Rachel Cusk has been on the receiving end of some extremely harsh criticism. Vituperation might be a better description, almost all of it in Britain, the country that has been home for almost all her life. The harshest words have been reserved for her autobiographical outings, in particular Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (FSG, 2012), which saw Cusk described as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist” by Camilla Long of London’s Sunday Times - who was awarded Hatchet Job of the Year for her efforts.
After such a mauling it’s perhaps not surprising that Cusk claimed she had “lost all interest in having a self,” a view that remains unchanged as she prepares for FSG’s June publication of Kudos, the novel that will conclude the trilogy begun in 2014 with Outline and continued with Transit (2016). Her editor at Faber, Mitzi Angel, who has now returned to New York and FSG, predicts that the trilogy will be remembered as “one of the most significant achievements of our times," a comment which makes its author something of a hostage to fortune. Monica Ali, reviewing Transit in the New York Times, suggested that Cusk was engaged in “nothing less than the reinvention of the form [the novel] itself.”
Speaking for herself, in a North London pub across the road from her home, Cusk has “no feelings” as to what needs reinventing, though she has previously declared that fiction – that is, pure fiction, the idea of making things up – is “fake and embarrassing” once one has “suffered sufficiently,” by which she means the suffering of marital breakdown and divorce. Given the high rate of infidelity and divorce among novelists, that might seem a touch extreme. But if that’s what she feels – and given her somewhat paradoxical belief that “autobiography is, increasingly, the only form in all the arts” – why bother writing “fiction” at all?
“I suppose I’m beyond feeling that there are these separate forms and I will choose to write in this one or that one,” she says. “I’m trying to develop, I guess, a more general style, or a more general form that isn’t…” Cusk pauses, forming her thoughts. “I’m not at all conscious any more of fiction or non-fiction. I have much more a sense of shape, and of content, and I suppose that it might be that, because of the phase of life that I’m in. “It’s just less obvious to me that I’m still running some of the same races as I did writing a memoir, that I’m still using my material in exactly the way. My life runs less centrally through other people’s lives now. The things that I’m thinking about aren’t necessarily to do with intimacy or being a person who has a family… It’s to do with other things.”
Her memoirs, three in total – the first about becoming a mother (A Life’s Work, 2002), the second about a family summer in Italy which led to a friend suing for breach of privacy (The Last Supper, 2009) – came about only because the form suited particular subjects.
Cusk sees memoir “very distinctly as suiting particular subjects,” essentially “where being ‘you’ is really overwhelming. The fact that you’re ‘you’ rather than the person over there is the difference between your having a very small baby and not! It just seems that those experiences needed ‘I.’ It was never the difference between writing about myself and writing about 1914.”
Cusk sees what she’s doing as “part of a generalized way of moving away from certain conventions,” trying to create space for new material. Is the novel itself in flux? “Yes, probably,” though she sees other writers “breaking new ground,” looking at things in a new way - Han Kang with The Vegetarian for example. “She’s a woman trying to talk about the politics of the body. She’s writing about Korea and she’s Korean – it’s a much more natural and truthful relationship to one’s own material.”
Much fiction, Cusk seems to feel, is too cozy and its readers too passive. Then there’s the language: “English itself, the English sentence, English prose. I didn’t want to write those sentences anymore because to me the English sentence had become sort of Fifth Avenue. In Kudos, there’s maybe one or two characters who speak native English, one of them American. Everyone else is talking English as a second language, as a globalized language.” Native English sentences are “so hemmed in and hedged in and predestined and so full of things I can’t control.”
The sentence, the novel – both have “pre-existing structures which you fill because they’re there. I’m trying to get rid of them.”
Readers of Outline and Transit will know what to expect in Kudos. Faye, Cusk’s writerly alter ego, a fiftysomething woman, who we first met as a divorced parent in Outline, is now remarried, her children poised to leave home. Faye is a sort of anti-protagonist, a cipher for the life stories of everyone she encounters at a literary festival in an unnamed European country. Other characters talk, even those who interview her, usually garrulously. Faye mostly listens, often to the sort of banalities that drive you witless at dinner parties.
What is identity, what is freedom? what is feminism? Are there kudos in having suffered? These are the existential questions on which the novel’s 232 pages turn. In the background Brexit – leave or remain – is a metaphor for the general breakdown of entente between couples and friends. The final page seems bleak and ambiguous, but Cusk asserts that “Faye has found a new life.”
The novel’s secondary strand is a meditation on the state of publishing. To anyone familiar with the London scene at least, Cusk’s characters are too recognizable: the primped and glib publisher newly promoted from the marketing department who’s shorn the list of loss-making titles and returned the company to profitability by means of Sudoku titles; the Irish novelist, newly slim and sober, expensive in unstructured linen, who’s gone commercial, hiring “a writing partner”; and the translator who observes that “the marriage between two principles” – commerce and literature – is “not in the best of health.”
Does Cusk believe that to be true? Is she caught in that struggle? “It may be true,” she answers warily, acknowledging a falling-out with a British editor who had “hated” the trilogy. Such editing as there is takes place in New York, where her editor “just tidies things… like someone putting things away in my room.” There’s no question of a structural edit? “No! I’d just write another book.” Nor does she rewrite extensively on her own account, “only as I’m going along. Once I’ve finished a book and it’s closed then I can’t open it again… I can’t read it or see it. I can’t edit. I can’t change it… I can’t see what my own work is for years and years and years.”
Arriving with a splash from Oxford with Saving Agnes, which won the 1993 Whitbread First Novel Award, Cusk feels she is far better understood and appreciated in Europe and in America than she is in Britain, where she’s “not felt defended” and where “you don’t see any of my books in a bookshop, and I’ve been writing for 25 years.”
In fact, Cusk was born in Canada, in Saskatoon (“the same town as Joni Mitchell”) and feels a sense of identity with a country that takes women writers seriously. She spent her early years in L.A., arriving in Britain at age seven. Returning to L.A. for the first time as an adult was so traumatic, she says, it gave her an asthma attack, but on subsequent visits “I’ve felt as if I’m my real self.”
She’s never liked Britain, but her children and stepchildren (she’s now married to artist Siemon Scamell-Katz) are there and are still young. Cusk feels Britain is a country obsessed with “social status and class, and bourgeois pretense, and lack of honesty” and where the “attitudes and values of youth” predominate. “I don’t think grown-ups are finished in the U.S. the way they are in Britain.”
In America, she feels "defended" as a writer but, of Britain, she says, “I don't expect anything from England and I've never got anything from England. I don't imagine I ever will."
Liz Thomson is a journalist, broadcaster, and author who has spent 30 years chronicling the international book trade. Her current project, the Village Trip, is a series of live events celebrating the history of N.Y.C.’s Greenwich Village.