after various digressions on art and life, as Cusk’s family enjoys the “last supper” of their Italian journey, a simple pot of “spaghetti alla bolognese”(LS 225) shared with campers near the French border on the return journey. While the reproductions of Renaissance paintings and frescoes inscribe the author as an aesthete in the company of the great names of the quattrocento, the various photographs printed in the book link the narrative to the more personal experience of the traveller and though, interestingly enough, they remain anonymous, one might infer they have been taken by her then husband – Adrian Clarke, who, she mentions almost in passing, is a photographer (LS 18). With such a combination of photographic and pictorial imprints, the text blurs yet another boundary, that which separates fiction from reality and art from life. It also traces the transitory contours of the subject behind the account, the artist behind the painting. The authorial voice fictionalises experience and makes the real literary18. Like the ball exchanged during the tennis game, the author posits the lived moment as having to be “possessed, turned around, sent out into the world again as [her] object” (LS 122).

  • 19  It is hard not to think of E.M. Forster's aesthetes and their sterile infatuation with art, at the (...)
  • 20  See James Buzard, “The Grand Tour and After (1660-1840),” 49.

13The initial thirst for the pictorial, stemming from a disappointment with an artless life at home, is progressively reconsidered in the text, which increasingly centres on the aesthetic dimension of the everyday, and highlights the subjectivity of the artist as the pivotal perspective which captures it. Looking at – or writing about – art can withhold physical engagement in life itself,19 but an interesting shift is presented. While Cusk first “tries to understand” the work of art (as with the painting of Tintoretto, LS 51), the studious perspective paves the way for the revelation art does provide, and which is here depicted as “emerging from imprisonment or blindness, and remembering what the world is really like” (when they come across the frescoes of Piero Della Francesca, LS 73). The actual aesthetic dimension of life transpires, illuminated through art, because “we turn to it to dignify our experience of the world; to find a reply to the question of consciousness” (LS 198). Art is defined as a seminal means for the traveller-author to define herself against (if not rise above) the common tourist or the pilgrim, as an “art lover.”20 Cusk tolerates “tourists, though of a superior kind” (LS 66); and loathes what she refers to as herds of “halfwits” (LS 187) “disgorged” from the sides of air-conditioned coaches (LS 55). The progression the text initially seems to delineate is thus that of a departure from a life which erases individuality in England, towards a life viewed through the elevating lens of the arts.

14As early as the second chapter, entitled “French Nights,” the insistence on art as a higher form of reality is conveyed through the device of the fictional double. The French landscape becomes a fairy-tale world. They spend one night in “Sleeping Beauty’s castle” (in truth, a house in the Rhône valley, LS 26), while Cap Ferrat yields “a sense of the painted backdrop” (LS 36). Even though the Italian setting feels less artificial, the comparisons do not cease to recur: “men with Giotto faces” appear in Arezzo (LS 63); “Fabrizio’s tower” becomes a setting in “Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma” (LS 77) while Jim’s friend, Amanda, “a goddess of self-sacrifice” (LS 113), looks “like a Cimabue Madonna” (LS 123). Comparison soon becomes a stylistic device for Cusk to place the ordinary, “unexamined experience of life” (LS 224) within the realm of art. In that sense, she ironically parallels the fictional endeavour of the textbook, in which one identifies characters through stereotyped formulations. The resulting uncanny impression blends truth and fiction, as when she looks out the window and discovers a French vista, early on during the journey:

It all seems familiar, though it is not: I feel that I have stood at this window a thousand times and looked out, as I am doing now. This was something I often felt as a child, when I would remember things I had read in books as though I had lived them myself. It never struck me that there was anything wrong with it, though it was disturbing. (LS 29)

15Of course, the artistic references lend the writing a fictional dimension. This is all the more palpable as the ideal finally appears. Art surfaces in Italy (from the third chapter onwards) to progressively overwhelm the account of the family’s daily life. If one understands, as Liliane Louvel has suggested, the incursion of iconic documents as a form or rhythm in the text whose “eye” opens and closes as they appear and disappear at the turn of a page, the pace of the visual account in The Last Supper outlines a significant progression. Scarce at first and at home, images are strikingly absent in the French portion of the outward journey – as though the impatient narrative couldn’t stop to look at a scenery which isn’t desired. Conversely, they invade the first Italian chapters, where the thirst for the artistic essence is to be quenched through an accumulation that almost feels like a pictorial binge.

  • 21  And yet, one could remark on the potentially disappointing effect that some of the pictures reprod (...)
  • 22  The book is referred to on their arrival in France the first night, the journey being seen as comb (...)
  • 23  Although at first she confesses she has always thought there was too much reality and not enough a (...)

16However, the author announces that she will soon learn “to fillet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat deboning a Dover sole.” Soon indeed, as the reader can infer from this careful – and delicious – proleptic touch, she will be able to “tell the difference between … the truth and the imitation” (LS 53). Towards the middle of the account, the balance shifts, however slightly, in favour of the ordinary (“suddenly, we are on the firm footing of life,” LS 150), and the ideal must be redefined accordingly. The pace of the visual insertions settles, as the family does, near Arezzo. The ekphrastic and historic “filleting” of the works seen in museums – once one manages to go through crowds of “halfwits,” that is – becomes the canvas upon which a more articulate analysis of the birth of subjectivity in art can be sketched. The figure of Cimabue signals this turn, he who, we are told, reinvented the artist, and turned the “craftsman, the master of his materials, but ... not yet their author” into the artist “as visionary, as individualist” (LS 101) who “could begin to capture reality” (LS 101). More humbly, but nonetheless intoxicated by the example of art (and, assuredly, the art of examples), the text verbalises an equally crucial artistic moment: the birth of the narrator as a performative voice. Echoing Nietzsche’s statement, Cusk claims that “art distils the eternal from the everyday” (LS 176), and it is precisely in the established link between artistic references and the dense material of the everyday that this metaphorical journey takes place. This furnishes the setting for several comic interludes, from the scathing portrayal of the tourist to the unsavoury souvenir shop and its disappointing copies21 (LS 105) and the narrator’s strained foot, which jeopardises a visit to a (closed) museum and calls for a comparatively terse style (“It is hot, and I have hurt my foot;” “It is ridiculous, I can barely walk,” LS 199). Such instances stress the return of the body and the individual subjectivity without which the quest for beauty, which art might be seen at first to fulfil, cannot be completed. Referring to D.H. Lawrence, whose Sea and Sardinia provided a programmatic epigraph to the account,22 Cusk exploresthe artistic dimension of simple pleasures23. In the chapter aptly titled “In the Woods,” she explains: “Lawrence himself had tired of Italy, its little garden-like landscapes, its art that he began to see as a substitute for life … Now what he required was life itself, living humanity” (LS 197). This doesn’t mean that art is left aside, but it is filtered through a more personal experience.

  • 24  “The display at the gelateria is an artist's palette that awakens deep urges and anxieties, for it (...)
  • 25  This is when the literary references resurface in the narrative, with a mention of Blake (LS 192) (...)

17Moving beyond the superficial artistic analogies which allow us to refer to a writer painting a landscape through coloured descriptive strokes – analogies on which I, however, have amply relied –, the recurring lexicon of the visual arts comes to connect the worldly and the eternal. The most tasteful illustration comes, I feel, in the shape of the “gelateria” which sparksoff a quasi-existential digression on the flavours of ice cream (LS 138-139).24 But behind the mock-affected tone of the superior tourist who elevates food to the status of art (LS 128-129) lies a sign of a reflection on the awakening of the subject. Here again, the appearance of images is revelatory of the text’s reflective process. The increasing domination of photographs towards the final chapters confirms that the itinerary is no longer following a predefined aesthetic trail (as it did that of Piero Della Francesca). An intuitive journey takes over (and takes them to the Gulf of Baratti and Portofino). The change is noticeable in the artistic elements encountered and described, which highlights the progressive fusion of art and life, however unsettling that fusion might seem:25 the statues in Naples appear “life-like”(LS 174). The holiday snapshots seem to validate the reading pact while lending the re-presented reality a form of subjective filtering.

18Moving from art history to an exploration of identity, the text combines memory and invention. The quest of the narrator, this painter of words, who tries to capture the ephemeral, is self-oriented as much as it aspires to be exotic. As the journey reaches its final chapter, Cusk’s communionwith the various creators whose works she has celebrated is accomplished verbally. The artists, from the Renaissance masters to the anonymous Hélène, one of the last “characters” encountered on the return journey back to England, seem to have transferred their creative subjectivity to the narrator who, as she exits the “maison de jeux” (in French in the text), becomes the creator and subject. The evocation of this final artist brings to the fore, and for the last time, the problem of the necessarily fleeting nature of life (“mortality”). Hélène’s mannequins “seem more mortal than people of flesh and blood” (LS 237), “sealed in their instant of reality” and prompting the question: “How is the world to be comprehended, described, if instants are all there can be?” (LS 238). The answer, or the lack thereof, is replaced by a move (she exits the house) and the urge to speak. Her voice is “causative” (LS 239), as opposed to the inarticulate noise of the incipit). Speech has to create “something where there is nothing.” The “maison de jeux,” a deceiving expression for what is the epitome of the unheimlich, encapsulates the journey where art meets life in a sometimes unsettling way.

  • 26  What Cusk calls “the real life” (LS 26) is thus glimpsed through an open window before it vanishes (...)
  • 27  The necessity is to name oneself, and to acquire self-knowledge, putting one's name on a work (as (...)

19Interestingly enough, no photographic self-portrait of Cusk is provided, apart from a furtive glimpse (a snapshot of the camping site, in which a woman – Cusk perhaps – is seen packing, her face partly obscured by her hair). It is tempting – at least I am tempted – to see in this “veiled” woman a blurred echo of the painting by Raphael, whose art Cusk needs “to refine crude life into something [she] can understand” (LS 188). Earlier, she described his life as a progression from the “captive ego” (LS 151) of the painter who made copies of the masters, to the portraitist who, through representing others, formulated the crucial question: “who am I?” (LS 161). To the narrator, the veil of his Donna Velata is a symbol of the artist’s “self-knowledge,” which threatens to disappear as the veil falls back, but which, through the captured moment of reality, both on the canvas and on the page, is revealed (as the page is turned) in a glimpse, however brief, and made eternal.26 The ideal of Italy may not exist, Cusk admits (LS 134), but her purpose is to entertain the possibility that it might. The role of this verbal and visual journey is to express “something already lost, something that perhaps no longer really exists” (LS 10). Similarly, the narrator’s self is drawn through words, and while the ultimate “portrait” is that of the mannequin, what resonates at last is her own voice. She announces early on: “We did not come here to find ourselves: we came for something we are able to identify only by its absence” (LS 45). What is unfolded in the end is a baffling yet paramount notion of identity, that of the anonymous artist whose work, reproduced in the central chapter, says “I am nothing, I am everything” (LS 93).27

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Bibliographie

Barthes, Roland. La Chambre claire: notes sur la photographie. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma Gallimard/Seuil, 1980.

Buzard, James. “The Grand Tour and After (1660-1840).” Hulme and Youngs. 37-52.

Carr, Helen. “Modernism and Travel (1880-1940).” Hulme and Youngs. 70-86.

Cusk, Rachel. The Last Supper. A Summer in Italy. London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

Gomez-Géraud, Marie-Christine and Philippe Antoine (eds). Roman et Récit de Voyage. Paris : Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2001.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvellous Possessions. The Wonder of the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Guignery, Vanessa. “Voyage au cœur du voyage: The Art of Travel (2002) d’Alain de Botton.” Récits de voyage et romans voyageurs, aspects de la littérature contemporaine de langue anglaise. François Gallix, Vanessa Guignery, Jean Viviès, Matthew Graves (Eds). Aix-en-Provence: Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2006. 29-44.

Hulme, Peter and Youngs Tim. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Louvel, Liliane. Texte-Image. Images à lire, textes à voir. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2002.

Martinet, Marie-Madeleine. Le Voyage d’Italie dans les littératures européennes. Paris: PUF Coll. Littératures Européennes, 1996.

Montalbetti, Christine. Le Voyage, le monde et la bibliothèque. Paris: PUF « Écriture », 1997.

Montalbetti, Christine. “Les séductions de la fiction: enjeux épistémologiques” in Gomez Géraud and Antoine. 99-108.

Mullan, John. “A World Eslewhere.” Guardian, 29 July 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/jul/29/featuresreviews.guardianreview4.

Regard, Frédéric. “Le tableau et la scène: éléments pour une réflexion sur les ’zones de contact’.” Frédéric Regard (ed.). De Drake àChatwin, Rhétoriques de la découverte. Lyon: ENS Editions, 2007. 7-26.

Schaffner Alain. “’Ce n’est pas un livre que j’écris’. Equipée de Victor Segalen: le récit de voyage en question.” Roman et récit de voyage. in Gomez-Géraud and Antoine. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2001. 81-90.

Viviès, Jean. “Mort à Lisbonne: le dernier récit de Henry Fielding (The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, 1755).” Lignes d’horizon, récits de voyage de la littérature anglaise. Jean Viviès (ed.). Aix-en-Provence: Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2002. 31-44.

Viviès, Jean. Lignes de fuite. Littérature de voyage du monde anglophone. Aix-en-Provence: Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2003.

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Notes

1  Rachel Cusk, The Last Supper. A Summer in Italy (10). The pictorial analogy appears as Cusk describes the initial phase of the journey to Italy, while the family are driving on the winding road to New Haven, surrounded by a dream-like landscape at dawn. I will rely on the abbreviation LS for further references.

2  One should note, however, that the Cusks' stay in Italy covers mostly springtime, at least in Tuscany.

3  The book was composed after the publication of the memoir, A Life's Work,in 2001.

4  See, for instance, Vanessa Guignery’s introduction to Récits de voyages et romans voyageurs. Aspects de la littérature contemporaine de langue anglaise.

5  The word is used by the publishing company Faber & Faber in their presentation of the book.

6  In this sense, the piece conforms to what French critic Alain Schaffner has noted in an article about the genre's consciousness of its secondary and therefore critical nature. (Schaffner 90)

7  Jean Viviès in “Mort à Lisbonne: le dernier récit de Henry Fielding (The Journal of a voyage to Lisbon, 1755)” refers to Christine Montalbetti's work when he defines the referential text: “le texte référentiel, qui oscille constamment entre l'impossible écriture du monde et la réécriture du déjà-écrit, qui s'inscrit dans le jeu complexe de l'intertextuel et de la référence, construit lui aussi son objet.”(33)

8  Helen Carr, “Modernism and travel (1880-1940),” in P. Hulme and T. Youngs, op.cit., 82.

9  The reflection is triggered by the news that Piero della Francesca's vista is threatened by government plans to build a motorway (LS 76).

10  See Vanessa Guignery's account of Alain de Botton's essay on travel writing, “Voyage au cœur du voyage: The Art of Travel (2002) d'Alain de Botton,” which focuses on the impossibility of a mimetic goal in a text where the narrator is the author who recreates, selects, and transforms the initial experience. Interestingly, the work of de Botton also heavily relies on parallels with the pictorial arts, and a combination of discourses on art, blurring the generic boundaries of travel writing.

11  See Marie-Madeleine Martinet's work on the tradition of the writing of the Italian journey and its fundamental links with the visual arts, Le Voyage d'Italie dans les littératures européennes.

12  See Regard 14-16. Regard notably refers to what Stephen Greenblatt underlined in Marvellous Possessions. The Wonder of the New World, published in 1991, pointing to the necessarily filtered nature of any account: “chacun des explorateurs dans le cadre historique et culturel qui lui est proper, s’efforce de concilier la surprise nue et le filter culturel, c’est-à-dire aussi une prise de parole individuelle (un regard neuf) et un langage commun (un discours hérité).” (15)

13  This aspect surfaces early on with the mention of the textbook Contatti! in the first chapter (LS 13-14), but Cusk quickly abandons the guide, however (a gesture underlining the possibly disappointing nature of its content and function).

14  This is also the case for the reader who pauses to contemplate, dissect, muse.

15  See Philippe Antoine's preface to Roman et récit de voyage, 6.

16  We can borrow the analogy suggested by Liliane Louvel – whose works on the word-image relations in literature have provided substantial critical tools to handle this haunting question – of the photograph reproduced in the text working as a “diptych” with the written medium (96).

17  The appearance of the Madonna del Prato (or pregnant madonna) is delayed, and an unrelated photograph appears (LS 57) before the copy is granted, three pages later (LS 61). The echo thus created is somewhat disturbing; the work is reproduced because “there is a print of it in the book” (LS 62). It is later described, but the illustration that comes is that of Hercules. Similarly, the dream of Constantine appears before the actual illustration is inserted in the narrative. Another instance can be mentioned with the picture of an old woman in a field which directly follows a paragraph in which the narrative voice indicates that Piero Della Francesca's Resurrection “hangs there” (a phrase which previously served to announce a visual counterpart to the title mentioned, LS 67).

18  Referring to Genette, Christine Montalbetti stresses the blurred boundaries between life and fiction : “Genette a insisté, dans le chapitre qu'il consacre dans Fiction et diction au couple 'récit fictionnel, récit factuel', sur la réversibilité essentielle des indices. La fictionalisation de l'expérience devient une manière de répondre à la ténuité du réel, une façon de le relittérariser,” 106.

19  It is hard not to think of E.M. Forster's aesthetes and their sterile infatuation with art, at the expense of life.

20  See James Buzard, “The Grand Tour and After (1660-1840),” 49.

21  And yet, one could remark on the potentially disappointing effect that some of the pictures reproduced in the book have on the reader. The black and white reproductions have (for economic reasons, one might presume) been drained of the colourful life of the originals.

22  The book is referred to on their arrival in France the first night, the journey being seen as combining “randomness and design” (LS 25). Helen Carr has remarked that Lawrence longed for a truer, simpler, more intense way of being, and was endlessly disappointed (83).

23  Although at first she confesses she has always thought there was too much reality and not enough art (“I never found much art in daily things,” LS 31), the digression on Tintoretto's life and works leads her to the conclusion that artists see grandeur in ordinary things.

24  “The display at the gelateria is an artist's palette that awakens deep urges and anxieties, for it asks that something be created without hinting at the form it might take. Each colour has its own significance, but it is sufficient unto itself. What human mood is ever so monochromatic, so pure? And how can one choose without transgressing the truth of one's fundamental ambivalence?” (LS 138)

25  This is when the literary references resurface in the narrative, with a mention of Blake (LS 192) followed by Pliny and Shakespeare (LS 206).

26  What Cusk calls “the real life” (LS 26) is thus glimpsed through an open window before it vanishes again, a brief illumination later echoed in the Italian part of the journey, as a “revelation by firefly-light, fragile and delicate, difficult to grasp” (LS 111).

27  The necessity is to name oneself, and to acquire self-knowledge, putting one's name on a work (as opposed to being named), preferring a name less constricted by one's mortal soul (LS 17-18). The circularity of the book is stressed through this act of naming: the narrative itself becomes “emblematic of the same consciousness that was simultaneously struggling to express itself in art” (LS 103).

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Référence électronique

Isabelle RANNOU, « “Like journeying through a painting”: Travel Writing and the Exploration of Textual Boundaries in Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper », E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 26 mai 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/3235 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3235

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Auteur

Isabelle RANNOU

Isabelle Rannouis Lecturer in English at the University of Rennes 2 where she wrote a Ph.D on E.M. Forster’s “visual quality” and the way in which his writing probes the complex relations between writing and pictorial arts.

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