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Research group A.C.E, February 18th 2011, Rennes 2 University, Rennes, France.
British author Rachel Cusk made her début on the European literary scene in 2006 when the French translation of Arlington Park, which was hailed as an English version of Desperate Housewives, was greeted by general critical acclaim in France. Although this was the first of her novels to be translated into French, Cusk had already made a name for herself back across the Channel with five published novels and an autobiographical memoir. Following the publication of her fifth novel, In the Fold, she was named as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003, a tribute to the strength of her writing which probes with incisive, chiselled precision both the pain and the comedy of her middle-Englanders’ humdrum existences. The publication of A Life’s Work in 2001, an autobiographical account of the feelings of ambivalence motherhood can engender, saw her embroiled in a controversy with which her name remains connected and which she says has stuck to her like a label. Although she has received numerous literary prizes, her work has until now been largely ignored by university scholars, with the exception of a few published articles.
This one-day conference seeks to pave the way for a more in-depth scholarly study of Cusk’s oeuvre, not only Arlington Park, although this will surely figure high on the list, but also her previous and subsequent novels, as well as her works of non-fiction (see list below). We will seek to map out the major themes of her work, many of which coincide with the preoccupations of contemporary criticism. Cusk has recently published an article in The Guardian (12th December 2009) entitled “Shakespeare’s Daughters” on the legacy of the women’s movement in an age that she describes as “barely acknowledg[ing] its debt to feminism”. In the light of her remark in the article that another name for “women’s writing” might be “the book of repetition”, the representation of the feminine or of what Cusk has called “iterative female experience” could fruitfully be re-examined.
Although the influence of postcolonialism on feminist critical thinking has led to increased emphasis on the link between place or location and identity (Susan Stanford Friedman), Cusk’s narratives play out scenes of dislocation and dispossession among a cast of largely white middle-class English women. Scenes of social gathering and interaction, be it the dinner party, birthday or more intimate encounter with a lover, or merely the face à face with the self in a changing-room mirror, do no more than disclose the fragile nature of human relations, the realisation of which often leads to a headlong flight from self (the protagonist of The Country Life, for example, flees into self-imposed exile from London to the countryside). Cusk exposes the tensions between the individual and her stifling community, outlining the contours of a world that is at times oppressively introspective (she is often compared to Virginia Woolf, another possible strand for exploration) and at the same time shot through with a lurking sense of menace.
Notwithstanding their introspection, however, Cusk’s characters remain perfect strangers to themselves and to their readers. Uprooted and adrift, her men and women are all “anti-heroes” whose social, emotional or cultural failures are played out both in the most public of settings (the office, the workplace, the world of work being seen as always dissatisfying, if not slightly ridiculous) as well as the most intimate (the home) – and even upon the maternal body, locus of the most firmly anchored social prejudices which Cusk sets out to challenge and upset. Her interest is in the mediocre, the banal and the everyday at the heart of which is an enigma that is never entirely resolved or dissipated, but instead forces her characters, from being once well-integrated in their social milieu, to confront their isolation.
Please send your proposal (an abstract of 300-400 words together with a short academic CV) to Maria Tang (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nicolas Boileau (email@example.com) by September 15th, 2010.
List of publications by Rachel Cusk
Saving Agnes (Picador, 1993)
The Temporary (Picador, 1995)
The Country Life (Picador, 1997)
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother (Fourth Estate, 2001)
The Lucky Ones (Fourth Estate, 2003)
In the Fold (Faber, 2005)
Arlington Park (Faber, 2006)
The Last Supper (Faber, 2009)
The Bradshaw Variations (Faber, 2009)