Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”

Merve Emre

Rachel cusk is the most unsettling and philosophically astute British novelist at work today. The author of fifteen books, she is best known for her memoirs, A Life’s Work (2001) and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), and the novels that comprise the Outline trilogy (2014–18). The narrator of the trilogy is a divorced writer named Faye who participates in writers’ workshops and literary festivals in Europe. She is self-effacing, passive, and unusually receptive to other people’s stories, which she listens to without any explicit commentary. Yet Faye’s narration of these stories is rigorous, controlled, and judgmental—at moments, shockingly so—shifting from tenderness to cruelty in its descriptions of her interlocutors’ faces, bodies, and confessions. The result is a tense, dramatic experiment in novelistic ethics, a struggle between self and other that led Cusk to declare, in a 2018 interview with Alexandra Schwartz, “I don’t think character exists anymore.”

Cusk’s 2021 novel, Second Place, returns to many of her preoccu­pations, among them fate and freedom, the burdens of femininity, the ethics of parenthood, and the moral status of art. The narrator is a woman, “M,” who is thrown into an inchoate state of longing and self-doubt by “L,” the painter whom she invites to stay in her guest house, a cottage for artists that M refers to as the “second place.” Although Second Place is set at a time much like the pandemic, in a place much like Norfolk, England, where Cusk used to live, the novel is more mythic than realist in tone and structure. The marsh where M lives teems with symbols of nature’s innocence and its cor­ruptions. M and L are both references to historic individuals—the novel is inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos (1932), about D. H. Lawrence—and to archetypes of male and female cre­ators. What is at stake in their relationship feels like nothing less than a battle between cosmic elements: desire and dread, good and evil, life and death, or, as Lawrence put it, “being and non-being.”

Cusk and I discussed Second Place at the Southbank Centre, in London, on December 8, 2022. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

merve emre

merve emre Second Place is narrated by a writer, M, who invites a famous painter, L, to live and work in the guest house in the marsh where M and her husband, Tony, live, along with Justine, M’s daughter, who has relocated there with her boyfriend Kurt during the pandemic. But before the novel takes us to the marsh, it shows us M leaving Paris on a train, where she is pursued by the devil, “horrible in appearance, yellow and bloated with bloodshot bile-coloured eyes, and when he laughed, he showed dirty teeth with one entirely black tooth right in the middle.” It is a memorable opening, because the devil is, on the one hand, disgusting, lasciv­ious, and abject, and, on the other hand, tempting. What does the devil portend in Second Place?

rachel cusk I was thinking a little bit of Death in Venice (1912) and the feeling of fate—of reality taking fateful shapes in a psycho­drama of the self. I think I thought: “Okay, you can just say it. You can have the devil in your book.” I wanted to introduce the concept of evil in a very melodramatic way that would make it a presence in the book but didn’t have to be too philosophically thought out. It could be a feeling of great vulnerability on the part of the person who’s speaking, something that could replace a moral or a religious sense of vulnerability. That kind of drama or melodrama was very much how I wanted the book to be.

me The presence of evil and the possibility that art may offer us a moral vision to either channel or counter that evil is an important idea in many of your books. But evil is not usually presented as dramatically as it is here, with the devil chasing someone up and down the train car. Why did you want to personify it this time?

rc What felt important to me in the book was to sever certain links with reality and to try to sort of destabilize the book from its narra­tive or linear foundations and to suggest some unreality, some kind of other realm. At the point I was writing the book, the question of time in a novel and the length of a novel in its dealings with time and linearity felt unbelievably oppressive. I had gone quite a long way in Outline and the other two books in that trilogy in refor­mulating how to deal with that. But my great feeling was of not wanting to go back, of not wanting to do all that again. I wanted this book to be free of those constraints and yet not to feel fanciful, made up. I felt there was a space in literary form for a sort of fable or tale with links to reality but that wasn’t constrained by a reality that people would be able to recognize. And part of that is the book being spoken to another person, which immediately interferes with how it has to justify itself.

I think I thought: “Okay, you can just say it. You can have the devil in your book.”

me That other person is addressed as Jeffers. Is that an epistolary address? Or is it a scene of face-to-face speech?

rc The Jeffers character is a sort of strange, leftover bit from the book that Second Place is taken from: Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir about D. H. Lawrence coming to stay with her. And that book, indeed, is spoken to Jeffers. When I read it, I had no idea who Jeffers was. I didn’t realize he was Robinson Jeffers, a poet and friend of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s who was famous in his time and is possibly still famous somewhere. But I didn’t know who Jeffers was until the very last page of Lorenzo in Taos, where there is a photo of him. And I thought, I’ve read this whole book not knowing who Jeffers is. And yet, what Jeffers had come to be for me, how I imagined him or her, had an extraordinary effect on me. I thought, that’s the one thing I’ll keep as a little relic or antique, a remnant of that original book.

me I want to go back to your observation about time and the linear form of the novel. One effect of beginning with a melodramatic, mythic, or fabular structure is to reinforce the sense of fatedness that you mentioned, as if these events merely had to be set in motion as opposed to resulting from the exercise of free will. How do you think about the relationship between fate and freedom—another concept that seems important for you throughout the novel and in your other writing?

rc The way I think about that slightly fabular construction is very confused by the pandemic. I thought, what would be the best con­ditions in which to try to grasp the condition of a sort of post-being—a female future that comes after many, many roles and forms of femininity that you half choose, half live, half don’t choose, or don’t want, and at a certain point, walk out of. It seemed to me that that condition was quite a difficult thing to describe. And it was particularly difficult to describe if everything else remained stably located in space and in time. How could you summon up this directionless non-state of non-being, this difficult-to-grasp phase of femininity? It would have to be in a world in which noth­ing worked, everything had stopped, no one could go anywhere. That then became the very environment in which I wrote at least the second half of the book.

me This feminine non-state of non-being exists in a world in which one has very few social relations through which to define the self. There’s a small cast of characters in this novel compared to the trilogy.

rc Character is a very difficult thing to believe in or to assert the existence of in anything other than a very static set of circumstances, where character can confirm itself all the time. But now I think slightly differently, certainly, about the question of time. I wonder why I have never used my ability to slow down time and why, in the Anglophone novel, it’s a rare thing for anyone to do—to make time go very, very, very slowly in a book. I’ve moved to France, I’m reading French novels in French all day, every day, and this is the thing that I’m most struck by: They go much more slowly. Time pauses. The book’s location in time is completely different.

me M has a strong sense that there are certain forms of freedom, and certain ways of “being and becoming,” to quote Lawrence, that are unique to men. There is an aesthetic and moral freedom, or a freedom from morality, that certain creative people enjoy. M is ultimately quite ambivalent about this freedom. What are the moral ramifications of how freedom allows you to impose your will onto others?

rc I think that question is the conundrum of the book, and it’s something that I haven’t gotten to the end of thinking about. The question is very, very bound to the whole idea of the female voice and what that is—what it really is. Does the female voice have to remain unlived or undisclosed? Does its value derive from its non­existence or its existence in silence, in not being free, in not having things, and in the kind of knowledge that comes out of that? Or is it actually a distinct existence and a distinct spirituality in itself? Second Place very much arrives at the question: What is it that I have? I have something: I’ve been alive, I’ve lived in time. What I have doesn’t feel like freedom; it doesn’t feel like anything. And yet it might be defined by others and by the fulfillment of their iden­tity or autonomy or desire. Somehow death or exhaustion or not being defined attains a weird adverse value.

In other words: “Okay, I have a child. I have a home. I have these things that I do for people, that I am for people. And I haven’t expressed myself, but maybe that means I haven’t spent myself.” The thing that’s easy enough to see in the book is how those female values just disappear. They’re invisible in the light of L, who is unrelentingly free and selfish. It almost seems that you can mea­sure every sort of moment of female non-being by the being of this other person.

me The novel is preoccupied with people’s competing perceptions of one another. It can be tempting to see yourself through another person’s eyes, and it can be difficult to triumph over another per­son’s perception of you. There’s a wonderful moment where you write, “I believe there is also a more common ability to read the surface of life, and the forms that it takes, that either grows from or becomes an ability to attend to and understand the works of the creators. One can feel, in other words, a strange proximity to the process of creation when one sees the principles of art—or of a particular artist—mirrored in the texture of living.” You go on: “I’m unsure of the moral status of these half creations, which I can only hazard is akin to the moral status of influence, and therefore a powerful force for both good and evil in human affairs.” What kind of morality can or cannot be communicated by the vision of the artist? Or the non-artist?

rc It’s the fun thing about not being an artist—the fun thing about being, you know, normal. M says, “I had remained a devourer, while yearning to become a creator.” But there is an onerousness to creating and defining and putting things in space all the time. One of the things that I really loved about the voice of Mabel Dodge Luhan was this feeling that she entirely and only existed in this voice, and that nobody was listening to it. But if you open the book, there it is, it has started talking again. I felt that that sort of imma­teriality gave a good account of a non-artist, a person who thinks that an artist is not what she is. For whatever reason, Mabel Dodge Luhan had the confidence or the ability to write this down. She wrote several volumes of it. And it all has precisely the same tone of, there’s not an artist in charge. There’s not an egotistical creator. And that, to me, is a very, very fragile and difficult thing to grasp.

me It reminds me of what you said in another interview about character no longer existing or having trouble in believing that character exists. What I took you to be saying was that it’s hard to believe in the singularity of one’s ego. What the contemporary Anglophone novel needs to do is try to shatter ego in order for its voice to get at something more elemental, a substratum of being and becoming that is shared among everyone in this room, that doesn’t require people being fully individuated or subjectified. Do you still think that way about character and its disappearance?

I’ve moved to France, I’m reading French novels in French all day, every day, and this is the thing that I’m most struck by: They go much more slowly.

rc I think the problem with character is that it takes the novel—if one cares about the novel or even thinks that the novel still exists—through so many successive stages of a kind of cloning of itself. The character in the novel is the result of the writer having read a lot of other novels, and the reader believes the character because they’ve read a lot of novels, too. And so you’re actually in some sort of barter system whose links to reality are pretty remote. I think seeing the world like that is much more related to society than to art. The novel takes itself off into a different category by relying on those stratagems. In fact, if we re-examined our relationship to one another, we’d probably find that there are not that many links between conventional literary form and living. When you look at, I don’t know, Donald Trump, you say, “Okay, that’s a character.” So maybe character is fanaticism. Maybe that’s where it’s gone now.

me One of the other ways that Second Place is interested in character, fanaticism, and will is in its descriptions of parenting, especially parenting older children. M has a daughter, Justine, who is in her early twenties and is starting to come into her own. Her dawn­ing independence raises the questions: To what degree is having a child an act of the will? And at what point must one withdraw one’s will? How did your thoughts about the relationship between parent and child change from A Life’s Work to Second Place?

rc One of the features of this featurelessness that I’m trying to give some kind of shape to is the feeling that one’s own female history is a footprint in the sand. There’s a feeling of moving forward in time with no landmark. But the details of one’s female history, the diffi­culty of commemorating it, or it even remaining tangible, is coun­terweighted by the continuing existence of things like one’s child. The novel is trying to compare that continuing existence to paint­ing—to externalizing your intentions, externalizing something of yourself that can survive without you. You can walk away, and it’ll still be there, and it will do what it’s meant to do. Is painting in any way similar to reproduction, to having a child? I’ve written quite a lot about reproduction and the difference between copying and generating or creating. And I think having a child is probably reproduction—copying, not generating.

me What you said about the footprints in the sand reminds me of another existential question that this novel grapples with: Where does life go? What happens when you want more of it? And what happens when that feeling of life, that vitality, is tied to suffering? M tells us that she was living in this perfectly beautiful place, in a perfectly content life, and then she went and mucked it all up. Is that what the devil tempts us with? More life, more feeling, more vitality—none of it especially conducive to happiness.

rc And running counter to that is aging. And that is the other sub­ject in the book: that these ardent desires that seem so much to be the wellsprings of living are connected, in many ways, to a creative urge. One of the things that I saw when I was writing the book was how funny it is that men and women almost aren’t men and women anymore after a certain age. I had this image of cursedness, or a grudging resentment, of these same two figures who have lived through so many narratives—not these specific individuals, but the figure of man and woman that has generated so much con­tent and so much meaning at different phases of life. And perhaps one of the characteristics of this phase of life is that there is no more gender and that in order to re-gender yourself, you would have to become interested in a younger person or in yourself being seen in a different way.

me There’s a relationship here between desire and freedom. Freedom comes from wanting and being wanted. To want is to feel the possibility of a creative freedom. M is surrounded by younger women who are making her own unwantedness palpable in painful ways. There is her daughter, Justine, who is there with her boy­friend, and when L comes to live in her guest house, he brings his attractive young friend, Brett. What happens when you feel like you exist outside of that circulation of erotic and creative desire?

rc In the book and in general, these things are not what you think they are. People are not as you think they are. And it’s only really within your own time that reality obeys your preconceptions of it. And if you try and put those preconceptions on a younger person, you’ll find that they don’t conform at all to any of the roles you’ve played. And what is tragic about that is it means that, at heart, we are linear, and we realize that only at the very moment we come to the end of these illusions or desires. I think the question in the book is whether—this is, again, a question about character—one’s own character exists and whether what you’ve done your whole life has served this idea of character, of who you are, of what you want. Because the ebbing away of that entity, of the things that have motivated it and driven it, is a frightening feeling. The unbounded nature of art seems deeply preferable. The envy that M has, that possibly I have, of the person creating the image, seems a very real thing to me.

me Is your own character linear? Or do you feel it as a series of ruptures?

rc I think I don’t have a character.

me In this novel, painting is the locus of knowledge about existence. When M attends L’s exhibition in Paris, L’s painting seems to speak to M: “‘I am here.’” But she refuses to articulate what that means because to articulate it would be to destroy it. There’s a contest in Second Place between painting and writing as media that make themselves available to different ideas about representation. A lot of contemporary novelists have been turning to painting as the locus of the ineffable, of non-being. What attracted you to painting?

rc Painting is non-language. It could have been something else that was non-language. For me, the exhaustion with the language economy was something I started to feel in parenthood when I first thought, “Why do I have to do this?” If this baby does this, I have to say this. Also, there were all sorts of new types of language: languages of reprimand or management or ordering people to do things. It seemed like the pre-formation of language was far more insidious than I had thought it to be. And that really did become a massive preoccupation for me: pre-formation in terms of national­ity, in terms of social class, and in all sorts of other things. I began to wonder how I could read the language of things that I wasn’t even aware of—things that spoke without saying anything. There’s a bit in the book where L expresses the idea that painters are cre­ated by their fathers and writers are created by their mothers.

me Do you think that’s true?

rc I actually do think it’s quite true, because I think that the mother is language. The woman controls the language economy. Part of what is going on in Second Place is a great frustration with the medium of language. If there is a desire for freedom, it is freedom from language. And that’s the thing I am already starting to think about: What potential does the body itself have as a non-language? As an object? And what does it mean for femininity? What is the body’s non-language value? I’m sure there’s a whole other story that could be written, or has been written, about a woman wanting to be only her body and not a communicative entity at all. I sup­pose it is a reverse kind of objectification, or an inverting of and a taking control of that objectification.

me Are you writing about this?

rc I have, in fact, just written an essay, called “The Stuntman,” that is sort of about this. I thought the stuntman was quite a good image for this idea of a divide in feminine identity. Each woman has a stuntman. And the stuntman is the person who lives physical experiences, like childbirth. Or enables character to exist, which is what the stuntman does in a film. The stuntman takes the actual risks so that this character can be a risk-taking character. I thought that was an interesting way of conceptualizing a psychology that is possibly a contemporary phenomenon.

The character in the novel is the result of the writer having read a lot of other novels, and the reader believes the character because they’ve read a lot of novels, too.

me The way you described the stuntman is as a sense or a situa­tion of compartmentalization. And what your narrator describes in Second Place is also a kind of compartmentalization: someone who feels assaulted by the wills of others but perhaps doesn’t con­sciously recognize how her own will operates. There’s a moment when M says to Jeffers, “Tony sometimes says to me that I under­estimate my own power.” To what degree does your narrator pos­sess the self-understanding to assess the moral consequences of her own actions?

rc That’s the impasse. It’s the membrane that she’s in. The alterna­tive to it is violence. The alternative to it is saying, “I’ll break this table. And I’ll then look at the broken table and know that I did that, and therefore that I exist, and that’s the effect I’ve had on the world.”

me One notable thing about Second Place is how exclamatory and agitated the language is. It seems like a real change from the Outline trilogy, which is much more tightly controlled. But aside from this difference in tone, in Second Place we still have only one narrator, who’s showing us everything through her point of view.

rc To me, Second Place’s exclamatory voice is not so different from a voice in the trilogy. It’s just that there’s only one voice. I felt that the spokenness of Second Place, which takes almost a dramatic form, a monologue form, could justify itself in the same way that I used different voices in the trilogy to justify themselves. In the case of Outline, the voices exist because the narrator is seeing the char­acters. And in the case of Second Place, that’s not so. She is speaking of her own accord. But maybe I won’t use exclamation marks.

me No, you should. I like them. Lawrence used a lot of exclamation marks, too. I think the larger observation was about how there can be a tendency in many of us to not see the forms of power that we wield. And that raises all sorts of fascinating moral and ethical questions about what it means to act on, or with, other people, in fiction and in life.

rc It’s a global problem, in a sense. It requires more unraveling. I know that I’ve lived something right if I find I have more power afterward in writing about it. And that’s a very, very difficult sort of index to draw. This process feels almost amoral, actually, in how little it differs—writing things that have really upset people, shocked them, and writing things that no one takes any notice of and then something they like. It seems astonishing to me that it’s still the same place.

me Or perhaps the way you conceive of writing has a different relationship to morality. Your narrator observes in the beginning of the novel that there is a certain type of person who is always mediating the meanings of good and evil. It’s a very Nietzschean sentiment—that within the world of the novel, one creates one’s own ideas, or puts into play one’s own ideas, of what is good and what is evil and what the point of these values is in the first place.

rc But I think it’s also that the writer is doing something that, as I say, has no morality in itself. It has to exist without anyone giving it any attention. And its links to attention have to be nonexistent. It has to be capable of just waiting. And then someone comes along and thinks something about it. And the thing that the next person thinks about it a few years down the line is different. So there’s some feeling of irreducibility to that.

me There are certain scenes that you return to over and over in your fiction. I was thinking about the ending of Kudos, where Faye is in the sea and there’s a man standing on the shore urinating into the water. It’s a moment of perfect, ridiculous cosmic balance between the sexes. Near the end of Second Place, M and Justine are in the water, and L is watching them from the shore. According to M, that scene ends up as the subject of L’s most important painting. I know that some writers have images that they keep going back to. Is this one particularly important for you?

rc I think it’s more wanting to have some sort of concrete mate­riality that isn’t in language that approaches the image. And also a feeling of locations, experiences, or periods of time that seem to me to encapsulate what is scarring in femininity and in the bio­logical trajectory that vanishes behind you. I’ve written about this in different guises before, but it’s the feeling of experiences going beyond experience—becoming actually representational so that they’re always happening. And that being, again, part of a big foot­print in the sand. How can you ever express that? How can you express that experiences have been so indelible?

me The novel is, in part, a representation of your experience of reading and reading about D. H. Lawrence. How scarring was that immersion in Lawrence for your sense of femininity?

rc This book was about me chucking D. H. Lawrence, getting him out of my life. I will survive without D. H. Lawrence. I turned against him and got rid of him. That was what happened in this book.

And I think, really, the main point of the relationship between this book and the memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan is that her account of Lawrence resolves the question. He was wrong. And that was extremely difficult for me to admit because he’s a writer who has freed a lot of women writers, who has enabled women writers, some of them, to find their voice. And that seemed so unarguable to me. And it didn’t matter that he went slightly mad in the end of his life when he wrote The Plumed Serpent (1926) and said and did some very odd things. He was an extremely unfortu­nate person who suffered terrible physical pain and illness and who was hurt in absolutely horrible ways. I’m sure that deformed his nature and his character. Of course it did. And by the time he gets to Taos, New Mexico, he’s fully deformed. But for me, the view of him that I found in Luhan’s book, it was like an opportunity to really reconsider the people who have dominated you, like your parents, or the things that you’ve sort of gone along with but never really challenged and never really walked away from.

From Rachel Cusk: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, editors: Roberta Garrett and Liam Harrison to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in August 2024.

Merve Emre is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University. She is a contributing writer at The New Yorker.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024



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