Thursday, June 15, 2017

Rachel Cusk - The Last Supper


So, I finished Rachel Cusk's The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy this evening.

As I was reading it, I was wondering what she had made of Italy, as she seemed rather ambivalent and non-committal - lots of pages devoted to describing the art she was seeing (despite there often being a photo of the work described).Towards the end, she says that art is necessary, in "order to digest the supermarkets and shopping malls, the litter and landfill sites, the pylons and traffic jams and motorway service stations that otherwise fill the eye". Rachel obviously gets art in a way I never have and am never likely to, but she perhaps spends so much time talking about it to conceal what's going on for her. It was actually at the family's last supper in Italy that "awakens" a love for Italy - it is a humble sort of night, they've pitched a tent in a camping ground, which sounds like a fairly normal sort of camping ground. When she asks the proprietor if there is something to eat, he volunteers to share the dinner his wife has cooked, and it is this encounter which arouses their emotions. I've possibly solved another mystery - why there are so few mentions of her husband. I'd forgotten that the book had to be pulped because an un-named someone did not want to be revealed in the book - I wonder if it was him?

There's a chapter devoted to Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), the famous Renaissance painter, who she describes as lacking any "dimension of experience", lacking any sort of artist's ego - happy to mimic others. He was blown away by seeing the works of Michelangelo and da Vinci, but although hey influenced his style, he was unable to add an air of mystery to his work. They visit the Uffizi in Florence, and see his Madonna of the Goldfinch:

Apparently, Rafael had sufficient ego to try to derail Michelangelo's career: he was busy sculpting a tomb for Pope Julius until Rafael persuaded the Pope that it was bad form to have his tomb built while still alive. This did indeed lead to the Pope calling a halt to the project - but then he said to Michelangelo "Since you're at a loose end, how about a spot of painting?" And so the painting of the Sistine Chapel came about. D'oh!

After two months in the same house, they head south, through Rome, to Naples, "a city that has the appearance of living among its own ruins". This, I think, is my favourite chapter - quite a lot of movement, not so much art analysis, accounts of what she is seeing and of the kids. Her imagination runs amok - she envisions Naples as some sort of bodily organ presiding over its own world of waste and renewal, populated by "sinuous, lustrous headed boys and girls" flying past on mopeds and men "so dark and pagan-looking, so powerful and savagely polite! [yet] absolutely mysterious".The train that takes them to Pompeii tunnels "furiously through poverty and grandeur alike, as though it didn't care for the difference".

The plan had been to get to Capri, as the turning point in their travels, "the gold coin at the bottom of the pool" she needed to grasp to be released, but a strike means there are no boats. This leads to her questioning the whole plan, asking "what are we doing here?" saying she has lost her sense of understanding. Instead, they spend 15 euro to enter a beach, arm themselves with icy drinks and examine the neighbours with "unconscionable thoroughness".

Rome, when they return, is a madhouse - European cup quarter-final - although apparently it is no longer the capital city of unbecoming groping: men are keeping their hands to themselves. Evolution?

As the book ends, she muses on the impact of the three months in Italy: not long enough to have the feeling and habits of living there but long enough to lose the sense of being a visitor. It has also made them change, so that going home will require a re-adjustment - perhaps for the two girls most of all,who would like to stay forever, having forgotten the sadness of leaving home. Rachel doesn't want to stay or settle, wants to roam but I guess that was not feasible. 

One blog post to finish with, about a fellow who decides he really must listen to some Albanian music, but it is unsurprisingly difficult to find any in New York.


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