Author(s): Rachel Cusk
After the publication of Outline, Transit and Kudos - in which Rachel Cusk redrew the boundaries of fiction - this writer of uncommon brilliance returns with a series of essays that offers new insights on the themes at the heart of her life's work. Encompassing memoir and cultural and literary criticism, with pieces on gender, politics and writers such as D. H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning and Natalia Ginzburg, this collection is essential reading for our age: fearless, unrepentantly erudite, both startling and rewarding to behold. The result is a cumulative sense of how the frank, deeply intelligent sensibility - so evident in her stories and novels - reverberates in the wider context of Cusk's literary process. Coventry grants its readers a rare opportunity to see a mind at work that will influence literature for time to come.
How does the reviewer even attempt to begin to write his review of a collection of essays treating diverse personal and literary subjects and first published in various media over a range of ten years? Does he point out that, during this ten years, the author of the essays wrote a remarkable set of three novels that were not only hugely enjoyable to read but also tested and redefined the ways in which fiction could be written, and also tested and redefined the relationship between ‘fiction’ and ‘real life’? If he does, is this the point at which he might attempt to divert attention from the quality or otherwise of his current review by directing, perhaps via useful hyperlinks, the reader of the said review to read instead his previous reviews of the three remarkable novels of what he and no-one else calls the ‘Faye Project’: Outline, Transit and Kudos (or, in the perverse order in which he read them, Kudos, Transit and Outline), which reviews are probably more than one reader could tolerate of his reviewing in one sitting, thus relieving him of the pressure to review the essay collection at all, but also, unfortunately, defeating the purpose of reviewing the essay collection, which is to bring to the attention of this possibly actual reader of his review something of the pleasures, qualities and benefits of the essay collection? Would it be a good idea to proceed from a mention of the ‘Faye Project’, so to call it, to emphasise the unifying consideration of the essays in Coventry in their capacities to provide insights into the astringent, rigorous, restless mind of the writer behind these novels (though perhaps not very far behind), or would this approach relegate the essays to a secondary and supportive tier to the appreciation of the so-called ‘Faye Project’? Would this relegation be appropriate or inappropriate for the reviewer’s and the reviewer’s reader’s (supposing there is one) appreciation of the essay collection? Would it do the essay collection a disservice or a service (or whatever the opposite of a disservice is)? Is it relevant or irrelevant to an appreciation of what the reviewer and no-one else calls the ‘Faye Project’ to gain from the essays collected in Coventry further and possibly (but only possibly) more direct insights into the concerns, both literary and personal, of the author Rachel Cusk, or should the value of such insights be independent of the ‘Faye Project’, in which case this should be the last time the reviewer mentions it? Does a collection as diverse in subject and dispersed in time as Coventry even need to be treated in a unified fashion? Should the individual essays be perhaps treated individually? Should the reviewer perhaps point out that, although there is much to be gained from the reading of almost all of these essays, there is nothing in particular further to be gained from reading them together, or in any particular order, or in any particular relationship between any of them? Although it is true that the essays are arranged in three groups, which seem to be, firstly, essays that arise from the experiences the author has in what we are meant to think of as her ‘actual life’ (what the reviewer might think someone might call ‘memoir), largely dealing with the ambivalences of parenthood, the deflationary potentials of relationships, both between adults and between adults and children, on rudeness, driving, and on domestic space as a zone of contention between its inhabitant’s internal and external worlds and between her individual and communal worlds; secondly, a few essays on the phenomenon or pseudophenomenon of so-called ‘women’s writing’, on the benefits or pseudobenefits of so-called ‘creative writing’ courses, and on St. Francis of Assisi’s ‘father problems’ (that led him to postulate, according to Cusk, a God as a “projection of himself, a kind of universal victim ravaged by the world’s misunderstanding and neglect. Perhaps his spirit had been crushed after all, for like a child his sympathies ever after lay with dumb creatures.”); and thirdly, a set or pseudoset of reviews or rereadings (how, the reviewer will have to determine, do reviews and rereadings differ from views and readings?) of various novels and authors, from D.H. Lawrence to Olivia Manning to Kazuo Ishiguro to Natalia Ginzburg, providing a degree of insight into Cusk’s own approach to the writing of fiction (or whatever) by sympathetic resonance and observation (for instance, in what also exists as an introduction to Natalia Ginzburg’s collection Little Virtues, Cusk writes of Ginzburg's "unusual objectivity, achieved by a careful use of distance that is never allowed to become detachment," and observes that Ginzburg "separates the concept of storytelling from the concept of the self and in doing so takes a great stride towards a more truthful representation of reality,” which observations might well also be made of Cusk’s work); should the reviewer point out that this tripartite grouping is in itself no more unifying than the compartments of a cutlery drawer are unifying of knives that will be used at various times and for various purposes and never all at once? If the essays are to be treated severally, does it make sense for the reviewer to review them collectively, or even to address them separately in one review (the cutlery drawer metaphor notwithstanding)? If the reviewer were to proclaim that the first essay in the collection, ‘Driving as Metaphor’, is his favourite, that it has a clarity, detachment and lucidity that at times reminds him of Calvino in applying to the minutiae of quotidian life the depth of anthropological or psychological or philosophical or anthropopsychophilosophical consideration that is usually squandered on the unfamiliar, the aberrant and the rare, and if the reviewer were to pad out his review with extensive quotes, or with a large number of inextensive quotes, from the essay (which would not be difficult to do, prime candidates being such observations as, when observing a traffic jam, that of “the sight of rows of human faces trapped behind and frames by their windscreens can be especially striking, as though a portrait-painter had drawn them,” or that “the difference between a car and a person is not entirely clear. Moments earlier the car was the disguise for and the enlargement of, the driver’s will. Shortly, when the traffic stops, it will become his burden and his prison,” and, most frighteningly, that “the true danger of driving might be in its capacity for subjectivity, and in the weapons it puts at subjectivity’s disposal”), would the reviewer run the risk that, if a reader of his review (or view), if there was one, happened to read this first essay and did not like it, though the reviewer cannot see why they would not, would the fact that he had told them that he thought it the best of the essays prevent them from carrying on to read essays in the collection that they may well find, personally, better? Will he attempt to convey in his review that Cusk’s rigour and restlessness and astringency, when applied to common generalisations such as those of gender roles, or of the phenomenon or pseudophenomenon of ‘women’s writing’, destabilise those generalisations to a larger extent than they acknowledge them, regardless, perhaps, of Cusk’s intentions, but in a way entirely appropriate to her privileging of honesty over acceptability or ease? Will he have space to explore some of Cusk’s sometimes dubious but nevertheless fascinating and therefore valuable assertions, such as the suggestion that “war might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. In war, there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events,” and that “the generation of narrative entails a lot of waste”? Will the reviewer succeed in conveying something of Coventry in such a way that a possible reader of his review might like to read Coventry themselves, without the intervening presence of said reviewer? Is this to be desired? Or are there too many unanswerable questions interposing themselves between the reviewer and his task for him to have any hope at all of approaching its fulfilment?