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Cultural escape

THE idea behind this memoir seems simple: a prizewinning author of six novels and a previous memoir, books praised for their witty and sophisticated prose, scoops up her husband and two children and escapes dreary England for Tuscany, where she will relish the landscape, the weather, the food and, above all, the art. As someone who periodically escapes England with the same destination and delights in mind, I was eager to read "The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy" by Rachel Cusk, hoping to see cherished sights through fresh eyes.

"Arlington Park," the novel Cusk published two years ago, is about the deadening effects of rainy British suburbia on a handful of unhappy young mothers, so it comes as no surprise to discover at the beginning of her new book that she regrets the damp suburb in which she lives, prey to disenchantment, claustrophobia and boredom.

She requires truth and beauty - and "distinctness." She tells us about "a hunger that seemed to gnaw at the very ligaments of my soul." Later, on the other side of the Channel, she looks back on "the days whose repetition had laid a kind of fetter on my soul." It's not clear whether the souls of her husband (unnamed) and her daughters (aged 5 and 6, also unnamed) are similarly gnawed and fettered. Nevertheless, "we decided to go to Italy, though not forever."

En route to a rented house near Arezzo, where they will stay for two months, they drive through France, stopping in Burgundy, the Ardche and the Cote d'Azur. ("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.") Cusk describes this brief transit in arch, metaphor-laden prose, deploying similes as though they were a sacred cause. About the books in a Frenchman's library she writes, "these motionless creatures ... rest finished on their shelves while day and night come and go at the window, beating like soft waves against their buried knowledge."

In the duomo in Lucca she sees the first great painting of her Italian sojourn, Tintoretto's "Last Supper." Here, this solemn, meandering travelogue finds focus and ignites a flicker of interest.

Palpable intensity

"I look at this painting for a long time," she writes. "I try to understand it." She looks with palpable intensity, notes the distinction between the figures in the foreground and those in the background, closer to Jesus: "The closer they are to us, the less attention they pay him," she notes. The two disciples closest to us "possess a great reality, the reality of the living moment, of the chunks of bread and the half-drunk glasses of wine, of the plates and crumpled tablecloth and the woman who watches their conversation instead of the baby at her breast." Cusk concludes that "perception is stronger than belief, at least for an artist, who sees such grandeur in ordinary things."

For the rest of her stay in Italy, whenever she encounters a great work of art (a Cimabue in Assisi, say, or a Raphael in the Uffizi), she observes carefully, teasing out specific meanings, while reaching for philosophical precepts.

Piero della Francesca's message, she decides, having studied one of his austere Madonnas in Urbino, "is that you must seek a truth that lies beyond human concerns." But human concerns are hard to transcend when you're an English couple with two small children residing temporarily in Tuscany. There are other English couples about, and a stray Scotsman who takes an interest. Cusk devotes entire chapters to encounters with expatriates, at times making her memoir resemble a sour, highbrow pastiche of Peter Mayle's books about Provence.

I was puzzled by the cruelty of her descriptions of characters who appear only briefly and incidentally - and then it occurred to me that perhaps she resented the cameo intrusion of these bit players who interrupted her pursuit of truth and beauty, and caricatured them by way of revenge. She certainly resents her fellow tourists. Her snobbery in this respect is impressively flexible: in Sansepolcro she sees tourists "of a superior kind" - although they're art lovers, like herself, she mocks their bourgeois rectitude. In Florence the "herds" repulse her. In Assisi she's "outraged" by the pilgrims who wait in line to pay reverence to the relics of St Francis but ignore the frescoes of Giotto. At least she has the courage of her convictions: she makes no attempt to conceal her disdain.

She declares that food in Italy is "first and foremost ... kind to children." She elaborates, using the humble pizza as a case in point, and her notions are entertaining as far as they go (a pizza, she writes, "is like a smiling face: it assuages the fear of complexity by showing everything on its surface"), but she's clearly neither a connoisseur of Italian cuisine nor an enthusiastic amateur.

She likes to toy with her ideas, not with her food. "The Last Supper" concludes with a whirlwind tour of Naples, Pompeii and Rome - husband and children still in tow, still anonymous. The quickened pace puts Cusk at a disadvantage: she's at her best when she broods, when she allows her earnestness to condense. A lightning visit calls for a deft impressionist touch.

In fact, there's an awkward tension throughout "The Last Supper" between Cusk's intellectual ambitions and the humdrum "what I did last summer" narrative. I believe she hopes this tension is resolved by her emphasis on perception and the aesthetic and moral importance of the ordinary. But I hope that next time she visits Italy she leaves her domestic baggage at home and concentrates on looking at the art.


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