The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy

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9780312429652: The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy

A vivid and elegant account of a family's season abroad by one of our finest contemporary authors

Casting off a northern winter and an orderly life, a family decides to sell everything and go to Italy to search for art and its meanings, for freedom from routine, for a different path into the future. The award-winning writer Rachel Cusk describes a three-month journey around the Italy of Raphael and rented villas, of the Piero della Francesca trail and the tourist furnace of Amalfi, of soccer and the simple glories of pasta and gelato. With her husband and two children, Cusk uncovers the mystery of a foreign language, the perils and pleasures of unbelonging, and the startling thrill of discovery -- at once historic and intimate.

Both sharp and humane in its exploration of the desire to travel and to escape, of art and its inspirations, of beauty and ugliness, and of the challenge of balancing domestic life with creativity, The Last Supper is an astonishing memoir.

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About the Author:

Rachel Cusk is the author of the memoirs A Life’s Work and The Last Supper (FSG, 2009), and the novels Saving Agnes, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award; The Temporary; The Country Life, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; The Lucky Ones; In the Fold; Arlington Park (FSG, 2007); The Bradshaw Variations (FSG, 2010); and Outline (FSG, 2015). She was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. She lives in Brighton, England.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

 

Self-Portrait, with dinosaurs

 

At night I would often be woken by noise from the road, and afterward would lie awake for hours, unable to sleep. The noise, which was of a strange drunken revelry, would usually begin long after the pubs had closed, though in the deeps of the night I never knew exactly what time it was. I was merely summoned by the sound of unearthly groans and shrieks outside my window that seemed to belong neither to the world nor to my dreams but somewhere in between. They might have been men’s voices or women’s, it was hard to tell. The noise they made came from a region that outlay human identity. Their long, inchoate monologues, vocalized yet senseless, seemed to name something that afterward could not be specified, to describe what by daylight appeared indescribable.

 

This demoniacal groaning would often go on for so long that it seemed impossible it could be coming from living people passing on the pavements. It was the sound of lost souls, of primitive creatures bellowing far inside the earth. Yet I never got up to look: the noise was so unreal that it was only when it stopped that I felt myself to be actually awake. Then I would lie there, full of a feeling of insecurity, as though the world were a wildly spinning fairground ride from which my bed might work loose and be somehow flung away. The groaning sounds and the darkness and the carelessly spinning earth, offering me its fathomless glimpses of space, of nothingness: all this would run on for one hour or two or three, I couldn’t tell.The hours were blank and sealed, filled with gray information: one after another they were dispatched.

 

Then another sound would begin, dimly at first, a kind of humming or droning, steady and industrious. After a while it filled the room with its monotonous note. This was the sound of traffic. People were going in their cars to work. A little later a finger of wan light showed itself at the curtains. When I was a child the night seemed as big as an ocean to me, deep and static: you rowed across it for hour after hour and sometimes got so lost in time and darkness that it seemed as if the morning might never be found. Now it was a mere vacuum, filling up with human activity as a dump is filled with discarded objects. It was an empty space into which the overcrowded world was extending its outskirts, its sprawl.

 

We were living in Bristol at that time, and the slaving past of the city was always present to me, though in the middle-class district of Clifton its brutality was largely semantic, recalling itself amid the boutiques and sofa shops of Whiteladies Road and Blackboys Hill. Yet it seemed to have seeped into the masonry, into the paving stones. I was often told that thebeautiful Georgian terraces of Clifton had for years been neglected and threatened with demolition and that students and artists had lived there contentedly in conditions approximating squalor. But that was in the past: these days the slave owners’ houses were smart again and unaffordable, the streets lined with beauty salons and expensive cars, the baize lawns of the private schools trodden by millionaires’ children from China, America, Japan. Clifton estate agents carried themselves with the preening significance of royal courtiers, while the fume-throttled city sprawled below, with its bombed-out center, its ghettos, its miles of strange, impoverished housing, its uneasy atmosphere both of misrule and of a thorough-minded, inexorable division.

 

Something of the hard-heartedness of that imperial past seemed to live on in the people I met and spoke to every day. Man, woman, and child, they found sensitivity intolerable. Nothing irked them more than the liberal conscience, unless it was anoutspoken sense of injustice. These things impinged on their free bigotry, and on the sense of humor that depended on it. They were not cold or unfriendly; quite the reverse. It was just that their philosophy formed an edifice of startling indelicacy amid the fluted columns and porticoes, the classical perspectives and cloudlike silhouettes, the ancient parks and pavilions, the secret rotundas and rich, ornamented interiors that were their habitat. It was a philosophy composed of two primitive blocks: that everyone should work for what he had; and that what mattered were the good things in life.

 

Encompassing so little in and of itself, this was a philosophy that required, for the sake of texture, of content, a God—and indeed the churches of Clifton did a thriving trade, on the import and the export side alike. I encountered notionsof Christian charity that might have come from the pages of a Victorian novel, so ignorant did they seem of the concept of social democracy, and was beleaguered everywhere by advertisements for the evangelical Alpha course, which, for an initiative that targets those who have lost their way in life, seemed in Clifton to be remarkably well attended. These advertisements took a somewhat startling form: one day I passed one and was driven to stop and look at it twice. It was a photograph ofa man in climbing equipment standing in sunlight on the pinnacle of a mountain. I was surprised, almost affronted, by the caption, which read: Is there more to life than this? I wasn’t entirely sure there was, nor ought to be. But I pondered it all the same. It had a profound effect on me, though not quite the one it intended. Whenever I thought of it, I feltmyself drawing to the threshold of a revelation, a realization so large that it was difficult to see its full extent.

 

Down in the city, the turgid river creeps between its sludge-gray banks. The Avon Gorge rises steeply to either side. A busy road runs down it: the roar of traffic echoes all along the chasm, rising and revolving like a vortex. Once there were mammoths here, and bears, and strange swimming dinosaurs with pointed beaks and close-set eyes. There is a placard by the gorge with drawings of these creatures, and a timeline. It is as straight as a ruler: it runs through the Paleolithic and the Neolithic and the Jurassic, through ice ages colored blue. At the end there is the stub of humanity, smaller than an arrowhead on its long shaft of time. Where it is going nobody knows. The line stops: the future is blank.

 

Every day at the same time I leave the house and walk my children to school. They are five and six. They each wear a navy-blue uniform, and carry a nylon schoolbag of the same color. These things identify them, just as in their picture books the Romans are identified by their togas, the Victorians by their bustles and top hats. They are modern schoolchildren: they belong to their moment in history, which gathers them up in its great impersonal wave. Now and then they make a toga out of asheet, or dress up in the crumpled raiment of an Indian squaw that lies with other costumes in a chest in their room. In the dim light of an English winter in an English provincial city, the forms of other eras vaguely suggest themselves, like mountains in mist. But none of it obstructs the passage of the arrow that flies on and on into its endlessly repeating blankness. They go to school and come back again, go and come back, go and come back. They are happy enough to do it, though theyretain a certain neutrality, as though they have been promised an explanation and are patiently waiting for it to be given.

 

It is on their behalf that I nurture my deepest stores of repulsion for the God advertisement and its insolent question. Ifthere are to be lies, let them not concern the value of life, for not everyone has tired of it yet. Let them not denigrate the world, for there are those whose chance to see it has not yet come.

 

On New Year’s Eve we go to a party on Dartmoor. In the morning I wake in an unfamiliar bedroom and look through the window at the moor veiled with rain. The shrouded hills are desolate. They seem to extend on and on, into an indistinct kind of infinity. After breakfast the women sit on sofas, talking. Their children dart in and out. Sometimes they reach out and catchone, to hold its squirming body and stroke its bright, fine hair. Their female forms are fixed and sculptural: though the children squirm, they are glad to be held by something so firm. The women are both shelter and shrine—they offer and at the same time they ask. They have agreed to stay still: it is the children who choose, between security and risk. It is important that they choose correctly. They mustn’t cling to their mothers; nor must they forget to swim past, close enough to be caught.

 

I stare through the window. From here it looks as though you could walk into the vista of gray hills and never stop, walk and walk without ever reaching anything you could call by its name. In time we decided to leave Clifton and move elsewhere. Our friends were sorry to see us go. They did not believe that we would find a place we liked better, for it seemed obviousto them that we were afflicted with restlessness and with a love of the unknown that in their eyes was a kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found, for it is in the seeking itself that the punishment lies. Yet I had a terror of my own, which was the fear of knowing somethinginits entirety. To seek held no particular fear for me: it was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing thatIshrank from.

 

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 as hidden from me as were themeans of its satisfaction.

 

We decided to go to Italy, though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see. Perhaps we would return to England; perhaps we would not. We put the house on the market and took the children out of their school. To this place, at least, we were never coming back.

 

The boat we are taking to France leaves from Newhaven, an hour from my parents-in-law’s house. The house is in the countryside. Outside, the village lies in ruminative silence. The hills are black and occasionally a cow bellows out of the blackness. We get up while it is still dark; an April darkness, damp, suggestive, faintly hopeful. It is half past four: it is thefirst stroke of the chisel on the block of our travels, this incision into the night, and the night is resistant. We prize it open, prize the children from their beds, stagger around thick-tongued and white-faced.

 

My mother-in-law has made breakfast. She moves around downstairs in her dressing gown, perfectly awake and composed. Shehas a significant air of readiness: she is like a part-time mythical functionary, a night worker, or one of those people inShakespeare who appear only in the first and last scenes. Her big golden somber-faced dog follows at her heels. She has madeporridge, and rolls. The kitchen smells of new bread. There is marmalade to go with the rolls. The dog sighs, turns around,settles down in a heap of golden fur on the red tiles by the hearth. My mother-in-law wishes she were coming with us. Yet just now she is so fixed in her setting, as we have never been: I have never known a place more homelike than this room in the moment before our departure. I imagine us towing the kitchen behind us, with its dog and oak table and eternal porridge pot, across the plains to Florence and Siena.

 

The two children sit at the table and eat. They keep their rucksacks on while they do it. They do not talk of what it isthey are leaving: the unknown has them in its thrall. On their last day of school their classmates presented them with cards and photographs and a present for each of them. When they saw these things, tears of surprise sprang from their eyes. They didn’t know they would require mementos. They had never held in their hands things of such finality. Now they say goodbyelavishly to the dog. Do they think they will ever see him again? It’s hard to tell. The future is still so incessant to them, coming out of its own blankness in wave after wave and then unexpectedly surfing them back to their own familiar shore. For all they know they might meet him in Italy, sauntering down a street in Rome with his tail wagging in the air, and they’d be more delighted than surprised if they did.

 

We drive for an hour across the Sussex Downs to Newhaven. For a while it is still dark; then slowly the darkness separates itself from the land. It lifts mysteriously away, leaving everything in a naked blue light. In that blue light England looks like a sleeping baby, looks somehow new and unmarked, with its soft hills and blue-tinted slumbrous fields and distanttrees like tiny motionless clouds. Afterward we go along the main road, past Brighton like a bright spill of gems over thehill down to the pale sea, past Lewes, and then we are amid fields again, on the quiet winding road to Newhaven that is likejourneying through a painting. I have noticed this before, this road’s picturesque aimlessness. It has an abstracted, dreamlike quality. It has a disarming kind of innocence before the thrust of departure, arousing a feeling of love for somethingalready lost, something that perhaps no longer really exists.

 

At last the blue light resolves itself into the familiar flat gray of an April dawn on the south coast. We wind our way toward the port, past the toylike Parker Pen factory, past the little train station and into the harbor, whose steeply rising grassy sides seem to be undergoing a kind of surgery, with their diggers and their piles of breeze blocks and their half-finished housing developments that look lived in and discarded before they’ve even been built. Rounding the bend, we see our boat, black plumes of smoke pouring from its funnels, monolithic against the miniature scale of the muddy harbor. There area few other cars waiting under the gray wadded sky, and some lorries, each like a great beast that has crept out of the night with its solitary driver. It is not yet the holiday season: people are at work; children have returned to school. We stare out of our car windows at the other cars. In the back we have clothes, books, a guitar, a box of toys, tennis rackets, athermos flask, a large Italian dictionary, a set of watercolors, and a leather-bound backgammon case. Other people seem to have nothing at all. They gaze through their windscreens, their back seats empty. Sometimes there is a pillow in a faded patterned pillowcase lying on the shelf behind, as if it is the only desire they can conceive of feeling, the need to pull upand sleep for an hour or two. We all inch our way gradually forward. I feel as if we are being held in a last moment of compression, like seeds held tightly in a hand before being scattered; as though our obligation to feel connected to othersisrunning down to its last seconds. It is the only thing that remains to be shed, this garment of nationhood. We move slowly forward in the dull gray light that has broken now over the sea. When it is our turn we show our passports. We say goodbye to the officer in her booth, and roll out across the concrete jetty...

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