Rachel Cusk Won’t Stay Still

The acclaimed novelist has moved countries and finds herself at a turning point in her art and in her life.

Cusk in an attic room by a window
JUERGEN TELLER FOR THE ATLANTIC

To access Rachel Cusk’s apartment in Paris, on the top floor of a narrow residential building in the Marais, you must first climb five flights of winding stairs. Once inside her place, you are confronted with yet another staircase, at the top of which runs a sleek corridor of rooms and a highly Instagrammable reading nook. From that level, there remains a final, minimal set of steps leading up to a loftlike living space, which gives way to a lovely terrace with unobstructed views that more than justify the effort needed to get there.

It is not every day that a writer you believe to be one of the greatest living novelists up and expatriates to a few minutes from your doorstep. In essay after essay, novel after novel, Cusk has demonstrated what the author Heidi Julavits aptly termed—in her review of Outline, the first in Cusk’s trilogy of innovative autofictional novels—“lethally intelligent” prose. Cusk’s is a literature of immaculately crafted observations, as aesthetically exhilarating as it is philosophically devastating. And I have a suspicion that this move to Paris—a city full of the sort of bourgeois social situations she captures with such punishing honesty—will yield something spectacular.

Equipped with jambon-fromage sandwiches and berry tarts, I hopped on an electric scooter to visit her one Sunday this past summer. Cusk—who, at 55, is tall and slender, with straight brown hair that falls to her shoulders—answered the door wearing slim-cut denim and chunky white sneakers. There was the slightest discrepancy between the informality of her outfit and the entirely adultlike, no-nonsense aspect of her bearing. She was friendly and soft-spoken as we made our way to the kitchen. “If you’re a person like me, you cannot resign yourself to a life of repetition,” she explained when I inquired how she could abandon what looked, from the gorgeous online images, like a minimalist feng-shui oasis in the marshlands of Stiffkey, England.

“I think it’s really difficult for people to understand the feeling in people my age—liberal people my age—of the actual destruction of their reality that is Brexit, and the government that has been spawned by it,” she said, now seated at her dining table, speaking with the same degree of care and deliberation that distinguishes her writing.

She and her third husband, the painter Siemon Scamell-Katz, had rented a flat in Paris in December 2020. They appreciated the change so much that they decided, on a whim, to officially relocate to France right before the New Year’s Eve deadline after which British citizens would no longer be permitted to move without restriction within the European Union. “I think a lot about the harbingers of good and evil, and how do you know when the shadow of something very bad is falling on your society,” she offered as a partial explanation for such an abrupt move. “There were moments that people my age completely recall—the [2012] Olympics is one—where the feeling of Our country is a good, tolerant, okay place to be is felt. Not pride exactly, but a feeling of recognition. And almost in the Thomas Mannian sense: It’s exactly when something reaches its peak that it’s already in absolutely irreversible decline.”

Since buying their apartment last April and overseeing the renovation, Cusk told me, she has been journaling in French and reading Colette (“Oh, she’s fantastic,” but “much more difficult than I expected!”), Modiano, Proust, and Rousseau in the original. These days, she tends to eschew contemporary English writing but admires translated foreign works, which, absent known idioms and other semiotic shortcuts, possess a different capacity for linguistic revelation and inspiration.

Few other writers can so compellingly evoke the sheer pathos and drama of a home renovation; I asked her if we can expect a Paris memoir or novel steeped in these recent experiences.

“What I have to remind myself is that I always think there’s no other book to be written,” she answered. “And I think that that is a consequence of not having a strong ego basis as a writer, and my writing being so shelved right at the back of my unconscious that nothing in how I live or act bears any relationship to a writerly identity.”

It is a counterintuitive statement from such a consistently prolific author—one who has published 11 novels and four works of nonfiction since her 1993 debut, Saving Agnes. In the past decade alone, Cusk has elevated herself from a locally successful novelist and memoirist within the U.K. to one of the most innovative and formidable writers anywhere. Hers is a story of purposeful, mature ascent that is rare in the literary world. Perhaps, it occurred to me as I sat with her, the closest comparison is not to any of her direct peers, but with the American painter Kerry James Marshall, who toiled and perfected his craft quietly for decades before exploding into global acclaim with his 2016 retrospective at the Met Breuer, aptly titled Mastry.

Painting—and formal investigations into whether language can disclose truths about the human condition as immediately as the visual arts do—figures prominently in Cusk’s oeuvre. She has spoken of her outright envy of visual representation. “An image doesn’t have to be recognizable in the way that a sentence does,” she told Sheila Heti in a Paris Review interview from 2020. “To tell a story is to reconstruct the conditions of reality in order to manipulate or change them. An image can be post-reality—it can start from a position in which reality is already assumed.” Cusk’s 2009 memoir, The Last Supper, recounts a three-month family trip through Italy devoted almost entirely to visiting Renaissance masterpieces. Her most recent novel, last year’s Second Place, revolves in large part around one preternaturally articulate woman’s covetousness of a narcissistic aging male painter’s ability to apprehend and communicate the substance of the rural world she inhabits better than she herself is able to. It does not surprise me that, although there are scarcely any novels—or literary texts of any kind—on the shelves lining a wall in Cusk’s living room, there are plenty of art books devoted to El Greco, Rothko, Bacon, and Picasso.

Like Kerry James Marshall, worldwide acclaim came to Cusk when she was already fully formed, upon the publication of Outline in 2014. And as was the case for many readers, this was my point of entry. After I finished the book, I systematically devoured everything else of hers that I could get my hands on—an experience as shocking and restorative of my faith in the power and relevance of contemporary fiction as my first encounter with Roberto Bolaño. Though she and Bolaño are different writers, Cusk’s work, much like Bolaño’s fictive universe, is marked by an all-encompassing mood of foreboding; something ineffable and unsettling is always lurking beyond our vision.

When I’d initially met Cusk for coffee several months earlier, she had mentioned offhandedly two things that stayed with me. First, she wrote most of Outline in a mere three weeks, when her ex-husband, the father of her two daughters, took the children on vacation, and she finally had an uninterrupted stretch of alone time. This was a novel widely credited with reconceptualizing the very mechanisms of contemporary fiction by means of jettisoning structure and plot, and transforming the narrator, Faye, from a subjective consciousness with a firm biography into a kind of disembodied lens through which a litany of secondary characters reveal themselves.

Second, she felt now, after the completion of Second Place (which served as further proof that she’d not finished innovating after the trilogy), that she’d “reached the limits of the English sentence.”

When I asked her what she had meant by that latter statement, and if that was in part why she’d uprooted herself and decided to plunge into a foreign context (à la Jhumpa Lahiri’s pivot to writing in Italian), she’d laughed self-deprecatingly and offered a quick correction: “I meant that I’ve reached the limits of my English sentences—what I can do with an English sentence. And to really change artistically does require some breaking down of your personality, and breaking down deep sediments of your identity. And nationality is definitely one of those. I have these strange experiences now of going back to England, and it feels so alien—and yet I don’t feel that I belong here, so it’s really interesting.”

It feels significant to encounter a writer of Cusk’s gifts, intelligence, and still-untapped potential at such a moment of flux and perhaps even vulnerability. At various points throughout the afternoon, she presented her reasons for leaving England as multidimensional. If the on-the-ground ramifications of Brexit were the immediate catalyst—“enough in and of itself to make the move if you can”—there were also vaguer, more personal motivations. Scamell-Katz had overcome a serious, non-COVID-related health scare during the initial phases of the pandemic, and the house in which they had been quarantined, however well-appointed, had begun to take on more negative connotations. Cusk’s two daughters had entered college, and her divorce from their father, paradoxically, meant that even if Cusk left the country, her children would still have one parent grounded in their homeland. All of this taken together allowed Cusk to address in midlife “the need for change, the need for different involvement with people, society, culture.”

Yet even as she offered this description, she was visibly dissatisfied with the limitations of verbal communication, and circled back to the idea for greater precision. (It is an admirable feature of her conversation, this constant on-the-fly revision.) “Many people find enormous wisdom and serenity and all the things that I don’t have by staying still,” she continued. “I don’t have it, and I guess I’m frightened, almost, at staying still. I think, Why give things the opportunity—things like illness—to come and find you, which is what happened to us there.” She then spoke of the need to challenge her worldview, before quickly qualifying, “Okay, moving to Paris isn’t exactly challenging.”

Bizarrely, France is one of the few territories with a thriving literary culture in which Cusk has not been well published. Although she sold the rights to Second Place here, the publisher Éditions de l’Olivier let the project languish. This unfortunate situation was recently rectified when her new publishing house, Gallimard, rereleased the trilogy and brought out Second Place for the first time in September, during the rentrée littéraire, the country’s most important publishing season. The timing of her move, then, was fortuitous. France remains, even in the social-media and streaming era, a nation where writers as a class are afforded an unusual level of dignity, and foreign authors who choose to make their home here are especially appreciated. I told her that a writer of her stature could expect to be lionized in this country, and she confessed that that would come as a welcome change of pace. “I’ve always felt … in literary culture in the U.K. a sort of feeling of contempt just generally around the place,” she said, laughing. “A feeling of Here I am at an event, and am I actually going to be asked to make the coffee? I’ve definitely never felt any respect or sense of validity came with having a literary identity.”

This is a sentiment—or an intimation of the tenuous and evolving connection between one’s identity in the world and one’s output—that she has expressed in various ways on both occasions I have spoken with her, and also in interviews. During an appearance on the How to Proceed podcast in 2021, she pushed the idea further and, despite the widespread acclaim of Second Place, expressed skepticism about her own continued legitimacy and relevance. “I’m in a sort of interesting point now where I don’t feel that my self is all that much of a lens anymore,” she confessed on the podcast. “But at that same moment, it feels like this is not a time for culturally established people, if I am that, to take up any more space … I’m not sure I’m entitled to say anything further … For the sake of argument, white people have taken up too much space, too much cultural space, and they need to be quiet and let other people speak.”

Listening to this, I found it astonishing to imagine that an author who has contributed so much comparative and undeniable value to the world of contemporary letters could nonetheless feel any need at all to justify her continued presence—especially in terms so depressingly beyond her own control or volition. I told her that, for whatever it’s worth, as a nonwhite man—or, more accurately, simply as a fellow human being—I found her writing on motherhood and divorce and art to be a life-affirming window into the human condition. I, for one, would be devastated to see her cede her space in the conversation on the basis of ancestry. In that moment, she seemed to hold the door open, if only slightly.

“I feel I’ve sort of arrived at this much clearer place, and either I can go, ‘Now I’ve arrived at the much clearer place, and now I’m done,’ or, it seems to me, there’s the whole thing to be done again with this clarity,” she said. Perhaps she noticed the glimmer of hope that elicited. “I probably have too many scruples,” she added. “Pretty much everyone should shut up—that is absolutely clear.”

We laughed and took our sandwiches, which she’d plated but that neither of us had touched, out onto the terrace to contemplate the church steeples and zinc-roofed beauty that is the Paris skyline, even on a day like this one, when the colors are muted and the clouds are low and thick and threatening to split open. Cusk was sharp and generous to talk with about personal relationships and family, and she asked about mine as we switched to dessert. Then I thanked her and wended my way back down all those staircases, remembering something else, something ultimately more optimistic that she’d told me.

It had to do with the idea, an existential one for an author, that one must locate a sense of legitimacy before any act of creativity, any genuine expression, can happen. This search for legitimacy is never finished; it is an ongoing struggle. “One needs to have a very, very good reason for imposing one’s writings and thoughts on the world,” she’d insisted, with what seemed to be moral conviction. Finding herself in a foreign place, with novel experiences and new people, has filled her with a sense of urgency and the desire to communicate, replenishing that sense of legitimacy: “For a writer, it’s almost a rebirth.”

Back out on the thrumming sidewalk in front of her building, I found myself removed from the temporary English-speaking cocoon we had just constructed. But I was freshly alive to the cacophony of new sounds and voices, to the millions of potential stories and interlocutors at her disposal—and the thrill of possibility was infectious.