5 min read
The Music in Prose
St. Augustine, Montaigne
Why an essay breathes
AVAILABLE ON PODCAST
The essay can make the best of people cringe, with its connection to the dreaded common application or the college assignment. The tragedy with this association is to ruin an otherwise ideal and expansive format to go anywhere you want and say anything you want.
For example, to ruminate on life and sins and his humility before God as St. Augustine did in his confessions in 400 AD, or to weigh the various aspects of life in the sixteenth century in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne. Essais is the French word for essays or literally for attempts or tests. How perfect! An attempt to say something of merit.
Essay collections are often shelved with poetry or fitted in among nonfiction. An Indie bookstore, Books on the Common in Ridgefield, had an entire book case dedicated to the essay. Notable authors can get away with essays, such as household names like David Sedaris or Ann Patchett. But, the rule of thumb is collections don’t sell.
I asked the clerk at the store–the one with the whole bookcase–and she said they take their essayists seriously. Maybe things are changing.
As part of a series and in no particular order, I wanted to share essays that changed me, that affected me so deeply, as to alter me or at least my thinking, in such a way as to shift my outlook and the fundamental way I saw things. A 2019 collection by Rachel Cusk has an essay, Making Home, a phrase used across the pond for what may be roughly the equivalent to keeping house in the states. The author recounts her undertaking to do a complete remodel of her London flat and how she was driven to the brink of mental and physical collapse.
In the essay, Cusk considers the house and all its parts, how the place we call home affects us, how we make it what it is, often unknowingly. She sheds part of herself in the remaking, feeling the need to explain the gutting to others, “as though creating a home out of mere words, and watch their faces brighten as the vision transferred itself from my head to theirs.”
Her mother lived in the dowdiest rooms in the “succession of moderately grand houses where the nicest rooms were the ones no one was allowed to use.” And Cusk found herself working in cramped spaces, sharing how “we moved house often, and each time it appeared that it was the perfecting of our environment that was causing us to leave it, as though living there had been a process of construction that was now complete.”
Moved house and making home. Very British phrases. I can see the plastic covers on the furniture, the kind I saw in my youth, whose owners spent their days in lesser rooms, so they could bequeath a perfect sofa to whom? the grandchildren, the junkyard.
One of my daughters has a friend whose house she likes to spend time in. It’s a cheerful, comfortable house, always full of people and food. There are the right number of parents in residence and enough attention to go around. It’s tasteful and cultured in an unfussy kind of way; the bookshelves are laden, the walls crammed with paintings; there’s a dog lying contentedly on the threadbare Persian rug. She can eat on the sofa there, as she can no longer do at home. It looks like a place where people create things, with none of the tensions I associate with creativity: the silence, the solitude, the unappeasable need for the world to disappear so that concentration can occur. For a time I am slightly jealous of her attraction to this household, though I understand it perfectly, for it embodies certain principles of living — generosity, tolerance, the recognition of the human as the pre-eminent value — that I myself hold dear while frequently feeling unable to deploy them in my own home. Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in, a duality that in neither case I have managed to reconcile. I retain the belief that other people’s homes are real where mine is a fabrication, just as I imagine others to live inner lives less flawed than my own. And like my daughter, I, too, used to prefer other people’s houses, though I am old enough now to know that, given a choice, there is always a degree of design in the way that people live. The man who admired my peeling Formica was crediting me with, or accusing me of, doing something deliberate, and I don’t doubt that the apparent artlessness of my daughter’s adopted household is, however half-consciously, a result of a carefully considered set of convictions. That those convictions so closely echo my own makes the illusion — if illusion it is — more tantalizing still. (p. 75)
This passage holds up the duality of reality and principles, turning them in the light, to reflect and examine, not only the author’s ideas of home and house against others, but against her earlier self, her mother’s, and of course against the reader’s. The cadence in the language, the role of the pronoun I as the author and the role of the daughter, the right number of parents, the dog lying contentedly, the certain principles of living, the generosity, tolerance, the recognition of the human as the pre-eminent value that she holds dear. It’s the impostor syndrome, the sense of falling short, the failure, that her daughter wants to be elsewhere. That her life is a fabrication, that convictions may be illusions. Cusk has succeeded her mother with her doomed trappings, by gutting all that was. She is not sure of her foundation.
She opened the essay in the oncologist office. A fun hook. She uses metaphor and simile.
Entering a house, I often feel that I am entering a woman’s body, and that everything I do there will be felt more intimately by her than by anyone else. (p.76)
The examples of making home shed light keenly on herself and others, the need to appear a certain way, for the home to conform to a set of principles. She writes how the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch lived in unutterable domestic squalor. . . I don’t doubt that her refutation of domestic servitude needed to be louder and more emphatic than most people’s.
I am riveted from the oncologist’s office on. In Cusk’s essay, I have seen lifetimes of houses and would-be homes. I rethink my own, with distance and honesty, a bit alarmed at my own succession of moderately grand houses. How much space does a body need? What makes a house a home?
This essay would have helped when I was just starting out, but Ms. Cusk hadn’t written it yet. She has fringe ideas. In an interview, two years after the essay was published, she explains why she doesn’t think character exists anymore. The interviewer wants to understand her new style of writing in a recent novel.
Essentially, I think all the problems of writing are problems of living. And all the problems of creativity are problems of living. They are all problems which we all share.
The essay had me going back to it, not in the tangible way of opening the book though I did that, but in my mind. Have I inherited my mother’s view of home or my friends’ and what are my principles? I prefer tidy and organized to squalor, but I have piles and messes and so much stuff, that might weigh the earlier me down had I not adopted aspects of my husband’s glib and easy manner of living, his childhood home a split-level rancher with one full bath and a multitude of dogs and cats, where as much time was spent outside and on the street as inside. When houses were small and lots were large.
The essay breathes when the writer weaves experiences together with reflection. It can be the most intimate of forms, artful as fiction, potent as fact. It is not the facts, however, that make an essay breathe. The essayist takes on the problems of writing and of living in her reflection and examination. And, they are problems we all share.
*Making Home, Notes on Domesticity A home is both something that is looked at and lived in, but that duality can be difficult to reconcile. New York Times, August 31, 2016. (Read full text at link above) How’s this title work for you? I prefer reading the essay without the paper clarifying the intent. Which is how it happened for me. Wanting to share it with friends, I found the full text online, the editor’s steerage of the craft unavoidable in its header. Beware, it says, here’s what lies ahead. Prepare for the voyage. That’s useful in nonfiction, I admit, when dipping in for cold hard facts of a thing. In an essay, this is narrative of the most personal kind. No channel markers needed. Read the article in full at the link at the head of this footnote, with tagline and art deco illustration top of the fold.
* Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Collection of essays, 2019) Essay discussed in this letter is Making Home. p. 70
*“I don’t think character exists anymore”: a Conversation with Rachel Cusk. Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker, Nov 18, 2018.