Upcoming: Rachel Cusk at the 2019 Spring Literary Festival

Canadian-born writer Rachel Cusk’s controversial memoirs about motherhood and divorce, together with the recent Outline-trilogy, have made it so that writers and critics often couples her name with the term autofiction. Although she herself does not use that term to describe her body of work, it is undoubtedly part of the recent surge of literature that blurs the line between fiction and reality, coined everything from autobiographical novels to fictionalised autobiography and memoir. These books stray from the more ‘traditional’ cradle-to-grave biography in that they do not have to be concerned with ‘great lives’ or famous individuals – in fact, autofiction seems to be largely concerned with the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Writing truthfully about everyday life has its perils, something Cusk has experienced time and time again. Her brutally honest descriptions of life with young children in her 2001 memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother were written off as ‘petty and irritable’ by a reviewer. ‘If everyone were to read this book, the propagation of the human race would virtually cease,’ wrote another critic. Some demanded that Cusk’s children should be taken into care. She had committed the crime of suggesting that the unadulterated maternal love that we expect all women to harbour might be more of a gilded ideal than a reality. The exhaustion, insecurity, and the total loss of identity that also comes with bearing children proved too much for many readers – undoubtedly Cusk’s descriptions were too recognisable to some women.

Nevertheless, the author returned to controversial life writing over a decade later with Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, a book that once again let the knife sink in between reality and the ideal. The wife and mother of Aftermath is the main breadwinner of the family, but when her marriage breaks down she is faced with her own un-modernity, manifested in how she feels she has more right to the couple’s children: ‘The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge.’ Upon publication, Cusk once again had to endure overwhelming criticism – the New York Times called her pretentious as well as ‘depressed’ and ‘self-involved’ – and she later told The Guardian that ‘Aftermath was creative death.’

Despite, or perhaps because of these overwhelming reactions to her non-fiction, Cusk found herself unable to stomach traditional fiction – character and plot suddenly felt ‘fake and embarrassing,’ she told The Guardian in 2014. Her unwillingness to return to fiction, coupled with the ‘creative death’ that followed Aftermath, gave birth to the particular narrative form of the Outline-trilogy, which recently came to a conclusion with the publication of Kudos last summer. The three books, Outline, Transit and Kudos, follow the narrator Faye, whose marriage has collapsed. The character itself is all but invisible, as the trilogy is basically formed by the stories of people she meet, whether she is teaching creative writing in Greece, renovating a new flat, or attending literary conferences in Europe. The Outline-trilogy is weaved together almost like a series of monologues to which Faye remains passive – Cusk calls it ‘annihilated perspective,’ – and so all you get are outlines of other people’s life stories.

This was a new form for Cusk, and it became a way for her to approach real life while avoiding the backlash she had experienced with her memoirs. She has stated that to her, ‘writing and living are the same thing (…) It is only by paying great attention to ordinary living that I actually learn anything about writing.’ While Knausgård now claims that he is ready to start writing fiction again, Cusk has described character and description as dying literary tools, and claimed that ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.’ Perhaps that is why she just finished a trilogy of novels – everyday life comes in many shapes and forms, but it has seldom been as readable as right now.

Rachel Cusk will appear in conversation with Philip Langeskov on March 20 at the 2019 Spring Literary Festival.

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August 2022
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