UCL English


Novelist Rachel Cusk gives 2024 Northcliffe Lecture

1 May 2024

The annual Northcliffe Lecture was held on 1 March 2024 and delivered by novelist Rachel Cusk.

Imae of rachel cusk and her books stacked next to her

On Friday 8th March, the acclaimed novelist Rachel Cusk delivered the English Department’s annual Northcliffe Lecture. Cusk is the prize-winning author of four memoirs and eleven novels. Among the most celebrated are A Life’s Work  (2001) and the recent trilogy comprising Outline (2014), Transit (2016), and Kudos (2018). Her latest novel, Second Place, which came out in 2021, places a painter, his creativity, and his intense relationships with those around him at its centre.

Head of Department, Professor John Mullan, gave a welcome speech, reflecting on the original bequest to the English Department from the family of the early 20th-Century press baron Lord Northcliffe, and on the long history of the Northcliffe Lecture. Rachel Cusk was then introduced by Dr Scarlett Baron, an Associate Professor in the English Department whose current work focuses on conceptions of the self in contemporary autofiction.

Dr Baron gave an account of Cusk’s thirty-year career, identifying some of the recurring themes of her writing and the originality of her distinctive, pellucid style. She drew attention to the author’s blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, to the consistency of her concern with issues of selfhood and authenticity, and to the philosophical resonance of her reflections on the part played by narrative in human life. Baron also touched on Cusk’s paradoxical, and often highly comical, combination of socio-realistic storytelling with a vein of dark satire verging on the Gothic. 

After speaking about the aims and preoccupations which drive her writing, Cusk read from her forthcoming novel, Parade, which will be published in June 2024. The extract in question, entitled ‘The Stuntman’ for the purposes of the lecture, marries two separate narratives. On the one hand, it tells the story of a painter who resolves the tension between abstraction and reality by painting the world upside down; on the other, it unfurls the first-person recollections and musings of a woman who has been the victim of an assault on a Paris street. These two narrative strands are interlaced to produce a web of reflections on the forms and meanings of selfhood, marriage, creativity, motherhood, gender, and violence.

After the reading, Cusk took questions about the piece and her writing more generally from an audience of students, academics, and UCL alumni. The lecture was followed by a drinks party and by a dinner which brought together writers, publishers and UCL alumni. These included comedian and writer David Baddiel, foreign correspondent Jeremy Bowen, novelist Tessa Hadley and journalist Tomiwa Owolade.