At its worst, the travel memoir can be formulaic to the extreme. A typical narrative begins with the author’s nagging sense of mediocrity and boredom, which then feeds into a desire for adventure and change, and often culminates in some form of the New Agey idiom “wherever you go, there you are.” Rachel Cusk’s latest book follows this formula to a point before turning it roundly on its head. The Last Supper is not only an account of the author’s journey to Italy, it is also a meditation on art and autonomy. Fearful of falling into a dull, dreary routine, Cusk and her husband sell their house in cold, damp Bristol, England, pull their two young children out of school, and head toward warmer, and perhaps more permissive, climes. As was true in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2002), in which she appraised motherhood with incisive scrutiny, nothing in The Last Supper is taken for granted. Cusk chooses Italy for its promise of being a cure for the “hunger that seemed to gnaw at the very ligaments of my soul, whose cause was as hidden from me as were the means of its satisfaction.” Yet Italy provides no such palliative. Simple charms or unconditional gifts are not to be had—every pleasure Cusk derives from this complex, contradictory country, from Raphael’s sublime paintings to decadent chocolate gelato, is hard earned.
For Cusk, uprooting her family offers more than a chance to give her children a glimpse of the world that lies beyond the “English provincial city” in which they live; it is a way to counteract conformity and complacency. In fact, it is a form of survival. “To seek held no particular fear for me,” Cusk writes in defense of her decision. “It was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing that I shrank from.” This surety of purpose is what makes the book so gripping. Each sentence is crisply perfect, binding brilliantly detailed descriptions to sensitive, sharp observations. Cusk is as brutally honest about the medieval village of Sansepolcro—“Like other places, it has elected to keep its beautiful heart beating with an ersatz modern apparatus of hideous ugliness”—as she is about pilgrims visiting the Basilica di San Francesco: “The specifics of art are too strong for their palates. It is bones they have come for in their air-conditioned coaches; bones, and the experience of their own coming, their massing: the basic unit of life, entire unto itself, moving and massing together like polyps on the ocean bed.”
Cusk is a master of restraint, giving just as much information as necessary to move the story forward and carefully withholding facts about her personal life. The names of her husband and children are never given, though their presence is often felt. This is not to imply that the narration is dispassionate. Over the course of the book, Cusk reveals the self-knowledge that comes with travel in a foreign country through ruminations, rather than epiphanies, seamlessly interwoven with lively dissections of St. Francis of Assisi and Piero della Francesca. Italy represents a chance to learn and grow on her own terms, which is as close as one can come to experiencing freedom. “In England, I became increasingly sure that to possess something was to arrest your knowledge of it, because the thing itself is no longer free,” she writes. “For me the pain of knowledge is a tonic, an antidote to the pall of possession.” “Wherever you go, there you are" still holds true, but in this case, the you is mutable and unpredictable, waiting to be discovered anew.
Claire Barliant is a writer living in Brooklyn.