By Tom van der Meij
Kudos is the name of the 2018 novel that ended Rachel Cusk’s outline trilogy, with earlier works named Transit and Outline. These sparse titles work as fine characterizations for Kudos as well. The main character, a woman named Faye, finds herself in an unnamed seaside city in an unnamed southern European country. As Faye is a writer, and her visit is a work-related visit, the literary obligations form the structure of the story. But that is just the framework, as it is somewhat irrelevant what Faye does and where she finds herself. More relevant in Kudos are the conversations Faye has with others: youngsters, lost writers, arrogant writers, egocentric journalists, her son, her publicist, her translator. In all these conversations it is mostly the other person speaking. Through the topics discussed, and sometimes through the input of Faye herself, we get a feeling of what this novel tries to tell us. General directionlessness in life and the aftermath of divorce are two topics that often arise during the conversations, while Cusk slowly lets the reader find out that Faye is also both divorced and somewhat directionless.
Those who did minimal research into the life of Cusk know that these topics are not irrelevant to her own life. She got divorced in 2011 and the separation subsequently became a topic of her work. Thus, the question arises, where do the lives of Faye and Rachel Cusk overlap? Who is Faye, who is Cusk? And: who is the reader? Are we the silent observer of these conversations, like Faye herself, or simply the receivers of a carefully selected dialogue, selected by Cusk? Obviously, in literary fiction, the answers to these questions are anything but given, and Kudos is no exception to that rule. Cusk plays with this question of narrative, sometimes frustratingly so, sometimes brilliantly.
When we ask these questions about how much a piece of art is a reflection of its creator, another question quickly follows, namely whether we can distinguish the artist from their work. This question can be answered in two ways. The first version could be formulated as: can we distinguish the ethics of the artist from the work they have made? Or, phrased differently: can we enjoy the work of artists even though they might be imperfect human beings? Many artists engaged in controversial, and sometimes illegal behaviour, such as Michael Jackson, Pablo Picasso, and Marina Abramovic, continue to have their work admired, regardless of their life choices; with Picasso perhaps even thanks to the intermingling of love affairs and paintings. The answer to this version of the question thus seems to be affirmative.
For the work of Cusk, the other variant of the question applies: how much is the life of the artist reflected in their work? Writers might hate this question as it takes away the focus from their work and shifts it to their life; it might make the writer a semi-celebrity, an object of gossip and spectacle, whereas the writer wants their work to speak for itself. But they could also embrace a place in the public eye, depending on the persona they want to embody in public.
Perhaps because it is exactly this personal side they are trying to get across, as they see fiction as a means of telling a story about their own life. The writer not only as a source of intellectual output, but as a human being, with faults and insecurities and the novel as a tool to express them.
According to the Israeli writer Amos Oz, the question of the relationship between the artist and their work is the wrong one. Oz argues that those coming to the novel to find a fictionalized biography of the author are doing so wrongly. Instead, readers should not ask what the novel says about the writer but what the story says about their own life, their own ideas, and dogmas. The novel as a mirror, not as a peephole. This might be a virtuous idea as it probably reflects the correct or at least most rewarding manner of reading a novel. Seeking to extract the biographical elements in a book does however not destroy the mirror. It might make us respect the creator of the work more, simply because we can, or we think we can, identify with him or her more. We can look at both the mirror and its reflection.
But that, exactly that, the writer who tries to stay out of the public eye, might argue, is the problem here: the work speaks for me, so read the work, do not try to read me. A difficult stance nonetheless for both parties involved. In a time of social media and celebrity admiration, the reader, if such a thing even exists, wants to admire, to connect with the artist. The writer, meanwhile, mainly wants to write and needs to sell. While they want the words to speak for them, the spotlight is always luring, perhaps as an outing of vanity, probably mostly because in their refusal to stand out in the public eye there are an infinite number of other authors happily taking their place in the spotlight. Can we, the readers, distinguish the artist from their work? Yes, we can, and we probably should. But we often don’t. Therefore, the adage for the writer should be: make it a mystery, leave it unclear.
Clearly, Amos Oz was not the first one who wanted the reader to look inward. Regarding the novel as a mirror is almost a cliché by now, just like the follow-up claim that reading fiction makes one more empathetic, and it is often tiresome how authors use it to dismiss the obviously autobiographical nature of their work. It seeks to create a distance between the artist and their creative output that can come across either as overt shyness or plain arrogance, as artistic navel-gazing. With that vagueness and the artificial distance between their lives and their work, the writer might be put in between the modern artist and the actor. Many modern artists want the world to know that no matter how abstract their work might be, it is a clear expression of themselves. He might put a shark in an aquarium or encrust a human skull with thousands of diamonds; these works of art are Damien Hirst’s. When we observe these pieces, it is clear that it is a glass plate we’re observing them through, not a mirror. These are works of art that ask to be admired, not to be turned into modes of reflection.
The actor on the other hand signifies the opposite. He is saying: ‘I am turning into someone else; it is obvious that this villain is not me, right?’ No one sees Joachim Phoenix kill multiple people in The Joker and wonders whether he would also do such a thing in real life, regardless of how perfectly his personality seems to fit the role. In the case of the actor, in both film and theatre, it is not immediately obvious whether we are seeing through a glass plate or staring at a mirror. Does the movie or the play try to make us question ourselves or are we simply observing a piece of artistry? Just as with the novel, this will perhaps depend on the intentions of the creator.
These distinctions between artists, actors, and writers are also not so clear-cut as they are made out to be now. An artist can paint someone else and perhaps a human skull with diamonds can for some people function as a tool for self-reflection. An actor can play a role that seems to be based on their own life story, such as in many Woody Allen movies with Allen himself in the leading role. A writer can write a historical novel that obviously does not have anything to do with their own life. Nonetheless, for many writers the question of identity seems to be more urgent than for painters and actors; more interesting to plunge into. In Kudos, it is almost impossible not to plunge into this question as Cusk is, it might seem, constantly on the brink of revealing herself.
Part of the literary festival Faye attends is a dinner with other writers. An excellent setting for a difficult conversation. Two other attendees, Sophia and Luís, also happen to be divorced. They have a conversation about the difficulty of raising kids after their divorce:
‘My ex-wife and I treat him with the utmost kindness,’ he said, ‘and we have done everything in our power to get along with one another since our separation and to reassure him that he was not the cause of it, but his response has been to show absolutely no curiosity about life and to anchor himself by means of his own reliable comforts and pleasures. He sits in his room day after day, motivated to do nothing but watch television and eat pastries and other sweets, and it is impossible not to feel,’ he said, ‘that we have broken him, not out of malice but out of our own carelessness and selfishness.’ Sophia, who had been becoming increasingly agitated while Luís spoke, now interrupted him. ‘But you aren’t helping him,’ she said, ‘by treating him as a fragile thing and shielding him and covering up your conflict, when the consequences of that conflict are right in front of him every day.
I couldn’t protect my son,’ she said, ‘and so instead he has had to make up his own mind and to realise that his destiny is in his own hands. When he doesn’t want to read a book I say to him, fine, if your choice is to work in the gas station then don’t read it. Children have to survive hardship,’ she said, while Luís sombrely shook his head, ‘and you have to let them, because otherwise they will never be strong.’
One would perhaps expect, if this novel would follow the rules of autobiographical fiction, for this dialogue to be followed up by some comment, either inward or expressed verbally, by Faye. As she has a son herself, this discussion must lie close to her own experience as a divorced parent. The following lines are however painfully mundane:
‘By now the waiters had brought the final course, an oily fish stew of which no one except the Welsch novelist had eaten very much.’
Kudos is filled with these dialogues, swirling between light-hearted monologues by obnoxiously pretentious writers and severe contemplations about loneliness when Faye is talking to her son on the phone. Most of these dialogues remain unresolved, without a bottom-line or a judgment about these characters and their way of handling life-changing events and puzzles. As if the mirror Amos Oz wants us to look into remains unclear and ambiguous. Rachel Cusk simply provides us with the questions; she shows the moral complexities she probably had to deal with herself and the answers that are out there. You help yourself in deciding whether you align with either Sophia or Luís, or neither. If Cusk would have had the answers herself, she perhaps would have written a self-help book. Is such a novel then morally lacking, as it does not provide us with a clear outline of what is wrong and right, what is to be expected from us, or at least from the protagonist of the story? Maybe. Providing such a moral story would probably take the mystery away, make obvious that which should remain unclear, for us to make out. The sparse novel gives us a mirror, nothing else.
Edited by Teun van Dieten, artwork by Teresa Valle