Arja Salafranca reviews Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, a thought-provoking but difficult read
I come to Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, from my enjoyment and admiration of her other recent works. There is, of course, the Trilogy set of novels, for which is so well known now, consisting of Outline, Transit and Kudos (published from 2014 to 2018).
In these novels, Cusk dispenses with plot. Instead we have Faye, a writer, and unnamed until almost the end of the first novel, who is a repository for other people’s stories. She relates what people tell her as she moves through the novels – from teaching writing in Greece in the first, Outline – to remodelling her house in Transit. This novel-telling device is unique, touching on the original meaning of the word, ‘novel’ as something new. Faye’s voice is cool, crisp and detached, as she relates other people’s stories, and the form is strangely beguiling to read. Cusk certainly turned the novel-writing genre around by imagining this set of stories.
I also come to Cusk via her non-fiction, the brilliant memoir of her divorce, Aftermath (2012) which tells the story of a shattering divorce in tones that veer from desperate to puzzled to iciness. I have also read her essays in Gone to Coventry and an account of a summer in Italy with her family in The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy.
I was looking forward to reading Second Place, I expected to be beguiled and transported, as I was with the Trilogy.
Second Place, however, is an entirely different sort of read.
It is set along the coast, along marshland, and perhaps it is set in England. We are never sure. However, the marsh exerts a strange pull on the main characters, M and L, and becomes character in its own right. M, the female protagonist, is relating what happened the summer that she invited L, a famous painter to stay. She is addressing someone called, Jeffers, in what is, presumably, a long letter; again, we are never entirely sure.
M is married to a kind, second husband, Tony, whose land it is. They have a ‘second place’ where artists and other creatives are invited to stay, and M decides to ask L to stay. He is a middle-aged, famous, wealthy artist, and he accepts the invitation to stay in what is described as a humble place. He comes with Brett, a bright young and rich twentysomething. It’s unclear what the nature of the relationship is. Brett becomes friends with M’s daughter, the young adult Justine, who in turn, is pandering to her boyfriend, Kurt, who wields a strange magnetism over Justine. She runs to do his bidding, to keep him happy, something her mother, M, can only watch and judge.
But the real action, and I use that word loosely, centres on M’s desire to be friendly with L, the artist who remains aloof to her friendliness and her need. They barely meet, L keeps his distance, and what meetings there are, are fraught on M’s part. Instead this is the story of what happens that summer, M’s obsession with L, and her desperate need to both befriend him, to be liked by him, to be painted by him. L is coolly and cruelly dismissive of her. He paints everyone else and complains that he has run out of subjects to paint, ignoring M’s plea that he paint her. It is only when he gives in to M’s demand that all hell breaks loose, and the novel reaches a dramatic crescendo.
We are given fragments of hints as to who M is – a writer of little books, a second wife, a woman who is not comfortable in her femininity, a woman who needs to be validated by a cruel artist. And cruel L is, with his barely disguised disgust at M. His own fame melting away, his fortune with it. It is ironic that the two main characters are ones whose full names we never know. It is only those who orbit the unlikely duo who are named, and by so naming assume a dimension that isn’t present in the M and L, who despite taking centre stage, remain somewhat hazy by their lack of names. And yet, we also learn a lot about M and L: L’s tortured, unhappy childhood, M’s year when her husband took her child away and would not let her see Justine. So each are made and shaped by these and other events.
But this is not simply a novel about what happens over a summer in which people crash in and out of each other’s lives, as they do. This is also a novel that explores the nature of art, L is after all an artist, as is M, in her small way. And Cusk layers her narration with questions and observations about the value of art. Here is M considering the oft-discussed question of whether it is necessary to know the biographical details of an artist:
‘To put it another way, does the purpose of art extend to the artist himself as a living being? I believe it does, though there’s a certain shame in biographical explanations, as though it’s somehow weak-minded to look for the meaning of a created work in the life and character of the person who created it. But perhaps that shame is merely the evidence of a more general cultural condition of denial or repression, with which the artist himself is very often tempted to become complicit.’
In a later passage M again considers the value – or not – of art:
‘For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us.’
And then she disparages the profession of writing, her own art: ‘Some people write simply because they don’t know how to live in the moment, I said, and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards.’
Art, clearly, is not salvation, in this novel, although the two main characters have a hand in creating something beyond themselves. This questioning of its value is a glowing red theme throughout Second Place, and much of the discourse around the value, or otherwise, of the creative process, makes for thought-provoking reading.
The novel owes a debt to the Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir, Lorenzo in Texas, which describes the time DH Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos.
This is not an easy read – it is hard to empathise with the cruel L, so intent on destruction, or M. Early on Kurt, Justine’s boyfriend, tells M that L says, ‘he intends to destroy you’. Meanwhile, M, with her neediness comes across as reed-thin, physically and emotionally. And then there is the marsh, a waiting, watching, almost threatening part of the physical landscape; even here, we feel, there are barbs waiting for us.