Outline by Rachel Cusk (Vintage)


“Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials.”

I GOT my copy of this book second hand. Various passages were marked up as if the previous reader had been making notes for a discussion or an essay. She (or he) had opted for different sentences, looking for meaning of sorts. So we have the “coupling of formality with doom…prompting of fate…money is a country of its own…he began to ask me questions as though he had learned to remind himself to do so…(his) life had been lived unconsciously, absorbed in it, as you can be absorbed in a book…your failures keep returning to you… “The notes stop after page 65. Another refers to the “fundamental anonymity of America”. Perhaps they did not finish the book or got distracted or missed their deadline? I wonder? I have them in my head, a distraction as I read, a parallel dectective story, the start of another unattached mystery linked only by pen and paper…their thoughts abandoned mid book, not edited nor publised or for all I know not seen by anyone else, a very personal missive which was then consigned to a second hand book shop. Whatever had driven them to start and consciously make notes had been thrown away. Part of me wants to track the author down and ask what happened? Where did they read this? Somewhere in Britain probably.

Not everyone likes to make biro marks and scrawl underlinings in books; there is a certain a profanity, an interference, a mark of disrespect, a certain ruthless professionalism, the reader as more important than the written ( I use yellow post-it stickers to mark out pages with quotes I might want to return to later, which makes me wonder more about the psychological etiquette at work here). At the bottom of page 17 they have even written boldly: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle (freud) – why do people repeat their own suffering?”. Freud is spelled with a lower case f. Did something more important come along that made them stop reading or note taking? Or did they just get bored? I am straying into Modiano territory. I double check there is no secret missive hidden away at the back (I fantasise: if you find this book rescue me…and an address or better  the key is in a box at 117 castle cottage,) no dedication: To Fran. No endearment: you get younger every birthday….Nothing, no link, no clue, a dead end. Just quasi academic notes.

They are not even quotes I would have picked out to portray this book which is the more baffling. So maybe it was being used for another purpose altogether?

We open with a trio of random meetings: the billionaire, a Greek divorcee,  the writer in the caffe, Cusk sketches out deeply confessional conversations struck up in everyday settings over lunch, a beer, on a plane. She is a writer bound to a conference to teach Greeks how to write, in English. She is divorced or seperated. You start to feel that her own saga is likely to be a match for the lives she is being told about, like the moment the music starts to hum in a horror movie…Or are these men would be lovers? As in the opening lines above, we are jet setted into a situation without context or background. We are in the now with a few measly fragments of the narrator’s past although her companions are all candour. She is someone seemingly random strangers seem happy to open up to…she is an Alice walking through her own Looking Glass.

I might chose this description: “One has the curious feeling that one is looking at an illustration of Paniotis, rather than at Paniotis himself“. Or this: “Scholars on bicycles sailing like dark swans through the streets in their black robes“. Or more moody: “The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite…” And “I  was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself…”

She mixes the mundane everyday – “we would drive for a while” –  with sudden psychological flashes – “other people’s lives a commentary on my own”, vivid human portraits as yet without backdrops…like a pack of cards where you see the colours of the jack and queen but cannot be sure which is which. At its centre is a recurring theme of the writing itself – we have eight pages, no less, describing Clelia, the writer’s, apartment without meeting her at all.

“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in animal’s fur, the deeper they are buried the better.” Ticks are another recurring menace.

Where to read this? Like the heroine herself perhaps on a charter flight to Athens and go on to a villa for a discussion as to what this book is really about which is fragments, clues, a vicarious self portrait told through a series of random encounters, like walking around an art gallery and looking at different, unrelated people framed in one book.

I am reluctant to give the game away here, but I would wish she had taken another step that might have turned this into a novel rather than a literary conceit. I could write an ending for her:

She opened the door. Everything was the same. The chair. The table. The note on the table should have read: your dinner is in the oven. Instead, it just said: We have gone. There was an unopened letter underneath marked. Hamilton, Bailiffs.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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