In Outline, Rachel Cusk sketches the life of a divorced creative writing tutor via her conversations with students and strangers. But what happens when D.H. Lawrence is mentioned in chapter nine….
Outline is the first in Rachel Cusk’s autofictional trilogy that feature the largely hidden narrator, Faye, who meets people and then listens to them. Her seemingly innocuous interactions with strangers – who speak volubly about their own fears, fantasies and anxieties – serves to create a portrait of the narrator by contrast whereby ‘she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank’.
There are numerous reasons why Cusk has opted for a reticent narrator who ‘did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything’. Not least because it allows her to write monologues – a literary device she excels in. In Outline, a novel in ten conversations, Faye is on a plane to Athens to teach a creative writing course. We find her swimming in the Ionian Sea, out to dinner, and, of course, listening to her aspiring writers discuss the inspiration behind their work. But what will interest readers of this blog is chapter nine.
The chapter opens with students asked to write a story involving animals, but not all of them complete it after spending the previous evening Lindy Hop dancing. Christos believes intellectuals have a duty to scrutinise powerful figures and intends to do this in his story whereas Maria disagrees as ‘it sometimes did more harm than good, she said, to try to force people to recognise unpleasant truths. One had to stay close to the line of things, close but separate, like a swallow swooping over the lineaments of the landscape, describing but never landing’.
Like Lawrence, Cusk’s autofiction has got her into trouble. First editions of her second memoir, The Last Supper, were pulped – at cost to Cusk – after someone threatened to sue. The case was settled out of court and the offending passage was removed. Cusk is also a bastion of ‘unpleasant truths’ – no matter what damage her observations may cause – leading her to claim, ‘society organises itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers’ – sentiments Lawrence would no doubt approve of given the level of censorship he faced, though thepeople caricatured in their novels would understandably see such fiction as an abuse of trust. Not that this bothered Lawrence much: ‘away with anyone’s feelings – they won’t recognise themselves when they read it, so why worry?’
Lawrence’s biographer, John Worthen, believes that there was another reason for ‘remaking people in a new language’ and that ‘he seems to have experienced them and their needs and feelings more fully than he had previously been able to do’ once in self-imposed exile. Writing helps makes such absences present. For Cusk, who has shared details about her own marriage and motherhood, it could be a means of coping with grief and separation. In Outline, Faye tells us she has recently moved from the countryside to London with her two children.
One of the writing students in Outline, Sylvia, teaches English literature at a school in the suburbs of Athens. We learn she’s a big fan of Lawrence – as is Cusk – and sets her students an essay on Sons and Lovers, ‘the book that has inspired me more than anything else in my life’ but when she checks her emails she discovers ‘none of them had a single word to say about it’.
Sylvia, herself, is undergoing a bit of writer’s block and is unable to start the short story she’s been assigned. To find inspiration, she turns to her bookshelf and takes down a copy of short stories by Lawrence. She confides to Faye and the rest of the writing group that ‘even though he’s dead, in a way I think he is the person I love most in all the world’ and that she fantasises about being a character in one of his novels.
Things start to get more meta when she begins to read ‘The Wintery Peacock,’ an autobiographical story where Lawrence, when out on a walk, discovers a peacock trapped in the hillside and returns it to its owner, who is waiting for her husband to return from the war. But Sylvia is unable to finish the story because ‘I felt that Lawrence was going to fail to transport me out of my own life’. Whether it is the weather or the war, she is unable to pinpoint the exact reason why the story is not working for her other than ‘it had nothing to do with me, here in my modern flat in the heat of Athens’ and that she was no longer willing to be ‘the helpless passenger of his vision’.
The writing group discuss their respective animal stories until we are returned once more to the image of a peacock, when Marielle readies herself to share a traumatic story. The effect ‘was of a peacock bestirring its stiff feathers as it prepared to move the great fan of its tail’. She explains that she bought her son a puppy, but it was run over in front of him and that ‘his character was completely ruined by that experience’. Consequently, he is ‘now a cold and calculating man, concerned only with what he can get out of life’ and she has now put her trust in cats. Nobody is a helpless passenger in this visceral extract which subtly links themes from Lawrence’s story to the present – the cold, trauma and loss, returning of an animal/bird to the owner, parental anxiety.
Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, is a more explicit nod to Lawrence as she transports aspects of his time in New Mexico with Mabel Dodge Luhan to a guesthouse on the English coast. Outline, to some extent, is a blueprint for this Booker-longlisted novel, continuing her exploration of the function of art forms and the role of the artist.
If this article interest you then you might want to join the D.H. Lawrence Society on Wednesday 9 February 2022 at 7pm to listen to Sean Matthews’s talk “Contemporary Fiction after Lawrence: Rachel Cusk, Alison MacLeod and the Lawrentian Imperative.” dhlawrencesociety.com
- Rachel Cusk resources faber.co.uk
- I Don’t Think Character Exists Anymore”: A Conversation with Rachel Cusk newyorker.com
- To Endure the Void: On Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” Trilogy lareviewofbooks.org
- Outline review – Rachel Cusk’s Greek chorus enthrals and appals theguardian.com
- Second Place: The Booker Prize thebookerprizes.com