Rachel Cusk: “Second Place”

Hosted by

Author, Rachel Cusk. Photo by Siemon Scamell-Katz.

Central to Rachel Cusk’s new book, “Second Place," is the war between the male and the female. The narrative takes place in a marsh—a landscape of mystery and constant change. Cusk says she wanted to create fields of being, perceiving and feeling that don’t really exist in the normal economics of writing; she wanted to render the sensations and apprehensions of living that are pretty much beyond language. And she thought of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s book “Lorenzo in Taos” as an abandoned house she could renovate.

Excerpt from “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it got into everything and turned it bad. I dont think I realised how many parts of life there were, until each one of them began to release its capacity for badness. I know youve always known about such things, and have written about them, even when others didnt want to hear and found it tiresome to dwell on what was wicked and wrong. Nonetheless you carried on, building a shelter for people to use when things went wrong for them too. And go wrong they always do!

Fear is a habit like any other, and habits kill what is essential in ourselves. I was left with a kind of blankness, Jeffers, from those years of being afraid. I kept on expecting things to jump out at me – I kept expecting to hear the same laughter of that devil I heard the day he pursued me up and down the train. It was the middle of the afternoon and very hot, and the carriages were crowded enough that I thought I could get away from him merely by going and sitting somewhere else. But every time I moved my seat, a few minutes later there he
d be, sprawled across from me and laughing. What did he want with me, Jeffers? He was 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. He wore earrings and dandyish clothes that were soiled with the sweat that came pouring out of him. The more he sweated, the more he laughed! And he gabbled non-stop, in a language I couldnt recognise – but it was loud, and full of what sounded like curses. You couldnt exactly ignore it, and yet that was precisely what all the people in the carriages did. He had a girl with him, Jeffers, a shocking little creature, nothing more than a painted child who was barely clothed – she sat on his knee with parted lips and the soft gaze of a dumb animal while he fondled her, and nobody said or did a thing to stop him. Of all the people on that train, was it true that the one most likely to try was me? Perhaps he followed me up and down the carriages to tempt me into it. But it was not my own country: I was only passing through, going back to a home I thought of with secret dread, and it didnt seem up to me to stop him. Its so easy to think you dont matter all that much at the very moment when your moral duty as a self is most exposed. If Id stood up to him, perhaps all the things that happened afterwards wouldnt have occurred. But for once I thought, let someone else do it! And that is how we lose control over our own destinies.

My husband Tony sometimes says to me that I underestimate my own power, and I wonder whether that makes living more hazardous for me than for other people, the way it
s dangerous for those who lack the ability to feel pain. Ive often thought that there are certain characters who cant or wont learn the lesson of life, and that they live among us as either a nuisance or a gift. What they cause can be called trouble or it can be called change – but the point is, though they may not mean to or want to, they make it happen. Theyre always stirring things up and objecting and upsetting the status quo; they wont just leave things be. They themselves are neither bad nor good – thats the important thing about them – but they know good from bad when they see it. Is this how the bad and the good continue to flourish alongside each other in our world, Jeffers, because certain people wont let either one get the upper hand? That day on the train, I decided to pretend not to be one of them. Life looked so much easier all of a sudden, over there behind the books and newspapers people were holding up in front of their faces to hide the devil from their sight!

What is certain is that afterwards many changes occurred, and I had to use all my strength and my belief in right and my capacity for pain to survive them, so that I nearly died from it – and after that, I was no longer a nuisance to anyone. Even my mother decided she liked me for a while. Eventually I found Tony and he helped me recover, and when he gave me the life of peace and gentleness here on the marsh, what did I do but find fault with the beauty and the peace and try to stir them up! You know about that story, Jeffers, because I
ve written it down elsewhere – I mention it only to help you see how it connects to what I want to tell you about now. It seemed to me that all this beauty was no good if it had no immunity: if I could harm it, then anyone could. Whatever power it is that I have, its nothing compared to the power of stupidity. That was and remains my reasoning, even though I could have taken the opportunity to live an idyll here of easeful impotence. Homer says it in The Iliad, when he mentions the pleasant homes and occupations of the men cut down in battle, not forgetting their fancy battledress and their hand-tooled chariots and armour. All that sweet cultivating and building, all that possession, to be chopped apart with a sword, stamped out in the seconds it takes to stamp on an ant.

d like to go with you, Jeffers, back to the morning in Paris before I boarded the train that held the bloated, yellow-eyed devil: Id like to make you see it. You are a moralist, and it will take a moralist to understand how it was that one of the fires that started that day was allowed to keep on smouldering over the years, how its core stayed alive unnoticed and secretly fed itself, until the time when my circumstances were finally replenished and it caught alight on the new things and blazed again into life. That fire was laid in Paris, in the early morning, where a seducing dawn lay over the pale forms of the Île de la Cité and the air was held in the absolute stillness that presages a beautiful day. The sky got bluer and more blue and the green fresh banks of foliage were motionless in the warmth, and the blocks of light and shadow that bisected the streets were like the eternal primordial shapes that lie on the faces of mountain ranges and seem to come from inside them. The city was quiet and mostly empty of humans, so that it felt as though it were itself more than human and could only reveal it when there was no one to see. I had lain awake all the short hot summer night in my hotel bed and so when I saw dawn between the curtains I had got up and gone down to walk beside the river. It seems presumptuous, Jeffers, not to mention meaningless, to describe my experience in this way, as if it had the slightest bit of significance. Doubtless someone else is walking beside that same stretch of river at this minute, likewise committing the sin of believing that things happen for a reason, and that that reason is herself! But I need to give you my state of mind on that morning, the exalted sense of possibility I felt, to make you understand what came out of it.

I had spent the evening in the company of a famous writer, who was actually nothing more significant than a very lucky man. I met him at an art gallery opening, from which he took sufficient pains to extricate me that my vanity was gratified. I didn
t get sexual attention very often in those years, though I was young, and I suppose good-looking enough. The trouble was, I had the dumb loyalty of a dog. This writer was of course an insufferable egotist, as well as a liar, and not even a very believable one; and I, alone in Paris for the night, with my disapproving husband and child waiting back at home, was so thirsty for love I would drink, it seemed, from any source. Truly, Jeffers, I was a dog – there was such a heavy weight inside me, I could only writhe senselessly like an animal in pain. It pinned me down in the depths, where I thrashed and struggled to get free and swim to the brilliant surface of life – at least, thats how it looked from below. In the company of the egotist, tramping from bar to bar in the Paris night, I intimated for the first time the possibility of destruction, the destruction of what I had built; not, I assure you, for his sake, but for the possibility he embodied – which had never once occurred to me until that night – of violent change. The egotist, permanently drunk on his own importance, sliding breath mints between his dry lips when he thought I wouldnt notice and talking about himself non-stop: he didnt actually fool me, though I admit I wanted him to. He gave me plenty of rope to hang him with, but of course I didnt hang him – I played along, half believing it myself, which was more of the luck hed evidently had all his life. We said goodbye at two in the morning at the entrance to the hotel, where he visibly – to the point of unchivalrousness – decided I wasnt worth whatever risk to his status quo our spending the night together would have represented. And I went to bed and hugged the memory of his attention until the roof seemed to lift off the hotel and the walls to fall away and the huge starry darkness to embrace me with the implications of what I felt.

Excerpted from Second Place by Rachel Cusk. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Cusk. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.