The Book Group in Second Place with Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk, Second Place (Faber & Faber 2021)

Before the meeting: I borrowed a copy of the book from my local library and just had time to read it and return it before heading out of town over the New Year. So I scanned a random page, intending to focus my pre-meeting blogging on that page.

Then the Book Chooser sent around a WhatsApp asking how we’d all feel about changing to Transit, an earlier book that ‘gives a better sense of how Rachel Cusk has transformed the novel form’. After some discussion, it was agreed that each of us could read either or both of the books, and we’d let the discussion play out as it would. I decided to stick with just Second Place.

‘Second Place’ is the name given by the narrator to a kind of guest dwelling on her property on the edge of a darkly beautiful marshland. As she spells out for the benefit of slow readers, it also refers to the status of women under patriarchy – and there you have the subject of the book. When she was young, the narrator – known as M – fell under the spell of landscapes by L, a celebrated painter, and she now believes he is perfectly suited to capture the beauty of her marshland. She writes to invite him to stay as her guest in the Second Place. After some pretty rude back and forth, he accepts the invitation, turns up with an unexpected female friend, and continues as he has begun, the guest from hell. Somewhere along the line, we realise that M, without quite admitting it to herself, hopes that his paintings of her marsh will reveal something of her to herself. This develops into wanting him to paint a portrait of her, which he eventually does, devastatingly.

The story, we are told in an end note, was inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. I haven’t read that book, but it feels as if the note explains a lot: maybe this book is not so much a novel in its own right, as a response to – a retelling of, a meditation on – that other book. In the early parts of Second Place, M tells her story to someone called Jeffers. We are given no information about Jeffers at all, but Lorenzo in Taos was addressed to the US poet Robinson Jeffers. It seems that this device is a straight lift from the source material, a little Easter egg for the scholarly reader (or for someone like me who google-skims reviews).

By and large, the book left me cold. The characters don’t feel fully imagined. What I take to be the thematic concern about art and artists could be boiled down to the familiar warning: ‘Never meet your heroes. They’re sure to disappoint.’ M does a lot of introspecting, and the dialogue generally feels stilted. If something is being said about sexism, it’s that some men are cruel, and some women are vulnerable. Not exactly a revelation, and not exactly leading anywhere interesting.

On the random page I scanned (page 74), M and L run into each other walking by the marsh very early one morning. She asks him, pretty much out of the blue, if he will paint her portrait:

He looked at me with a faintly quizzical expression.

‘But I can’t really see you,’ he said.

‘Why not?’ l asked, and I believe it was the utterance that lay at the furthest bottom of my soul, the thing I had always been asking and still wanted to ask, because I had never yet received an answer.

That line about the utterance at the furthest bottom of her soul reads just as awkwardly in context as it does here. All too often the characters are going about their business and then there’s a little introspective interjection, sometimes addressed to the mysterious Jeffers, to explain the significance of what we’ve just read. The reader can’t ‘see’ the narrator either. When she talks about the furthest bottom of her soul it’s hard to take her seriously, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe she’s a needy person who has no idea about art but wants to be immortalised, a risible figure; or maybe we’re meant to take seriously her introspective misery and the way she turns to art as a way of feeling seen and perhaps understanding herself. I didn’t know at this point of the story, and I still didn’t know, or much care, by the end.

Back to page 74: She doesn’t get an answer from L, because Brett, L’s young female friend, turns up and interrupts them:

She was holding a bundle in her hands, which turned out to be all the linen from the bed in the second place, and she tried to offer it to me as I stood there in my nightdress on the wet grass.

‘Would you believe it,’ she said, ‘but I can’t sleep against this fabric. It irritates my skin – I woke up this morning with a face like a broken mirror! Do you have anything softer?’

She stepped closer, across the line that generally separates one person from another, when they’re not intimately acquainted. Her skin looked perfectly fine even at close quarters, glowing with youth and health. She wrinkled her little nose and peered at my face.

‘Do you have this fabric on your bed too? It looks like it might be having the same effect on you!’

L ignored this basic piece of effrontery, and stood with his arms folded looking at the view

Unlike all the other characters, the obnoxious Brett is realised with almost cinematic clarity, bringing a welcome element of waspish comedy to the narrative. But this slightly surreal interruption doesn’t so much move the story forward as expand, a little baldly, on the novel’s thematic concerns. Unlike L, Brett thinks she can see M. M wants to be seen, but not like this, close up: this is effrontery. As it turns out, the exchange foreshadows the climactic moment when the narrator stumbles upon L and Brett, probably high on something, collaborating on a viciously unkind representation of her.

Though my Leavisite lecturers in Eng Lit in the 1970s did this sort of thing with relish, it’s unfair to judge a book by one randomly selected page. But the thing is I don’t remember much else about the book. Harsh? Yes. Sentence by sentence I enjoyed reading it, and I expected my view to soften as a result of the Group’s discussion.

After the meeting: Thanks to Omicron, we were back on zoom. There were eight of us, and unlike when we meet in person, the discussion was fairly disciplined – generally only one person spoke at any given time, and we didn’t spend a lot of time on other subjects.

All but one of us had read Second Place. One had read In Transit. Only one (I think) had read both. It sounds as if In Transit was a much better experience, as we were treated to a number of readings from it, whereas no one was to be persuaded to read more than an odd phrase from Second Place.

One chap took vehemently against M. In his reading, she was a wealthy woman who decided it would be fun to have a famous artist as a scalp – so that she could boast of having had him stay, and have a painting of her place and perhaps of herself on her wall. This chap knows a number of famous people and has witnessed first-hand the effect of ‘fans’ intruding on their privacy, so his sympathy lay with the obnoxious L.

Another had read a review in the Guardian that, he said, read the book as somehow referring to Rachel Cusk having sold a house for millions of pounds and left England in protest over Brexit. Neither he nor the rest of us were clear how the book and the life were related, but it fitted the generally perplexed mood.

Another had read a little Rachel Cusk a couple of years ago and couldn’t bring himself go back to it for this meeting. He couldn’t remember anything of the books except a general sense of turgidness. The word ‘turgidness’ struck a chord with many of us.

A number of people said they appreciated the perceptive writing about art and life, life and death, men and women. An overlapping number said they were irritated or bored by tedious writing about the same subjects. Some read it as a strong feminist text. One man read quotes that, the antithesis of feminism, described the cruelty of men and the suffering of women as inherent, part of the essential nature of things. Which brought us to the question of whether we are to take M seriously or see her as a dire warning.

Those who had read In Transit spoke of Cusk’s splendid skewering of social cruelty. They were delighted by the way she dispensed with a narrative arc and with the depiction of rounded characters. I couldn’t understand what they said she did instead – I’ll have to read the book to find out. Perhaps the things I found exasperating about Second Place are a feature rather than a bug, but I still can’t see it.

In the one noteworthy straying from the subject, one chap who has recently moved into a new home, which he is in the final stages of renovating, gave us a quick guided tour. It’s a house we met in when it was newly bought a couple of major lockdowns ago, and it was a joy to behold the transformation he had wrought.

8 responses to “The Book Group in Second Place with Rachel Cusk

  1. Good to read your review of this, which I haven’t as yet read. Very much went off ‘Cusk’ as I call her when I dabbled in the trilogy.. I felt she was self-centered and quite conservative. The most enjoyable read of hers I have encountered is her 1997 book The Country Life. Very funny.

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  2. I haven’t read any Cusk, but was intrigued to read this one as it’s had some good reviews. But, also Leavis-infected as I was, your page 74 doesn ‘t appeal a lot. That “the furthest bottom of my soul” felt very clunky (before I saw your agreeing comment) and “She stepped closer, across the line that generally separates one person from another, when they’re not intimately acquainted” feels a bit like telling not showing. I’m sure other writers could convey that idea of encroaching personal space with more subtlety or nuance.

    As always though I enjoyed reading your description of your meeting.

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  3. kathyprokhovnik

    I was also intrigued to read this as I was just about to read Second Place. I read the trilogy a while ago and absolutely loved it, against my better judgement. Whenever I pick up one of Cusk’s books I anticipate that it’s going to be annoying, like a rambling monologue, but then I get completely sucked into it and just go for the ride. So I started reading Second Place and again, I’m getting swept along by it. I can’t put my finger on what I like, but it’s something to do with the way she intertwines the mundane with the insightful, and how the very formal, almost irritating narrator can suddenly say something very human that reminds you that even someone you wouldn’t normally know or like can be just like you. I like the way the narrator in this one (and in the trilogy) is unsure of herself, bumbling along like a real person, unlike many characters in novels who are very defined and particular. I like the way her feminism shines through, unapologetically (and yes I do think lots of people still apologise for their feminism), like on page 11 where she talks about L’s paintings emanating ‘a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke’ and then ‘this aura of male freedom belongs likewise to most representations of the world and our human experience within it, and that as women we grow accustomed to translating it into something we ourselves can recognise. We get our dictionaries and we puzzle it out, and avoid some of the parts we can’t make sense of or understand, and some others we know we’re not entitled to, and voila!, we participate.’ It brings me a lot of joy to come across this in a novel, for the sense of recognition, of nailing it.
    Anyway, thanks for the review and the pointer about Lorenzo in Taos, which is there at the back of the book but which I hadn’t noticed. The whole structure makes a lot more sense now. I found an article in the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-strange-revival-of-mabel-dodge-luhan) which was interesting about Mabel Dodge Luhan but which weirdly seems to criticise Cusk for straying from Luhan’s text too much, as if Cusk was writing a biography!

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    • Thanks for that, Kathy. If we have another Cusk book at the Book Group, I’ll propose we invite you as a guest

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      • I just read the New Yorker article and found it fascinating. I see what you mean about criticizing Cusk for not being faithful to the actual history, but this is exactly the kind of reading Cusk’s ‘dedication’ invites. At least, when I read the dedication I felt an urge, soon stifled when I looked st my TBR shelf, to seek out Lorenzo in Taos to see what Cusk had done with it , and perhaps to understand better what she was doing in Second Place.

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      • kathyprokhovnik

        Yes, I also wondered what Luhan’s writing was like, and what she said! But, as all of Cusk’s writing is so careful, the dedication saying it is ‘intended’ as a ‘tribute’ to her ‘spirit’ surely cautions against making too many parallels. As for being invited as a guest to your book club … reading another Cusk in the group seems about as likely as inviting a woman into your realm!

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      • Yes, it’s hard to know which is less likely, though neither is impossible. We came close to inviting Charlotte Woods. I think the New Yorker article was arguing that M in the novel was a serious diminution of the spirit of Luhan –not so much factually inaccurate as erasing the most interesting and challenging aspects of her life

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      • kathyprokhovnik

        Yes, I agree that the article was saying that, but I still think that’s disallowing what Cusk has done as a writer of fiction.

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