Since her debut novel, Saving Agnes, appeared in 1993, Rachel Cusk has turned to a variety of genres—domestic fiction, the divorce memoir, the travelogue, autofiction, the essay and the motherhood memoir—to tackle awkwardness, embarrassment, heartbreak and loneliness. Cusk’s protean dramas have interrogated her position in the world as defined by class and gender, and considered how divorce, childbirth, a job promotion or a summer sojourn in Italy can overturn a life in irreversible ways. Power imbalances at home and rudeness in Heathrow’s queues have been some of their subjects; Cusk has also probed the pitfalls of wall-to-wall carpeting in home decoration, the importance of knowing one’s place on middle England’s public roads and the primitive demands of gender roles in 21st-century Britain. With Second Place (2021), her fifteenth book, Cusk has written yet another tale of self-portraiture. However, she has done so in a new way, by recycling a text written nine decades ago.
That book, Lorenzo in Taos, written in 1932, was the work of a domineering, generous woman, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and coincided with the peak of literary modernism, which she chronicled and supported as a patron. In passionately philosophizing prose, Luhan wove together ideas on literature and her experiences with bohemian artists, pondered bourgeois morality and reflected on her own position in society as a female writer. Today Lorenzo in Taos is mostly forgotten, and one wonders why Cusk chose to compose Second Place in Luhan’s voice. Why replace her aloof, self-effacing point of view with Luhan’s gregarious style?
The subject of Lorenzo in Taos is D. H. Lawrence, called Lorenzo by close friends and his wife Frieda, a German aristocrat he married in 1914. By the time of his visit to Luhan’s house eight years later, Lawrence was revered by bohemians and had been prosecuted by censorship boards. Yet the hostess of the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was no less a fascinating figure. Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1879, Luhan spent the 1900s in Florence at a villa built by the Medicis, where she hosted Gertrude and Leo Stein and others who shared her intellectual passions. Her promotional work for America’s first post-Impressionist art exhibition, the 1913 Armory Show, connected her to a movement that she wrote about in modernist venues like The Dial. Between 1913 and 1916, Luhan moved her salon to 23 Fifth Avenue, where Emma Goldman, Georgia O’Keeffe and other trailblazers crossed the threshold.
“Dearest Girl,” Luhan’s third husband told her in a 1917 letter, “Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art—culture—reveal it to the world!” So began Luhan’s love for New Mexico—as a dare. In Taos, she rented a house before purchasing twelve acres of meadowland; then she filed for divorce. Her fourth husband, Antonio Lujan, a Taos Pueblo Indian, built an abode of four rooms near Luhan’s main house. This became an artistic residency, the “Second Place” that was a temporary second home for Ansel Adams, Martha Graham and Aldous Huxley, among many other sculptors, painters, photographers and activists. Cusk’s novel, the story of a woman who runs a small arts residency in an unidentified locale near an ocean, is quite literally a second “Second Place.”
While reading Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia (1921) for the first time in Taos, Luhan thought: “Here is the only one who can really see this Taos country and the Indians, and who can describe it so that it is as much alive between the covers of a book as it is in reality.” She thought it was one of the most “actual” of travel books: “in that queer way of his, he gives the feel and touch and smell of places so that their reality and their essence are open to one, and one can step right into them.” This proved to Luhan that Lawrence could “see and feel and wonder”; here was a writer who “couldn’t live, with pleasure, in the real moment,” and so was fated to always live “in retrospect.” Sensing Lawrence’s potential interest in Taos, Luhan invited him to stay. Their dynamic, explains Frances Wilson in Burning Man (2021), her biography of Lawrence, was “a snake dance, with Mabel manipulating the serpentine Lawrence, whom she held, for the moment, in captivity.” Luhan wanted to be Lawrence’s host, mother, collaborator and lover. In a letter to Luhan, Lawrence wrote: “Let us keep an invisible thread between us.” Such pronouncements delighted her. “That was all I needed, really, an invisible living communication.”
In unfurling that thread, Lorenzo in Taos chronicles how Lawrence came to Taos in 1922 and what he did there. Luhan narrates their adventures to her poet friend Robinson Jeffers. She compiles for him, like a Twitter timeline, scraps of writings in chronological order—letters by Lawrence, Frieda and others sent to her between 1921 and 1930—and weaves in her own commentary. Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s persona dominates those fragments. He mesmerizes their author, compelling her to pour out her ideas on philosophy, life and art. Soon she attempts to seduce him. During a visit to the main house one day, Luhan appeared naked, and her daring apparently scared off Lawrence, who later badmouthed her in conversation and print.
Although her book is a tale of failed friendship, the “invisible living communication” between the two energized their relationship even as it faltered. Lawrence and Luhan shared an interest in the “esoteric Esperanto” of theosophy, writes Wilson. “She, like Lawrence, adopted those aspects of theosophy that best suited her; she spoke of poles and souls, sources and circuits, and the womb as a center of consciousness.” The theosophical treatises Lawrence read reinforced his enthusiasm for the electric “otherness” of American literature, and the “magnetism” of the land from which it came; meanwhile, Luhan wrote about how “the womb in me roused to reach out to him,” and of having “a womb behind the womb” with which she could “bend the universe to do her bidding” by sheer will. Her great desire was to convince Lawrence to write a book about her. After just a couple weeks in Taos, “he said he wanted to write an American novel that would express the life, the spirit, of America and he wanted to write it around me,” she recalled ecstatically.
Yet Luhan wasn’t just an eccentric hostess eager to find a man to immortalize her in his books. She was a radical figure, and she gave many damns for her fellows, and the fate of literature. “How will I make you see it, Jeffers?” is a recurring Conradian conundrum that peppers her text. Luhan wanted her poet friend and her invisible audience to witness her quest for beauty and meaning.
Lawrence is absent in Cusk’s Second Place. And the book’s narrator, M, is very much like the figure Cusk has outlined in her books over the past three decades: an upper-class author living in the countryside, where she ponders her standing and interrogates her circumstances with blunt honesty. She enjoys a life of affluence and civility but refuses to be grateful for her good fortune. Just like Cusk, M’s life is her literary material. Her books feed off her experiences.
Yet Cusk is infatuated with Luhan in the way Luhan was infatuated with Lawrence. Here Cusk is hosting a hostess, as it were. Background (1933), European Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936) and Edge of Taos Desert (1937) are among Luhan’s works, which like Cusk’s are often autobiographical, with all the capacious possibility for deception that label allows. Factual details in Luhan’s narratives may not be entirely trusted, and perhaps the best way to describe their author is as a mythmaker.
With Second Place, Cusk transports Luhan’s universe to our age of COVID-19, furnishing her abandoned mansion with 21st-century ills: the listlessness, boredom and superficiality of modernity. Still, bar its few contemporary signposts, Cusk’s tale could have been set in 1922. “The events of that winter are familiar to everyone, and so I needn’t go over them, except to say that we felt their impact far less than most people did,” M notes. Quarantines force her wealthy household to live in even closer quarters in their spacious compound. “The only thing that really irked me was that it was no longer so easy to go anywhere—not that we ever went anywhere in any case! But I felt the loss of that freedom nonetheless.”
Cusk details an earlier encounter M had some years ago when she had walked through “a Paris morning in the sun” and chanced upon rooms of paintings by a man named L. The event was transformative. Through L’s pictures, M experienced “the sort of kinship those images had aroused in me, as though I had suddenly discovered my true origins. They had made me feel that I was not alone in what, until then, I had held as secret to myself.” That secret’s admission shifts M’s life orientation. What she wants from L is for him to meet her “on the basis of that recognition I had felt that day in Paris.” Her quest for recognition is the central drama of Second Place. It defines M’s relationship with L. She wants to be “recognized by him” because, grateful as she is for her existence at the marsh as a writer, “my individuality had tormented me my whole life with its demand to be recognized.”
Our limited knowledge of L complicates this process of recognition. What sublime work has he produced to create this intense desire? We don’t know, because Cusk offers scant description of L’s work. Approaching the novel’s middle sections, I wondered whether L was a type that represented the universal male artist, a flatness created just because the narrator needed a foil. But L’s absent presence contains a message: Cusk isn’t rewriting a book about Lawrence, she whispers to us; instead, her book emulates Luhan’s way of fiction-making. Starting off as a hymn to a “male genius,” her retold tale gradually becomes an impressionistic portrait of a mother, one that lifts the mask of the fetishized artist and reveals his imperfections. M’s desires, frustrations and eventual disenchantment with L and the artistic sphere he embodies find a new avenue for self-expression in this liminal space between Luhan’s and Cusk’s words. Domesticity, motherhood and family life may seem eternal and unvarying; so is the appetite for self-making, for cutting ties, for walking out and starting anew.
Luhan waited months for a response from Lawrence. But M receives almost straightaway a reply from L to her invitation. Much to M’s surprise, he arrives months later with his friend Brett, “a ravishing creature” in her late twenties with an “air of poise and fashion.” Brett offers her “varnished fingertips as blithely as though we were meeting not at the ends of the earth but at a cocktail party on Fifth Avenue!” which makes M wonder why he might have brought her along. “I immediately saw that he would use her as a foil and a shield, and had probably brought her along for that purpose, to protect himself from the unknown circumstances he was traveling into, which was tantamount to protecting himself from me!”
Cusk has based L’s companion on the Anglo-American painter Dorothy Brett, who moved to Taos with Lawrence in 1924 during his second visit. (Brett died in Taos half a century later.) “Deaf, forty, very nice, and daughter of Viscount Esher,” is how Lawrence sketched her for Luhan. When Lawrence took her to Taos in 1924, it was to be as “a kind of buffer between him and Frieda,” he told Luhan; she became a buffer between Luhan and Lawrence, too. Second Place blends these two visits, the girlfriend Brett with the wife Frieda, while weaving its web of relationships.
Cusk not only transports Luhan’s tale to 2020 but also changes its New Mexican setting. This isn’t the Taos—a region colonized by the Spanish in the seventeenth century and which fought bitterly for its independence in the following years—that Luhan had willed Lawrence to surveil. Instead, M resides either on the English coast, in Mediterranean Europe or in France—one can’t really tell. This means that Tony, M’s Taos Pueblo Indian spouse, is an exotic foreigner. Tony’s parents didn’t tell him he was adopted, we learn, and “it wasn’t until he was eleven or twelve that he worked out what it meant that he was a different color to them! I have seen photographs of Native Americans, and more than anything he looks like one of them, though how that could be I don’t know.” Unfortunately, this is about all Cusk can offer concerning Tony’s identity.
From the outset, M fetishizes L, particularly his eyes—“nuggets of sky blue from which the most arresting light came. They shone out at me like two suns whenever they happened to meet mine.” Even a mere look at those “brilliant” eyes is enough to send a shiver down M’s spine. When L suffers a stroke, later in the book, his eyes “were blackened now, like two bombed-out rooms.” M adores other parts of him, too. L had “quite a sweet, small mouth with full lips. There was something Mediterranean in his appearance—a quality, as I have said, of sharp drawing.”
M and L enjoy their flirtation, just as Luhan and Lawrence did a century previously. Theirs is a similarly contentious relationship, although Second Place lacks the helical structure of Lorenzo in Taos, a thicker tome that details a more protracted obsession. In Cusk’s version, L arrives, observes, ignores, dismisses, paints, suffers a stroke, recuperates and leaves, never to come back. M’s struggle to be recognized by L, meanwhile, is excruciating to read. M writes of L’s “perceptual authority” and how it feels like “an authority beyond language.” Yet when she demands L to paint her, the artist looks at M “with a faintly quizzical expression,” murmuring: “But I can’t really see you.” Why not? M, for her part, can see L clearly. He’s someone set on destroying her rather than portraying her. Still, she desires his gaze. Cusk tells us that M is looking for ways of vanishing, that she wants to disappear through the captivating eyes of her host, that she wants to “find a way of dissolving” in his canvases. When L insists on refusing to see her, M lets out a cry of anguish:
I don’t exist to be seen by you … so don’t delude yourself on that point, because I’m the one that’s trying to free myself from how you see me. You’d feel better if you could see what I actually am, but you can’t. Your sight is a kind of murder, and I won’t be murdered any more.
The exclamation marks, the heated register, the endless resurfacing of that angry, ruminating, volatile I—all that is the opposite of what we have come to expect from Cusk. Diplomatic silences, the refusal to self-reflect openly: these defined Outline’s artfully pruned textures. All the same, Faye, the autobiographical narrator of the Outline trilogy (2014-18), deals with a personal crisis similar to M’s: the collapse of her marriage, the shock of starting life anew. Her focused attention on people surrounding her—in their role as foils, they draw Faye’s character in outline—resembles M’s portrait of L. She, too, tries to dissolve while observing others. In neither Second Life nor the Outline books does such attention flatten characters; it rounds, complicates and deepens them.
Faye and M are both runaways. In Outline, the narrator briskly moves from one character, setting and situation to another, patiently hearing tales of strangers; she reveals her true colors while seemingly dissolving in their words. Cusk has used Luhan’s text as M’s hiding place, and Lorenzo in Taos seems to have permitted her to try a new way of character-building. Consider the following paragraph, from the first installment of Outline, with its unmistakably Cuskian tone:
On the tarmac at Heathrow the planeful of people waited silently to be taken into the air. The air hostess stood in the aisle and mimed with her props as the recording played. We were strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. She showed us the life jacket with its little pipe, the emergency exits, the oxygen mask dangling from a length of clear tubing. She led us through the possibility of death and disaster, as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell; and no one jumped up to escape while there was still time.
A serious noticer disappears in mundane details of the everyday, and we wonder why. In the early novels of Cusk’s, like The Country Life (1997), where a wealthy Londoner unexpectedly takes a job as a caregiver at a Sussex farmhouse, self-erasure had already emerged as a central theme. This long-winded novel partly drew on Jane Eyre and showcased Cusk’s perceptiveness. Starting with her next book, A Life’s Work (2001), Cusk began using her life’s material through a seemingly nonfiction lens. Cusk wrote lucidly of childbirth, shocking some with her characterization of early motherhood as a natural catastrophe. “It is as if some disaster has occurred which has wiped me out, an earthquake, a falling meteor,” she mused memorably about looking at old photographs of herself after giving birth. Perhaps this reflection on being wiped out was a source of satisfaction rather than regret.
Cusk’s subsequent nonfiction work, The Last Supper (2009), portrayed the pleasure she took from leaving cold and damp England for Italy’s warmth, and was composed in a wandering form that might have earned Lawrence’s approval. When Cusk’s household reaches Italy, life transforms, and “suddenly there are palm trees on the roadside and warm maritime breezes and a feeling of liberty, of an almost physical unburdening, like a winter coat being taken off, a pair of heavy shoes unlaced and hurled into the glittering water.”
Lawrence casts a long shadow over these crisply composed creations. “I want to roam, like the writers and artists of an earlier age with their fashionable selfishness,” Cusk writes in Last Supper, noting how Lawrence “lived everywhere, at least for the time it took him to come to hate the place.” Like Mabel Dodge Luhan, she has appreciated his Sea and Sardinia, especially the section about the journey to Sardinia, where it seems “he could go nowhere without ascertaining its fitness to sustain life, like a scientist scanning distant planets for signs of water and oxygen.” Right before a chapter in A Life’s Work on selfish men’s essays on fatherhood, Cusk admiringly quotes a passage from The Rainbow about a man’s love for his baby.
During a moment of frustration in A Life’s Work, Cusk wonders “how I could have read so much and learned so little. … Could it be true that one has to experience in order to understand?” Second Place is her attempt to answer this question. How can L, Lawrence or any other artist we idolize seem so knowing in their works yet be such novices in real life? What do they have to teach M, Cusk or us, the readers? The main difference between them and ordinary people, M proclaims, is that while artists can create outside themselves perfect replicas of their own intentions, all that the rest of us can create is “a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagined it.” In Lorenzo in Taos Luhan quotes Leo Stein’s dictum that genius concerns the capacity to “leap without having to look.” Cusk’s M also believes that we have some compartment in which we can “achieve ourselves instinctively, to leap without looking, but the bringing of things into permanent existence is an achievement of a different order.” This is L’s strong point, the quality M wants to emulate in life, and that Cusk seeks artistically. M quotes Nietzsche to highlight her desire for a new praxis: “More wrestling than dancing, Jeffers, as Nietzsche described living!”
The closest that most women come to bringing things to a “permanent existence,” M thinks, is in having a child. Second Place’s denouement illustrates M’s satisfied realization of her superior creativity as a mother. Near the end of the novel, M and Justine swim in a creek, and M is taken aback when she sees her daughter walk onto a sandbank. “She was either unconscious of my looking or had decided not to notice it, for she stepped unhurriedly to get her towel, her white form revealed in the moonlight. She was so smooth and sturdy and unblemished, so new and strong!” The power of the moment breaks M apart, then helps remake her. “She stood as a deer stands, proudly with its antlers lifted, and there in the water I quailed before her power and her vulnerability, this creature I had made who seemed to be both of me and outside and beyond me.” The striking beauty of this ending—rather than an adaptation of Luhan’s book, it is Cuskian to its core—recalls the finale of Kudos, the last installment of the Outline trilogy, which features another epiphany about womanhood and wholeness experienced in water. As for L, he finishes a portrait that may or may not be of M, leaves it to Justine, suffers a stroke and dies.
In such moments Second Place succeeds at dancing as a text and leaps without looking. Cusk has called Outline a “breakthrough,” despite being “just a rearrangement” of her older material. The same could be said here, even though the material she has rearranged is someone else’s. But Second Place is not just an attempt to depart from earlier material; it is a new experiment with what Cusk calls “the technologies” of writing. Her adaptation of Luhan allows gregarious, philosophizing epiphanies to dominate Second Place from the first page to the last. This new texture and tone provide Cusk with the freedom to alter the self-effacing style that is now so strongly identified with her name—to look instead to the potential of a brilliantly imagined mess.