A Marshland Story
A woman no longer young has a story to tell in her own voice. She has always been self-questioning and unsettled. Her inner world is a flurry of doubt and dissatisfaction. It has made for a life of starts and stops. She’s on a quest for something, but she’s not sure what it is. The work of a painter, L, once deeply impressed her. Her life goes on with ups and downs and yearning.
She finds herself wealthy, with a grown daughter and a steady, solid husband. He’s an uncomplicated Pueblo Indian and she’s an upperclass American sophisticate. But they get along, perhaps because of their very different backgrounds. Money eases things. They live on an estate by the sea whose marshland landscape of subtle beauty permeates the woman’s—call her M’s—story.
M is in thrall to art and artists. It’s the fixed point of her character, her passion. She delves beyond the work produced into the artist as a person. She attributes overriding power to him, a mastery of life. Years have passed since L’s painting so impressed her before she meets him. Her estate now has a guest house where she and her husband invite people to sojourn and savour the understated beauty of the great marsh. They call it the Second Place. L, now well into middle age, agrees to a stay. He arrives with a beautiful young woman, his junior by several decades.
What then begins is a strange struggle between M and L. It amounts to a conflict between a worshipful admirer seeking to be of interest to the artist and his complete indifference. His attention is entirely on the work he is creating. That’s his strength and what makes him an artist. He pushes admirers aside as irrelevant except as useful tools. M’s expecting more from L than his painting makes for a tension between them of rare intensity. Her feeling is that by taking her seriously as a person L could satisfy what she has always been seeking and missing. But L can only see M as a tiresome bystander whom he dismisses with irony when he deigns to notice her.
The drama intensifies when L’s successful career falters and he becomes dependent upon M for a home and support. There’s an encounter between them with M ever a supplicant and L, his health gone, a wounded cock-of-the walk. In a dying swagger, he produces some of his best work and goes off to meet death indifferent to his sordid circumstances. M, for her part, reacts to L’s death as if she has reached the goal of her quest for wholeness. The reader hopes it isn’t only satisfaction felt at having outlasted L in the struggle.
All this is the bare bones of Rachel Cusk’s 2021 novel Second Place. It is rich, haunting and startlingly original as we witness events from within M’s troubled mind. A word of cautious is in order. Second Place is not biography or history although Cusk did take hints for her story from the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan, an American patron of the arts of a century ago. Luhan did have a troubled relationship with the English writer D.H. Lawrence. However, Cusk has not written a novel about Luhan and Lawrence. She created instead a character who thought in some ways like Luhan and pitted her against a creative artist that Cusk imagined had something of Lawrence in his attitudes and opinions.
In fact, Second Place is very much about our present. Mabel Luhan’s philanthropic gush of a century ago seems embarrassingly quaint today. It mixes Jungian psychoanalysis with the occult. Her mission “to save the Indians” by marrying one of them took nerve but seems like a spoiled rich girl’s resentful slap in the face to her peers. America of her day was full of an Africa-American population whose dire condition did not seem to move her. Building a seventeen room adobe mansion in New Mexico was hardly a killer blow to American racism. Luhan dabbled in ideas moving from one fad to another like a shopper rushing through a mall before her flight leaves. What attracted her to Lawrence was his worst side, his messiah pose and guru pronouncements.
Cusk’s M is a very different woman. Her feminism is a long way from that of the roaring twenties. She sees male domination as an ever-present obstacle but also worries about her own readiness always to accept second place. Her physical relationship with her adult daughter and fluidity in her sexual and domestic roles is very much Third Millennium
Rachel Cusk, born in 1967, came into prominence for her memoirs. She wrote about the travails of motherhood, of a family stay in Tuscany, of the failure of her marriage and of starting out again. Her feminism is fierce but not preachy. It indicts institutions like marriage for their bias and pictures the men she meets as ego-heavy and wordy self-publicists. Her conviction that all the arts are moving toward autobiography led her to abandon the realistic novel of description and character. As in her personal life, she started again from scratch. Her Trilogy begins (Outline, 2014) by recording in merciless prose what people met at random tell her about themselves. It goes on (Transit, 2016) to tell how post marriage she got a grip on life again, moving to London with her children. In the third novel (Kudos, 2018) she not only listens to others’s stories of themselves, but answers them back with her own. Her reshaping the novel into her own brand of autofiction is complete. Second Place of 2021 proves to be another large step but this time away from hard-fact memoir. Perhaps Cusk felt that personal experience with a high literary varnish had become a limit on her prolific talent. In a recent story, she still could be thinking of her novel’s marshland:
“In the beginning the island was costive, quiet, so empty of visitors that it was possible now and then to sense the time before such places became spoiled, became subject to their capacity for infinite reproduction. There is usually an artist somewhere at the bottom of that story of spoliation. A long time ago, by virtue of their aesthetic instincts, artists found the beautiful places, and they came to them with other artists and feasted on their beauty and their flavorsome reality, and then they set about creating with their brushes and their pens the first copies. They made copies not only of what they saw but also of what they were and what they felt, of their physical and sensory pleasures, their freedom and their entitlement and their sensuality. Once that discovery was made, that the world and its experiences could be reproduced, each of us came to expect that for a certain sum we could have a copy of our own. But every time a copy was made, it seemed that its distance from the original had become greater.” From When I Went Away From the World of 2022.