Thoughts on Cusk and Autofiction

There’s some insightful writing around about Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, including the transcript of an interview with Alexandra Schwartz. On my first reading of the last in the series, Kudos, I drifted off about a third of the way through, but I am glad I returned, this time reading the trilogy end to end over a couple of days. I’ve thought whether to write anything much about my reading of Cusk, but have little that would improve on the pieces linked above.

I’d like to read more Cusk, but cannot imagine she can continue to explore the reticent narrator in the same way. There is a controlling quality that becomes a little claustrophobic, that sense of a person seeing without being seen. What I enjoyed most was the clear tension between Cusk’s need to use some minimal tools of fiction to narrate her story, but preserve the subtlety about the implications of her narrative, at least until the last pages of Kudos.

What also interests me is the phenomenon that has come to be called autofiction. It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

Autofiction changes the role of the reader, requiring a greater imaginative contribution. It is both discomfiting and liberating. I’ve returned to Knausgaard’s writing for that reason, enjoying both Summer and Autumn, and fully intend to read his six part series over the winter. I read Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living and am hungry for more. In fact, I’m finder it harder and harder to return to the false notes of character and stylised tensions of plot that are the remnants of the nineteenth century novel. It’s just a phase I’m sure.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cusk and Autofiction

  1. When I first read Outline, and learned it would be a trilogy, I wondered why – they are three short books that I wonder might not be better served as a project when presented together and read in the way you just did. I really like her project and thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Schwartz you link to, but I also agree with your statement that the controlling quality becomes claustrophobic after awhile. In essence, the three books feel like three parts of one book. I think the notion of trilogy is a bit abused in this case.

    I have been thinking a lot about what you mention here as well – the line between autofiction and fiction, and still find a lot of comfort in fiction. I see the falseness in it, I really do, but autofiction seems painful to me in many ways and almost monstrous – what the writer is willing to give away of themselves, and those around them (I mean, the Schwartz interview shows this so explicitly).

    I wonder what Cusk’s work would read like if it were published anonymously. I know this is not the point, this is exactly what she’s working at. But there is an element of this at play. Just anyone can’t write in this way, it works specifically because she’s a novelist with a certain status and authority.

    I’m waffling here – thinking out loud, and wondering

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    • I love that you chose to use monstrous, Michelle, one of my favourite words for its roots in monstrum, something that upsets thought, which Cusk surely does with this project (you are right, it is more cohesive when read as one book).

      My comment about the nineteenth century novel form is a little tongue in cheek. I haven’t fallen out of love with Balzac and his like, but we are having a little time apart. I also don’t think autofiction is doing anything particularly new, except getting closer to autobiography than earlier instances. Cusk still uses the form of the novel, and I do think it is a question of form, not content. I tend to think that all fiction is autobiographical, some more, some less, but, of course, not all fiction uses the form of an autobiography. What I like is that these distinctions are getting dissolved, with all the messiness and monstrosity that goes with such dissolution.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this post and your previous one. I read Outline when it came out a few years ago, and I loved it. I then read Transit last year, and I liked it–but not as much as Outline. When Transit was published in the States over the summer I picked it up and read about 10 pages; however, it did not capture my attention then so I put it own. I came back to it recently, and I am now about halfway through it. I think it might be my favorite of the trilogy (or at least I love it as much as I loved Outline). I don’t read many modern authors though Cusk–like Siri Hustvedt and Gabriel Josipovici–is an exception to this. (It’s interesting because Hustvedt and Josipovici both come across as exceptionally intelligent and intellectual individuals, and they are masters of the essay form. I do think Cusk is highly intelligent and intellectual, as well.) I, too, have an interest in reading more of Cusk though, like you, I think her other work will affect me in a different way.

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    • Each book became my favourite of the trilogy after reading, but taking Michelle’s point I now tend to see them as a single cohesive work. It is only in the last pages of Kudos that the whole project comes together, when the suppressed rage finds expression.


  3. I rather enjoy Cesar Aira for his autofiction – although I don’t know if it’s been called that. He even more deliberately blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, uses his own name in some of his fiction, and generally creates something playful and very interesting, a lightness of touch that is slightly missing from Cusk and Knausgaard, much though I enjoyed them.

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    • Knausgaard’s lightness comes through more in Summer and Autumn.

      I think of César Aira as one of the early examples of playful autofiction. In what little I’ve read of his work, he not only combines autobiography and the novel, but allegorises this postmodern tendency for the writer to appear in his own novels.

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  4. I agree with your points about autofiction and Cusk — I liked Outline better than the other two books. Knausgaard’s My Struggle was a project last year, and unlike some readers, I found the books brilliant, in the tradition of Joyce and Wolff, and stayed interested throughout, even when he was maddening or boring: that seemed to be the point. Also, just recently finished the first volume of Ricardo Piglia’s “The Diaries of Emilio Renzi” and highly recommend it; autofiction taken to a new level.

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    • Knausgaard surprised me. I liked Summer and Autumn a lot more than I expected to. I read the first of My Struggle, but got bored by all the hyperbole. I’m more inclined to read all the way through now it’s died down, which I plan to do this winter. I like the look of Ricardo Piglia’s The Diaries of Emilio Renzi. Thank you for the recommendation.


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  6. Interesting thoughts. I’ve not read Cusk, but now I’m eager to do so, through the lens you’ve offered here. I enjoy autofiction as well, though I’m not very well read in the genre. Édouard Louis’s novels have been recent favorites.

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