The Threepenny Review

Rachel Cusk, Euro-English, and Me

I RECENTLY listened to a London Review of Books podcast with British novelist Rachel Cusk in which she discussed her Outline trilogy of novels (Outline, Transit, Kudos). Towards the end of the recording, she talked about the sort of English she puts into the mouths of her non-native characters:

A lot of the purchase I managed to get on language in these books was from speaking English as a second language. Kudos is pretty much all that. There’s maybe one person who’s a native English speaker. So I found that sort of Google Translate voice very, very, very liberating.

Quite a compliment for Google Translate, which has a while to go before it reaches the level of clarity one finds in Cusk’s finely tuned prose. I understand what she means, though. In , a narrator named Faye meets various non-native speakers of English at literary events in unnamed cities across Europe. The bulk of the novel consists of these characters delivering monologues to the narrator, who hardly gets a word in edgewise. These people—mostly writers, journalists, and intellectuals—come across as erudite, but their English is oddly generic and monotone. It is almost completely free of quirky “native” idioms. Occasionally the characters will use a word like “coruscate,” which seems a little far-fetched.

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