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Nicholas Lezard’s Choice: ‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk

The great thing about Kudos is that while you couldn’t call it comic, there is humor in it

Update : 08 Dec 2018, 06:09 PM

I can tell you the exact moment when I realized I was reading something special, something more than an ordinary novel. The central character, Faye, is listening to an interviewer telling her the story of her disastrous marriage. There is a pause.

“She was silent for a while, her chin lifted and her eyes half-closed. A bird landed enquiringly at her feet on the gravel path and sprang away again unnoticed.”

Sprang away what? It wasn’t unnoticed, because Cusk noticed it; so did we, for that matter. We can picture the scene vividly. And yet, like the tree that falls in the forest where there is no one to hear it, it is also, philosophically speaking, a non-event. It is also in a novel, i.e. a work of fiction, of stuff that is made up. And yet there it is on the page. I have spent some months, since I first read this novel, being driven slightly mad by that bird. My latest thought, which may suggest a certain derangement on my part, is that this bird makes me think of the Venerable Bede’s metaphor of life, that of the sparrow flying through the mead-hall in winter. “The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Perhaps I am making too much of this; but then there is much to make of Cusk’s writing. She is perhaps the most astute, most penetrating and clearly intelligent writer at work today in the English language; one would feel uncomfortable being scrutinized by her. In fact, a lot of people are made uncomfortable by her. (The opening sentence of Patricia Lockwood’s review of Kudos in the London Review of Books: “The observation that some people do not like Rachel Cusk is so omnipresent in criticism of her work that it’s surprising no one’s ever led off a review with ‘I, too, dislike her.’”) 

Kudos is the third volume in the trilogy begun with Outline and Transit. You could say that they’re really three parts of the same book, as they all have the same central character, and all work the same way. Faye is a writer, who gets to travel a lot—teaching, literary conferences, dinners, that kind of thing—and while we get to know a little bit about her, she is, in a sense invisible; or perhaps inaudible. What the novels do is force her to listen to whoever she is next to at the time: a man on a plane, a publisher, an interviewer—the joke about an interviewer not letting her subject get a word in edgewise is a very good one, and it almost has a punchline: “I think I have everything I need,” says the interviewer, after twenty-four pages of uninterrupted monologue. By her. 

And it’s a double-edged joke, too: because in a sense she does have everything she needs at the end of her speech: she has, or has had, an audience, and someone to tell her story to. 

Faye, herself, remains a blank, a cipher, a stand-in. Presumably a stand-in for Cusk herself. The term I’ve heard in relation to Faye is “erased narrator”: someone who exists only as an absence, an outline created by externals rather than an internal or concrete presence. And this is what many of the stories Faye hears are about: the desire of some men to erase the women from their lives, or to erase their personalities. Not every story, and in a way not any story, in any of these three novels is misandrist, but there is a lot of appalling behavior by men, towards women, in them, of the kind of behavior that they really should address in themselves. 

But the great thing about Kudos is that while you couldn’t call it comic, there is humor in it. It is the humor of Thomas Bernhard, say (without the raging hatred that propels so many of Bernhard’s narrators), or of the Beckett of Watt, of one of whose characters it is said “before he left, he made the following brief statement”, which is the cue for an extraordinarily long speech. This is the Modernist strain in literature, or a branch of it: how to answer the question of “how can we write a novel after Ulysses?” The greatest thing about Cusk’s trilogy is the way it answers this question, but with a twist. (Cusk has written three memoirs: about motherhood, about marriage, and about her own divorce, which adds an extra layer to the conceptual joke of Faye’s sort-of non-existence, or her withdrawal and silence.) 

But this is not an academic exercise. The books are full of stories, the stories people tell about themselves, and they are compelling to read, in the way that academic exercises are not. These are about life, and lives. And Cusk has produced some of the best work that this century has yet seen. 


Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.

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