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Rachel Cusk: “Tristram Shandy looks more radical than anything being written today”

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted author discusses the value of risk, the challenge of proportion, and the role of builders in contemporary thought.

By India Bourke

Rachel Cusk is the author of nine novels and three works of non-fiction. Her latest work, Transit, continues the narrative experiment of her critically-acclaimed 2014 novel, Outline. The narrator, Faye, has now moved to London, where her resulting encounters – from her hairdresser to a vexed downstairs neighbour – are moving a reminder of the importance of reading others.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 
If we need literary prizes at all, then it’s important to have at least one that recognises the values of experimentation and risk. Prizes can come to represent what is deadliest to creativity: conformity as a goal.

The Goldsmiths was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?
The novel is steeped in associations with comfort and consolation, so its role in waking people up or disturbing them can be highly charged. But these same associations create intimate pathways between reader and writer that offer great possibilities of transformation. If a reader (or writer) is looking for a new truth, the novel is a good medium for it.

Your new novel continues the story of the protagonist from Outline. Were these two always planned as a duology? Or can we look forward to an even larger series?
It was planned as a trilogy, and I’m currently nearing the end of the third book.

We come to know Faye through conversations in which she predominantly observes the testimonies of the speaker, rather than share her own story. But how far does this render her passive or powerful? And is this a predicament especially particular to writers?
The novels are an experiment with proportion. We are used to reading works in which narratorial point of view occupies a large share of the text. What I’m trying to do is dispense with the idea of “a narrator”, in favour of a protagonist or “self” that exists in the same proportion to everyone and everything else.

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I read that you suffered a backlash after the publication of your non-fiction work, Aftermath, with some people criticising your personal life choices. What is it like to shift from the observer to the observed?
Well if it’s true I was observed, I don’t believe anyone saw me very clearly! It’s upsetting to be criticised, but I never felt the criticisms had any basis in truth. On the contrary, they seemed rather to prove my point.

Our everyday interactions now often sit alongside those on social media. Has this had any influence on your relationship to literary form – or the act of conversation?
It’s interesting to see people wrestle with problems of authorship and responsibility. I think humans have an innate grasp of form that living is for the most part the exercise of, so I don’t view social media as representative of any particular change. It may simply be that by staging the old battles on new territory, different elements become more visible.

Estate agents, builders and neighbours feature heavily in the architecture of Faye’s life – at a time when owning a home feels out of reach to many. How far do you see our modern battle with belonging being shaped by this context?
I was drawn to these themes as a peculiarly contemporary expression of the tension between personal and public realities.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?
Tristram Shandy looks more radical than anything being written today, which suggests that the British/Irish novel survives all attempts to break its mould!

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.
I went to Canada – where I was born – while I was writing Transit and was quite affected by my experiences of art there. It was the first time I’d been back – I have no memory of Canada at all – and yet there was a familiarity to it, almost a sense of déjà vu that seemed to be an actual part of its reality. In Toronto we spent time in the room Henry Moore designed to house a large collection of his own sculptures, after the city offered to give them refuge in a period when he was disdained back in England and feared for the conservation of his work. The sense of this huge unknown country where the European sensibility could untether itself struck me quite powerfully as a commentary on the complex nature of freedom.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I’ve always rather yearned to be some high-powered executive, which given that I lack every one of the necessary skills, must signify the desire to be an entirely different person.

“Transit” is published by Jonathan Cape

Event: Rachel Cusk is in conversation with Naomi Wood at Goldsmiths, University of London, on Wednesday 22 February. Book free tickets here.

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