Book Notes: Outline by Rachel Cusk

There was a German writer, W.G.Sebald who created his own style of writing, and it’s been very influential. There are writers in pretty much every European country who write Sebaldian prose. In Spain, it’s Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and to a lesser extent Kirmen Uribe. I heard that Olga Tokarczuk and Karl Ove Knausgaard write in that style, although I haven’t read them myself.

In these books, there isn’t much of a plot and very little happens. There’s a ghostly narrator who meets people, listens to their stories, and ponders the complexity of human relationships. It’s all about different shades of emotions. The writing is usually beautiful. The mood is calm and melancholy. Very often, the problem that the ghostly narrator half-heartedly struggles with is divorce. Sometimes, it’s a parent’s death.

This is how Rachel Cusk writes. I like her more than Javier Marías because she’s less pretentious. Plus, I never read a novel in this style by a female author. This is usually a very male kind of writing, so it was interesting to see how a woman would handle it.

What’s interesting is that Sebald’s shattered, directionless, plotless writing was a response to the horror of WWII. He belonged to a generation of Germans who had lost the plot, so to speak, and had no idea how to get over the devastation and the guilt. He wrote like a shell-shocked person because he was one.

So when Uribe, Muñoz Molina or Cusk apply this writing style to the descriptions of problem-free existences of people who hop around the world on transcontinental flights out of boredom, it’s hard to figure out why they decide to drown in all this minutiae. It’s cute, often delicious, beautifully described minutiae but there’s a limit on how many books of this kind one can ingest. If you never read any, I definitely recommend getting familiar with the genre through Cusk. If you read them before, I’m not sure what one more would do for you. These books are extremely interchangeable. One could have easily convinced me that a page from Cusk’s Outline was a translation of Javier Marías’s novel.

Why so many writers choose to write these identical books I wouldn’t be able to say. They are so similar, even down to small details. Enjoyable, though. They are definitely enjoyable.


3 thoughts on “Book Notes: Outline by Rachel Cusk

  1. Oh, so happy to read this review. This is one of my favourite books. To me it did not feel directionless. I read it like a mystery thriller trying to find out who the narrator really is, what her own story is, because she remains so enigmatic and you can only get a faint idea about her and her story by seeing what she focuses on in other peoples stories or how she describes something. I don’t really understand why this fascinated me so much. It seemed to me that she is hiding but giving me clues. I was so happy reading this trilogy. Maybe that is just the writing that is so brilliant.
    And of course (her) divorce is at the core of the book, I agree with this!
    I found your comparisons interesting. I loved Javier Marias when I was very young, haven’t read him in a long time, also very mysterious. Hated Sebald. Really liked Knausgard too. But I never would have grouped them together at all.
    Do you have more examples of this type of writing? I might discover another kind of author I like. 🙂
    No idea why I had such a negative reaction to Sebald though, I read “Austerlitz” and found it so annoying that I never wanted to read anything else from him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read it because you recommended it a while ago and it finally got to be this book’s turn.

      I now want to make a comparison between this Sebaldian school of writers and the competing Bernhard school, which is somewhat similar but the writing is a lot more neurotic and not at all peaceful. Much of contemporary Western literature is a competition between fans of Sebald and fans of Bernhard. If you know about it, it’s easy to find new writers to read.

      In the Sebaldian tradition I recommend Bilbao-New York-Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe or anything recent by Antonio Muñoz Molina.

      In the Bernhard tradition, the best is Horacio Castellanos Moya who dedicated his first major novel to this writer.


  2. Thank you for following my recommendation then. 🙂
    I’ll try out Bilbao-New-York Bilbao, it sounds interesting.

    And I always like to read about ways to classify, group or compare novels! You theory of Sebald vs. Bernhard is neat! I’d like to read more about it.

    I agree both are types of novels which are mainly about the inner life and relationships and not about plots,but with Bernhard the inner life is very tortured and angry while the other one is more quiet but with a strong/mysterious inner tension (that is how I read Cusk). I can immediately think of two great German speaking writers in the second (Sebaldian) tradition, Peter Stamm (his earlier works) and Judith Hermann. Probably they are not well known in the US and I don’t know if the translations are any good.

    It is strange I did not feel the tension and mystery with Sebald at all.

    Would you classify Kazuo Ishiguro as Sebaldian too ?

    Btw, do you know the novelist and translator Tim Parks? I like his novels a lot and has this really neat theory of grouping writers based on systemic / family therapy that I found really intersting. He wrote about it in “The novel, a survival skill”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.