Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In early 1922, the English writer DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda visited Mabel Dodge Luhan – a wealthy American patron of the arts – at her home in Taos New Mexico.  By all accounts, the visit was a ‘fraught’ one.  Both Lawrence and Luhan later and separately wrote about the visit.  Luhan’s account, as expressed in her memoir Lorenzo in Taos published in 1932, was the inspiration for this new novel by Rachel Cusk.

Second Place is a brilliant novel – beautifully written – and one which requires, in fact demands, to be read slowly and attentively.  It is narrated by M – her name is never mentioned – who lives with her husband Tony somewhere in the west United States.  The narration in the first person is addressed to Jeffers but neither who s/he is nor whether the narration is by letter, by diary or in person is ever made clear.  Perhaps ‘Jeffers’ is a reference to the twentieth-century American poet Robinson Jeffers who was a friend of both DH Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan.

In ‘speaking’ with Jeffers, M expresses her responses to the events as they unfold around her and, by doing so, shares with Jeffers and the reader her thoughts – sometimes obscure, sometimes brutally honest, but always provocative of deep consideration.

In an intensely personal way, the novel also addresses significant life issues – the disparate roles of men and women, male privilege and supremacy, the complex intricacies of relationships, and the ever-present tension between our internal and external worlds.

The novel begins with M recounting [to Jeffers] a chance visit she made to an art gallery in Paris showing a major retrospective of an artist referred to only as L.  She is entranced by L’s paintings particularly his landscapes and each time she ‘faced an image, the sensation came’ [14].  The ‘sensation’ was strongest when she faced the landscapes.  M says of L – ‘when he paints a landscape, he is remembering looking at it’ [15] and for her, the landscapes speak of ‘I am here’.

Fifteen years later, M writes to L inviting him to visit her and Tony at their home ‘in a place of great but subtle beauty where artists often seem to find the will … to work’ [17].  She hopes – and indeed believes – that L’s artistic vision will penetrate the mystery of her life.

Visiting artists stay in the second place of the title – another residence on the property of M and Tony restored specifically to accommodate artists and writers.  L initially declines the offer and instead accepts what he believes to be a better one; but later, he does accept and arrives with Brett ‘a ravishing creature somewhere in her late twenties’ [50].  To M, L seemed ‘dapper and goatish’ and his eyes were ‘nuggets of sky blue from which the most arresting light came’ [51].

From the initial interaction between the two protagonists, M begins to understand that the keynote of all her dealings with L is going to be a ‘balking of [her] will and [her] vision of events’ [61].  The subjugation of the female will to the male will is a constant theme through the novel.  As M says to L, his ‘feeling lighter everyday’ was ‘a sensation only a man could enjoy’ [72]; and, consistent with DH Lawrence’s desire to restore an emphasis on the body rather than the mind, the idea of ‘sensation’ resonates through the novel.

However, M’s focus is on her mind as she perceives L objecting to her will and ‘to lose her will would be to lose [her] hold on life – to go mad’ [153].  A ‘woman’s madness’ according to M is the ‘final refuge of the male secret, the place where he would destroy her rather than be revealed’ [153].  This fraught relationship [with echoes of that between DH Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan] is characterised by the male L seeking to destroy the female M.  The intention to destroy is brought into sharp focus when M walks down to the second place and finds L and Brett ‘both barely dressed’ painting the walls in ‘lurid colours and shapes’ with flowers that were ‘fleshy and obscene, with big stamens like phalluses’ [160].  The scene was a ‘hellish’ Garden of Eden and at its centre was Eve ‘the castrating bitch.  Cause of all the trouble’ [161].  Correctly perceiving that the Eve was a representation of her, M ‘trembled to the soles of [her] feet’ [161] and fled.

This event precipitates the eventual departure of L and Brett and the novel moves towards its conclusion and what – when reached – seems inevitable: the defining of true art as ‘seeking to capture the unreal’ [207].

Second Place is a pleasure to read and is highly recommended.

Rachel Cusk is the author of the trilogy Outline, Transit, Kudos; the essay collection Coventry; the memoirs A Life’s Work, The Last Summer and Aftermath and several other novels.  She has won the Whitbread Award [Saving Agnes] and the Somerset Maugham Award [The Country Life]; and was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best Young British Novelists.

Second Place

[2021]

by Rachel Cusk

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 0 571 36669 9

$27.99; 207pp

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