Rachel Cusk: Thoughts on Outline and Transit

What amused most of Thomas Bernhard’s I’m Not Going to Badmouth Anybody At All (Douglas Robertson’s translation) is his assertion, “I’m basically just not a clubbable person”. I’d thought the social status of being clubbable a uniquely British concept, embracing that very English commingling of raced, gendered, and class-specific assumptions that grant visibility in this country.

Raised overseas, a solitary child, unsympathetic to the sophistries of the English cultural establishment, it nevertheless surprised me to be told in my twenties that I wasn’t clubbable. Despite a desire to be inconspicuous, I was hopelessly different from my peers, and bounced back and forth, at one moment defiantly assertive, and at the next hiding in the pages of a book. Little wonder I was considered a dark horse.

For a long while I was fascinated by Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which offers a series of elegant theories that explain the tenuous identities we construct to help us confront the world. This seems to me the province of Rachel Cusk’s writing.

It is more persuasive in Outline than in Transit because Cusk relies less on the creation of plausible characters. In neither book are you left with the sense that Cusk’s characters existed before her novel began, a quality I suggest of many truly great novels, but what makes these novels, and her debut Saving Agnes so compelling, is Cusk’s acuity in reading how people interact and construct their identities. Her writing embodies Wittgenstein’s claim: “If one sees the behaviour of a living thing, one sees its soul”.

In Outline and Transit, Cusk finds a form that places the reader in the mind of another. By externalising normally unspoken soliloquies, there is a sense that the inner/outer conception of self is friable. It is easier to get lost in the mirror. But Cusk’s perspective is more that of baffled observer caught in the act of looking, than participant in the fabric of everyday life. While we watch, through Cusk’s penetrating eyes, we are relentlessly reminded of the voyeuristic nature of our watching.

18 thoughts on “Rachel Cusk: Thoughts on Outline and Transit

  1. That’s why I love reading other people’s blogs: you discover like-minded people. I used Goffman extensively for my MA thesis and then Ph.D. And I will also be forever and always an outsider – too much for one culture, not enough for another… Have to read these two Cusk books, they are waiting patiently for me.

    • Precisely. By the time I came to England, after growing up in Brunei, I had to learn how to perform ‘English’. I tried very hard in my twenties but it never passed muster with the English, though I pass as English to other nationalities.

  2. That’s why Bernhard’s use of the term surprised me. I hadn’t thought it in use outside England, and a fairly narrow orbit even within England.

    So pleased that you are enjoying Outline. I very much look forward to where Cusk takes the final part of her trilogy.

    • Happy new year, Anthony!

      It’s likely that the translator, not Bernhard himself, chose the word “clubbable” (perfect term), and that you’re right, it’s a British concept. I don’t have a copy of the interview in German, but perhaps Bernard said he was an “Außenseiter,” or that he wasn’t someone who could “gesellschaftsfähig machen,” for example.

      In any case, a very funny/goofy rant (Bernhard’s, not yours). 😀

      • Happy New Year! Good to hear from you.

        Yes, I arrived at the conclusion that Douglas Robertson chose that particular word in preference to another perhaps untranslatable alternative.

    • BTW, I wasn’t implying that your post is in any way a rant! But now I understand why the translated Bernhard segment sounds so funny/goofy. Each of the “conversations” that Kurt Hofmann constructed for his collection is a thematically-arranged composite, assembled from disjointed statements Bernhard had made during multiple interviews between 1981 and 1988. The contents of the newly built paragraphs aren’t necessarily in chronological order, and Bernhard obviously wasn’t envisioning jigsaw pastiches of 7 years’ worth of context-stripped assertions when he expressed them.

      I don’t know whether Douglas Robertson explained Hofmann’s methods when he began translating the chapters, but it’s good to know that Bernhard’s monologue of near-pathological perseveration actually never happened.

      As for the use of the word “clubbable,” it may be overreaching, but it’s not by any means horrible. The original text is: “Ich bin doch kein Gesellschaftsmensch.” That last word can easily be translated as “a sociable man,” “a social man,” “a mixer,” etc. IOW, it’s not uncommon or untranslatable. But I agree that “clubbable” sounds uniquely British and is therefore jarring.

      • “Clubbable” is far from horrid. It serves immediate understanding, at least to an English person. I imagine it to be a less comprehensible choice to an American, unless schooled in Classics.

        The rant as collage makes more sense.

    • Oh, “clubbable” is a fine word. I was referring only to its aptness as an English-language substitute for Bernhard’s German word. Not a great choice because it drags along a lot more subtext than what Bernhard’s plain assertion conveyed. But yeah, not a big deal in this instance. I meant only to address your surprise that Bernhard had used the term by pointing out that he hadn’t.

      I’m glad you’re still here and that your excellent blog is going strong, Anthony. Catch you again when it’s time to file my next semi-annual summaries. 🙂

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  4. Hello Anthony. Ah… couldn’t go there with either Outline or Transit, I’m afraid. Maybe it’s not useful to say why. Nevertheless I find your blog posts on them fascinating and I understand what it is you like about them. (Also… a lovely surprise here at the appearance of Death Zen!)

    • Hello Des. I thought Outline a much better book than Transit. There are aspects of both that I dislike, especially the one-dimensional characterisation, which is most evident in Transit. As I said in the post, I am drawn to her observation of the nuances of human interaction. I also like her ability to craft a sentence. I’d find it very useful to hear your thoughts if you care to share them.

      • Okay, sorry not to reply earlier. I’m very busy moving house again. Basically, I was definitely up for reading Rachel Cusk after your post on Outline. I liked the idea of sparse prose, insight into the ordinary, etc… Transit was easily available but a day or so later after getting it I found a copy of Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel and Elie Wiesel’s Night in a secondhand bookshop. I began with the Wiesel and then quickly on to Mishima. I couldn’t get into Transit. I took a look at Outline when I found a copy in Sydney. Mainly (a broad generalisation) I find British-based writers so hamstrung by an ironic pose, I get desperately annoyed. I find many of them condescending. I guess I found that with Cusk despite the fact that she’s Canadian. Maybe she lived in England too long. Compared to the books I had in hand, Cusk seemed to lack the rawness and visceral qualities of the other two. Then I picked up Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and that was the end of the story with Cusk. I generally don’t like to criticise other writers. I know how hard it is to write a good book and to aspire to write a great book. I see one of the jobs of a writer is to expose the real darkness and nastiness that underlies the veneer of reason, the state and the sickening class stucture. My own aesthetic is to play with genre and language to do that (a Western, a Punk novel set in Wales, a novel of the Raj, a Noir set in Argentina) rather than follow the Beckett path into language and the absurd although I loved reading him and Joyce. I do go back to him from time to time though not in the same way that you do. On my desk at the moment, waiting its time is Rubem Fonseca’s Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts (Thanks to you. It was the only one of his in the university library.) David Clerson’s Brothers arrived today. But at the moment I’m rereading DeLillo’s The Names for about the nth time, a world in which I find it easy to immerse myself in this time of high stress both personal and political. So, as you can see, my response is a little complicated. As you know, I think highly of your recommendations, and sometimes we’re likely to differ. We’ve had some major agreements on Quignard and Denton Welch. All good wishes.

        • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Des. I’m pleased that our reading preferences coincide from time to time. I think my enthusiasm for Cusk’s work is uncharacteristic, not the sort of thing that would normally compel me. But there is something in the way she sees the world that draws me in, despite all sorts of weaknesses in the work. I find it hard to put into words, but I think it has to do with being perpetually the observer and never the participant, which is something I sense strongly in the way Cusk observes human interaction.

          I wouldn’t even compare Cusk’s work with Christa Wolf’s writing. They operate at entirely different registers. Cusk is an indulgence.

          I’ll be interested to see what you make of the Fonseca.

          Best of luck with the new house.

  5. I almost read Transit when I was reading the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, and went as far as getting Outline out of the library but to no avail. I feel it will happen some day.
    And, as someone who has got lost between classes (working and middle I mean) I never feel I fit in!

    • Being brought up overseas with a mixture of Chinese, Malay, Nepalese, Dutch and English friends left me completely unprepared for the complications of the English class structure. No one, including me, could figure out where I belonged.

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