On the Shelf
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 192 pages, $25
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In a 2019 profile of the lengthy-neglected artist Celia Paul, Rachel Cusk mentions a scene from a movie about the painter Alberto Giacometti in which he jams dozens of his sketches into a firepit and watches them burn. The consummate swigging, stomping, scolding male virtuoso, Giacometti is undertaking a role he’ll in no way be questioned to stage out of. “The male artist,” Cusk writes, “in our picture of him, does anything we are explained to not to do: He is violent and selfish. He neglects or betrays his close friends and family. He smokes, beverages, scandalizes, indulges his lusts and in just about every way bites the hand that feeds him, all to be unmasked at the end as a peerless genius.”
Artist and male artist are not distinctive phrases. As Cusk writes in the profile, which at last located Paul, at sixty, as extra than Lucien Freud’s nubile muse, feminine artists have to function by or about or beside their gender. “Of any female creator, an clarification is demanded of whether or not, or how, she dispensed with her femininity and its restrictions, with her feminine organic destiny of the place — so to talk — she buried the system.”
“Second Location,” Cusk’s very first novel just after the conclusion of her radical, amazing “Outline” trilogy (“Outline,” “Transit” and “Kudos”), scratches at that variance, popping it open like a fats-domed pimple. Structured as a letter from the narrator, M, to her buddy Jeffers, it statements to be an endeavor at a portrait of an artist known as L — a painter whose function violently rattled M on a lengthy-in the past stop by to Paris. By itself in the city, with no her husband and younger baby, M was drawn to a gallery the place a single of L’s self-portraits stared back again at her. “Looking at it,” she explains, “I felt myself falling out of the body I had lived in for many years, the body of human implication in a specific set of situation. From that second, I ceased to be immersed in the tale of my own lifestyle and turned distinctive from it.” It so shakes her that just after she returns household to England she leaves her husband.
Fifteen many years afterwards, remarried and dwelling on the coastal marshes of Norfolk, M invites L, whom she’s in no way achieved, to stay at the “second place” behind their house, a cottage of heat wood and lime-washed walls. Other artists have stayed in the previous, she explains in a letter, and observed the “great but subtle beauty” conducive to doing the job. L comes the next spring.
The stop by disappoints M in practically just about every way. L is an expert in the artwork of passive cruelty. He will not paint her due to the fact he “can’t genuinely see” her he avoids her existence and befriends her college or university-aged daughter in a kind of silent sucker punch most gallingly, he delivers along a bubbly younger female known as Brett, a “ravishing creature someplace in her late twenties.” M recoils. “I had summoned L across the continents intuitively believing that he could perform that transformative purpose for me, could release me into artistic motion.” But he will not. Or cannot.
Cusk is motivated right here by a 1922 stop by from D.H. Lawrence (whom Cusk has known as her “mentor”) to Mabel Dodge Luhan, an arts patroness who coaxed the novelist to New Mexico with guarantees of inspiring magic coursing by the landscape. Just as M does for L, Mabel laid fires in hold out for Lawrence, spruced up the sunny dwelling that backed on to the sacred Taos Mountain and plotted his journey as a chance to absorb some of Lawrence’s efficiency by osmosis. Mabel viewed as Lawrence the male “who could realize issues for me” — artist as talisman.
Nevertheless Lawrence is the inspiration, it is not his strength that dominates “Second Location.” Instead I sensed the residue of Anita Brookner’s weary protagonists: brilliant, cultured women of all ages who know what they’re missing out on and resent those who hold it from them. M miracles if reproducing herself — in L’s painting or in her composing (“little publications … my own function — if it can be known as that”) — will firm her up by some means, smooth out some internal defect. She needs artwork to save her. In the meantime, she fumes. As Cusk hits all the superior notes of indignant rage, this book snaps and steams.
Cusk is nevertheless banging up against the identical problems that have animated her function for decades — the compromises of motherhood, the catharsis of vacation, how we demarcate our non-public room. (Often I want to yank her out of that mire, in all probability due to the fact it consumes my function as effectively.) But the mere existence of “Second Place” makes me wonder if she observed the “Outline” trilogy as cleaning as so several of us did.
I also wonder if readers will uncover “Second Place” a lot less palatable than the trilogy due to the fact its protagonist is so much extra forceful than Faye. She virtually bleats out her complaints, and slashes almost one hundred thirty exclamation details (by my count) into 192 lean pages. Readers enjoy to despise feminine characters — and Cusk — for creating momentary distress, as if reading must be a salve. But in this book extra than ever, Cusk is astringent, unsugared. Straight vinegar. It is scrumptious and excellent for the intestine.
The trilogy was a gargantuan room, an airy, a few-dimensional cathedral. “Second Place” feels like a sketched landscape, a rough draft of strategies old and new that Cusk is carefully attempting out in narrative variety. Alternatively than feed her attempts to the flames like Giacometti, she packages them. I can picture this a single in a museum, its title card explaining that “Second Place” is how Cusk acquired from Faye to _____. That is a compliment, even if it doesn’t feel a single Cusk’s open experimentation is refreshing, as is her perception that a writer ought to hold moving ahead, forging a rough chain.
Cusk has designed her popularity by self-consciously interrogating her own daring endeavors, like the “Outline” trilogy, which was partly about the intestine renovation of a flat but genuinely (as Judith Thurman put it) a intestine renovation of the novel. In this article she is figuring out what comes up coming in a novel that serves as a reality examine on the guarantees of artwork, like her own.
In 1982 the Atlantic released a “poem” by Williams Carlos Williams’ spouse Flossie, a response to his raid on her plums in his famous function “This Is Just to Say …” It starts, “Dear Monthly bill: I’ve designed a few of sandwiches for you./ In the ice-box you will uncover/ blue-berries–a cup of grapefruit/ a glass of chilly espresso.” I’ve normally liked the zest of Flossie’s reply, how ably she mimics his meter and steals back again her picture from his function.
M’s letter-as-novel is this sort of a reply. L invades her household, adulterates it with his grimace, and then turns his canvas in a different way. But his dismissal does ignite a thing in M just after all. He doesn’t paint her, but she writes him.
Kelly’s function has been released in New York Journal, Vogue, the New York Periods Guide Evaluate and somewhere else.