Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conversations about Life

by Rachel Cusk

“As it happened, I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even self-definition. I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another; in fact, if I read something I admired, I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”   ― Rachel Cusk, Outline

This unusual novel by Rachel Cusk raised several questions as I read it. What does it mean to be a writer? Why and how do you listen to your surroundings? Does that listening mean participation in the lives of those around you? There are undoubtedly more questions to pursue, but these are certainly central to the story told about a writer who, unnamed until the penultimate chapter  and on her way to teach a writing seminar in Greece, meets several people with whom she has conversations.  The conversations gradually tell us more about her as they do about the people whom she meets. We are able to consider the unawareness that our seeming ignorance leads us into.  The narrator comments:
“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.” 
Consideration of the questions that this book raised for me suggested a way to "make the effort to understand" the world within and without the story. 

We learn about many things including her dreams and her epiphanies or realizations about herself. One conversation with a Greek man, Paniotis, yields the following:
"I realised that my little dream of a publishing house was destined to remain just that, a fantasy, and in fact what that realisation caused me to feel was not so much disappointment at the situation as astonishment at the fantasy itself." (p 95)
Learning about herself she is able to teach other writers at the seminar and we are able to learn something about ourselves--perhaps. 

This is not a novel driven by plot.  Nonetheless the simple elegance of the writing and the fascinating conversations--sometimes seeming like short stories embedded within the larger novel--make this a rewarding book to read and reread. I found it a different but welcome addition to my reading life.

View all my reviews

1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

Insightful review as always James.

I really like the quote that you posted at the beginning. It is getting me thinking about reading.

I love stories about writing and literature. Lack of plot might actually enhance such a tale in some ways.