The student's name was Jane. She was sitting on the sofa, apparently not noticing that it—and everything else in the room—was covered with white dust sheets.
Thank you, she said, accepting a cup of tea and placing it carefully on the floor beside her.
She was a tall, slim, narrow-bodied woman with surprisingly generous firm breasts that her tight turquoise sweater accentuated. She smoothed her lime-green pencil skirt frequently over her thighs. She wore no makeup: Her bare, lined face with its neat features was like the face of a worried child. Her pale hair was piled on top of her head in a way that revealed the elegance of her long neck.
She was grateful, she said, that I'd agreed to work with her—she'd had a suspicion they would try to palm her off on someone else. Last term she'd had a novelist who kept trying to make her rewrite the endings of other people's books. The term before that it had been a memoirist whose own life had so preoccupied him that he never actually managed to attend one of their meetings. He would sometimes call her from Italy, where he kept going to see his girlfriend, giving her exercises to do over the phone. He always wanted her to write about sex: Perhaps it was just a subject that happened to be on his mind at the time.
The thing is, she said, I know what I want to write about. She paused and sipped her tea. I just don't know how to write it.
Outside the sitting-room windows the afternoon sky was a motionless gray blank. Occasionally sounds came from the street, the slamming of a car door or a fragment of passing conversation.
I said it wasn't always a question of knowing how.
She arched her eyebrows, which had been plucked into fine, dark, perfectly drawn curves.
Then what is it a question of? she said.
The material, she went on, which she'd been collecting for the past four or five years, had by now grown into a set of notes more than 300,000 words long: She was keen to start the actual writing. It concerned the life of the American painter Marsden Hartley, someone surprisingly few people here had heard of, though in the States his work could be found hanging in most of the major galleries and museums. I asked whether she had been there to look at them.
I'm not that interested in the paintings, she said, after a pause.
She had seen, she went on, some of his work in Paris: There had been a retrospective there. She had happened to be passing and saw one of the posters outside. The image they'd used had caused her immediately to enter the gallery and purchase a ticket for the exhibition. It was early in the morning—the gallery had only just opened—and no one else was there. She had walked alone around the five or six large rooms of paintings. When she came out, she had undergone a complete personal revolution.
She fell silent again. She sipped her tea with an air of equanimity, as though in the confident belief that I would not be able to resist asking her to continue and tell me precisely what had caused the personal revolution to occur. I could hear the neighbors moving about downstairs beneath our feet. There were occasional thumps that sounded like doors being opened and shut, and the rise and fall of voices.
I asked her what she had been doing in Paris and she said that she had gone there for a few days to teach a course. She was a professional photographer, and she was often asked to teach short courses. She did it for the money, but also because these trips away from home sometimes proved to be staging posts, even if she didn't see it at the time. They gave her a distance on her own life: It became something she could see, instead of being immersed in it as she usually was, though she didn't particularly enjoy the teaching itself. The students were generally so demanding and self-obsessed that afterward she felt completely drained. At the beginning she would feel she was giving them something, something good, something that might change their lives—the drained feeling felt at first like a virtuous kind of exhaustion. But as she was successively emptied over the four or five days of the course, something else would start to happen. She would begin to view them—the students—with greater objectivity; their need for her started to look like something less discriminating, more parasitical. She felt duped by them into believing herself to be generous, tireless, inspiring, when in fact she was just a self-sacrificing victim. It was this feeling that often brought her to a position of clarity about her own life. She would start to give them less and herself more: By draining her, they created in her a new capacity for selfishness. As the course drew to a close she would often have started to care for herself differently, more tenderly, as if she were a child; she would begin to feel the first stirrings of self-love. It was while in this state that she had walked past the gallery and seen the reproduction of Marsden Hartley's painting on the poster.
There had been a man, she added, teaching with her on the course; an older man—she had a susceptibility for them—who was a well-known photojournalist and whose work she admired. There had been something between them from the start, an electricity, though he was married and lived in America. She had just broken up with her partner of two years, someone who knew her with sufficient thoroughness that his demolition of her character in their final arguments could not fail to undermine her opinion of herself; she clung to the photojournalist's attention as if it were a life raft. He was a man of intelligence—or at least a reputation for it—and power: His notice of her acted as a counterweight to her ex-boyfriend's contempt. On the last night they had walked together around Paris until three in the morning. She had barely slept: Such was her arousal and excitement that she had got up early and walked some more, all through the deserted city in the dawn, walked and walked until the poster had caused her to stop.
I asked her what she took photographs of.
Food, she said.
The phone rang in the next-door room and I told her to excuse me while I went to answer it. It was my older son and I asked him where he was. Dad's, he said, sounding surprised. What's happening there? he said. I said I was in the middle of teaching a student. Oh, he said. There was a silence. I could hear a rustling sound and the sound of him breathing into the receiver. When are we coming back? he said. I said I wasn't sure: The builder thought it might be possible in a couple of weeks. There's nobody here, he said. It feels weird. I'm sorry, I said. Why can't we just be normal? he said. Why does everything have to be so weird? I said I didn't know why. I was doing my best, I said. That's what adults always say, he said. I asked him how his day at school had been. OK, he said. I heard Jane clear her throat in the next-door room. I said I was sorry but I had to go. OK, he said.
When I went back to the sitting room, I was struck by the sight of Jane's jewel-colored clothing amid the white landscape of dustsheets. She had remained very still, her knees together and her head erect, her pale fingers evenly splayed around the teacup. I found myself wondering who exactly she was: There was a sense of drama about her that seemed to invite only two responses—either to become absorbed or to walk away. Yet the prospect of absorption seemed somehow arduous: I recalled her remarks about the draining nature of students and thought how often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others. I asked her how old she was.
Thirty-nine, she said, with a defiant little lifting of her head on her long neck.
I asked her what it was about this painter—Marsden Hartley—that so interested her.
She looked me in the eyes. Hers were surprisingly small: They were lashless and unfeminine—the only unfeminine thing about her appearance— and the color of silt.
He's me, she said.
I asked her what she meant.
I'm him, she said, then added, slightly impatiently: We're the same. I know it sounds a bit strange, she went on, but there's actually no reason why people can't be repeated.
I said that if she was talking about identification, she was right—it was common enough to see oneself in others, particularly if those others existed at one remove from us, as for instance characters in a book do.
She gave a single, frustrated shake of her head. That's not what I mean, she said.
When she had said earlier that she wasn't interested in his paintings what she was trying to say was that she wasn't interested in them objectively, as art. They were more like thoughts, thoughts in someone else's head that she could see. It was seeing them that had enabled her to recognize that those thoughts were her own. In the gallery, the curators of the exhibition had mounted various critical commentaries and biographical notes on the walls. She had begun to read them as she passed from one room to the next, and initially had been disappointed to realize that her life and Marsden Hartley's in fact had nothing in common at all. His mother had died when he was small; hers was still alive and well in Tunbridge Wells. His father, when he was eight or nine, had remarried and simply abandoned the boy, moving with his new wife to a different part of the country and leaving him to be brought up by relatives. When he grew up, it was to become a gay man who only ever succeeded in consummating his sexuality a handful of times in his life; Jane, female as well as thoroughly heterosexual, had slept with more men than she would care to count, even if she could have remembered them all. For most of his adult life he lived in virtual poverty, spending long periods in France and Germany and only returning to America when he had run out of money; she was a middle-class Englishwoman with a small but steady income who, though she liked travel, would never consider living abroad. Most of all he had associated with many of the luminaries of his time—famous painters and writers and musicians—and this was something Jane found it almost painful to consider, for one of her greatest complaints, if she were honest, about her own life was the lack of interesting people in it. Her longing to belong to the kind of world Marsden Hartley had frequented was such that she felt held in a perpetual, frustrated state of readiness, of alertness, as though she feared she might blink and find that she had missed that world passing right by her. Unhappy as Marsden Hartley's existence had been, it had, unlike hers, contained those kinds of consolations and opportunities.
Also, Jane said, he's dead.
We sat in silence for a while. Jane held her teacup as though it had nothing to do with her, while the liquid cooled inside. She had returned to the paintings, she went on, to their strange, slightly lurid colors and mounded shapes, to their interiority and yet the simple childlike honesty of their forms, while she tried to process this sense of combined familiarity and dissonance. Many of the paintings were of the sea, which deepened her confusion even more: She had never lived near the sea nor been particularly compelled by the maritime landscape. Then, finally, she came across a small oil painting that showed a boat in a storm. It was painted in a naïve style—the boat was like a child's toy boat and the waves were the curlicue kind of waves a child would paint, and the storm was an enormous white blobby shape overhead. She read the commentary beside the painting, which told the story of Marsden Hartley's yearly visits to Nova Scotia, where he lived for the summer weeks with a local fishing family in their cottage, and where—in this family's company—he had found the only real happiness and sense of belonging he had ever known. The sons of the family, as well as numerous male cousins, accepted and befriended him, he a wan, neurasthenic, troubled artist and they strapping good-looking rural men of liberal passions: In that wild remote spot, their home was as warm and physical as an animal's den, the very opposite of Gertrude Stein's sofa in Paris—where Marsden Hartley had on occasion found himself sitting—and there was some suggestion that this warm animal playfulness had even extended itself into Marsden Hartley's sexual loneliness (they were as likely, he once recalled, to have joyfully had intercourse with a woman, or a horse) and alleviated it. During one of those summer visits, while Marsden Hartley remained painting for the day at the cottage, the brothers sailed to Halifax, along with one of their cousins, to offload their catch and all three were drowned in a ferocious storm.
It was this story, Jane went on after a while, that caused the cataclysm of realization—what she had called the revolution—to occur. Rather than mirroring the literal facts of her own life, Marsden Hartley was doing something much bigger and more significant: He was dramatizing them.
I asked her what it was about this particular story that had brought her to that conclusion.
It seemed so pointless, she said, so futile and sad. It was almost too awful to be true. I was trying to work out what it meant, why it had happened to him, after all that he'd already gone through, rather than to someone else. He'd lost his mother and his father had abandoned him, he'd failed time and again to find and keep a lover—even a friend of his, someone who cared about him, once wrote that it was impossible not to reject him, that the friend himself had rejected him, that something about him just made people do it. Reading these things, she said, I began to understand: When he loved something, he drove it away. I realized, standing there, that if I had to describe my own life—even though, as I say, the examples would be much less dramatic—I would use exactly those same words.
While she had been speaking, a powerful, rancid smell had been filling the sitting room. It was emanating from the basement flat. I apologized and explained that the people downstairs sometimes cooked things that—at least from a distance—smelled pretty unpleasant.
I wondered what that was, Jane said, with an unexpectedly mischievous smile. It must be something they caught in the garden, she added, because I don't know anything else that smells that bad when you cook it. When she was a child, her mother used to boil animals' skeletons—squirrels, rats, even once the head of a fox—in order to paint them. The smell was just like that, Jane said.
If she objected, I said, we could easily go out and find a cafe somewhere in order to finish our conversation.
I'd rather not, Jane said immediately. Like I say, I'm actually pretty used to the smell.
Her mother was quite a successful painter, she went on. It was all she'd ever cared about really—she probably shouldn't ever have had children, except that it was what you did in those days. She doesn't think much of what I do, Jane said. Even Jane's recent commission to photograph the Waitrose Christmas brochure had failed to impress her. She hates food in any case, Jane said. There was never anything to eat when we were growing up. Even the freezer was full of dead animals, and not the sort you'd want to have for dinner. Other kids had fish fingers and choices in their freezers: Jane had half-decomposed vermin. Marsden Hartley's experiences of starvation, she added, were another source of affinity: They had rendered him both obsessed with food and terrified of it. He compensated for the episodes of hunger by overeating when the opportunity arose. It was said that, at the end of his life, he ate himself to death. It was another of those instances of dramatization: Jane herself had eating problems—what woman didn't—but in her case it wasn't a question of will and control, or at least it hadn't started that way. Her mother's mental and often-physical absences had resulted in her being, as a child, underfed: As an adult she remained haunted by hunger and by the knowledge that if she ever started to eat, she wouldn't be able to stop. I take photographs of food, she said, instead of eating it.
After reading about Marsden Hartley eating himself to death, she had tried to find out more about what had actually happened. She plowed through countless pages on his brushstrokes and his influences, his developmental phases, and his turning points, but no one had much to say on the subject of his eating problems. I suppose there wasn't the language for it then, she said. In all the photographs she'd seen of him, he was a tall, narrow man with a lifted, bird-like face, but then finally, one day, she'd come across a black-and-white photo of him late in life. He was standing in an empty room, a white space—it looked like a gallery, except that there were no pictures on the walls—and he was wearing a big black overcoat buttoned up over his enormous body. His head on its still-narrow neck came out of the top, so that it looked almost dissociated from the mass beneath it; his face, though older, was more or less unchanged. In fact, if anything, it looked more childlike, so naked was its expression of suffering. It was a photograph of a tormented child imprisoned in a great rock of flesh.
What she did learn from all the books was something else, something she hadn't really been expecting, which was that the story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life. In the sense of what most people mean by living, she said. Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: A life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing—no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas—to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time. Just his work, she said, and in the end she had the feeling that he'd done more of that than anyone had any use for. He died in his 60s, yet reading about it you'd think his life had gone on for a thousand years. Even the social life she'd envied had started to pall on her, the shallowness of it, the same competitive faces in the same rooms, the repetitiveness and lack of growth, the lack of tenderness or intimacy.
Loneliness, she said, is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think that you kill things just by being there. Yet when she looked at her mother, who lived alone in such squalor that frankly they'd be better off burning the house to the ground when the time came to sell it, she saw someone happy in her solitude, in her work. It's like there's something she doesn't know, she said, because no one's ever forced her to know it.
I asked whether, had a different artist been showing at the gallery that morning in Paris, she might have recognized a different narrative, or at least a narrative that combined the same elements in a different way.
She looked at me in silence with her small, unreadable eyes.
Is that what you think? she said.
I had in fact seen a painting by Marsden Hartley. It was several years ago, in a gallery in New York: I had been there with my husband and children, I told her, on holiday, and we had gone into the gallery to get out of the rain. The painting was a seascape: It showed a heaving wall of white water, a rising cumulus strewn with lozenges of blue and green whose volcanic unfolding lay somewhere in the painting's future. I had stood and looked at the painting while my children, who were still small, grew increasingly impatient; I had seemed to see in it a portent whose meaning penetrated me like a skewer in my chest. I could see it, in fact, still, the turbulent whiteness massing and gathering, the wave whose inability to stop itself rising and breaking formed its inescapable destiny. It was perfectly possible to become the prisoner of an artist's vision, I said. Like love, I said, being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again. But there had been other paintings, I said, before and since, that had moved me just as deeply.
I've got 300,000 words of notes, she said coldly. I can't just throw them away.
The smell from the basement had become so overpowering that I got up and opened the window. I looked down at the deserted street, the rows of parked cars, the trees that were losing their leaves so that their branches had begun to show, like bare limbs through rags. The air came in, surprisingly cool and rapid.
Why not? I said.
I'm not listening to this, she said. I don't want to hear this.
When I turned around I was met by the sight of her in the undulating landscape of dustsheets, the whiteness broken by the blue and green shapes of her clothing. Her face was stricken.
Obviously, I said, she could do what she liked, and I would help her as much as I could.
But I'd be wasting my time, she said. Not wasting it, I said. But spending it.
I asked her to tell me about the evening in Paris that she had spent with the photojournalist, the night before her discovery of Marsden Hartley.
She looked at me quizzically.
Why do you want to know about that? she said. I said I didn't quite know why.
She heaved a sigh, her turquoise bust rising and falling.
It was the last night of the course, she said, and there was a drinks reception to mark the occasion. It was summer and the party was held in the gardens of the building, which was near the river beside the Place Saint-Michel. The gardens were very beautiful in the dusk and there was champagne to drink, because the course sponsors were a company of champagne manufacturers. She wore a beautiful white dress she had bought the day before in the Rue des Fougères, having taken the trouble to go back to the hotel and change, despite the fact that her ex-partner had taunted her over the phone earlier that day when she'd spoken to him, saying that she cared only about her appearance and her ability to attract men. The photojournalist was there, drinking champagne in the elegant fragrant gardens where the noise of traffic along the Boulevard Saint-Michel could be faintly heard, but so too—unexpectedly—was someone she disliked, a man from home, from England, a fellow photographer who had insulted her and undermined her on a job where they'd worked together. She didn't know what he was doing here, but he was stuck to the famous photojournalist like glue. All the same the threads of attraction, carefully woven between herself and the photojournalist over the previous days, remained intact: They glanced at each other frequently and caught each other's eyes; and then at other times they didn't look at each other at all and allowed their bodies to radiate awareness. She felt elated, filled with certainty, like a bride in her white dress: Several students approached her to praise her for her work, telling her how much she had helped them. An hour or more passed; the party started to thin out. She had been waiting for the photojournalist to come and speak to her, but he didn't, and as more time passed the knowledge began to creep coldly over her that he would not. In order to evade this knowledge, she decided to seek him out herself: The feeling of elation, and her determination to remain in that state, was more powerful than finicky, disappointing reality. He was still locked in conversation with her adversary—the Englishman—a middle-aged dissolute-looking character she'd always found physically repellent with his slack, pot-bellied body and his big yellow uneven teeth. He bared them like a horse, his lips rolled back, laughing at everything the photojournalist said.
The three of them—the Englishman had no intention of being dislodged—decided to go to a restaurant, and they left the party and walked up the Boulevard Saint-Michel to a bistro the photojournalist knew. It was a noisy, harshly lit place, full of mirrors and metallic surfaces. She sat at a table with the two men and engaged in an outright battle with the Englishman for the photojournalist's attention, a battle she knew she had won when after two long hours he had leaned toward her and laid his hand lightly on her wrist, remarking concernedly that she hadn't eaten anything. It was true—her food remained more or less untouched on its plate. The bistro was the unromantic, old-fashioned kind of place where the dishes looked like photographs out of 1970s cookbooks, the kind of cookbooks women of her mother's generation used to own and of which in fact there had been a memorable example in her own childhood home, her father at a certain point having taken out a subscription for her mother to a series of bound volumes entitled Cordon Bleu Cookery.
He must have been desperate, she said with a smile.
They arrived every month in big embossed hardback folders, and he would place each one next to its unread predecessor until the set occupied a whole bookshelf. Her mother, to Jane's knowledge, had never opened one of these folders: The only person who looked at them was Jane herself, sitting alone in the kitchen in the afternoons after school, when her mother was in her painting studio and her father, having left and remarried and moved away, was no longer there. For a long time she had wondered why he hadn't taken the handsome and prestigious volumes—whose arrival and interment he had treated as a matter of great ceremony—with him when he went. In those days she hadn't been allowed to touch them, but now they stood dusty and forlorn on their shelf in the filthy kitchen: She understood they had been abandoned. She would sit and turn the pages, studying the lurid pictures of flan and beef wellington and potatoes dauphinoise, the colors alarming and bewilderingly unreal, the graininess of the photographs suggestive of some history that had either never occurred or that she somehow had missed, she wasn't sure which. Sometimes a hand was visible in the photographs, appearing to execute a culinary maneuver: It was a white hand, small and clean and sexless, with scrubbed, well-clipped nails. It touched things without leaving a mark on them, or being marked in return: It remained clean, unbesmirched, even as it gutted a fish or skinned a tomato. When he touched her wrist the photojournalist's hand, strangely, had reminded her of it.
The Englishman had observed that suggestive gesture, and after another half an hour or so got up to leave.
I'm getting the feeling you two don't want any more chaperoning, he said nastily, baring his yellow teeth. He edged out from around the table, jostling it so that the cutlery clattered and the wine sloshed in its glasses. He looked her directly in the eye. Good luck, he said.
After that, the photojournalist had paid the bill and the two of them had gone out into the dark, warm city. He suggested they try to find a bar. It was so late by now that this search proved fruitless—neither of them knew Paris well enough—and became, instead, a directionless walk. They walked close together, their arms sometimes touching. She felt his immanence, the fullness of his attention: They seemed to be walking toward some agreement, something inevitable, without ever quite reaching it. At one point he stopped, grasping her elbow and halting her in the darkness of a side street, but it was only so that he could retie his shoelace. She began to gain awareness, self-consciousness: She wondered how the seduction, which earlier had seemed a certainty, would occur. She realized, suddenly, that he was quite old, probably twice her age; at one point she noticed him slip a small mint in his mouth, as though he feared being found off-putting. His excitement was palpable yet beneath it there was something fixed and immovable, some barrier she wasn't sure how to penetrate. Finally, after two hours of walking and talking, they found that they were standing outside their hotel. He talked in a bumbling way for another ten minutes or so in the lobby; then he drily kissed her cheek, said goodnight, and went to bed.
She had gone to her room and laid staring at the ceiling in a state of high, thrumming alertness. Then, as she had already told me, she got up in the dawn and walked through the city again alone.
I asked her what the photojournalist had talked about, on their walk.
His wife, she said. About how intelligent she was. And how talented.
At some point he had told her that he and his wife had separated for a period. She had asked him why. He said it was because of work: The wife had got an important promotion, which took her to the other side of the country, and he had things he wanted to do here, in Europe. They had lived apart for two years, each pursuing different projects. At the end of that time they had come together again, in their home in Wyoming. She asked him, boldly, if there had been infidelity. He denied it. Vociferously, she added.
I knew then, she said, that he was a liar, that for all his reportage and his honesty he was determined to keep himself untouched, to take without giving, to hoard himself like a greedy child. I knew, she said, that he wanted to sleep with me, had considered it thoroughly, and decided—from experience, I've no doubt, she said—that it was too much of a risk.
I asked her why she had felt such excitement, after this deflating encounter.
I don't know, she said. I think it was the feeling of being admired. She was silent for a while, gazing toward the window, her face lifted. Admired, she went on, by someone more important than me. I don't know why, she said. It excited me. It always excites me. Even though, she said, you could say I don't get anything out of it.
She looked at her watch: It was late; she ought to go, and leave me in peace. She took her bag and stood up amid the dust sheets.
I said she should think about our conversation, and about whether anything had been said that might provide her with an opening. I said I felt sure it would become clear soon enough.
Thank you, she said, shaking my hand lightly with her slender fingers. I could tell she didn't believe me. We went out into the hall and I opened the door for her. The neighbors from the flat below were standing outside on the pavement in the gray afternoon, shabby in their coats. At the sound of the door they turned to look, their faces grim and suspicious, and Jane returned their look imperiously. I imagined her in the dusk of a Paris garden, untouched in her white dress, an object thirsting if not for interpretation then for the fulfillment at least of an admiring human gaze, like a painting hanging on a wall, waiting.
From Transit by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2016)