Rachel Cusk does today’s bourgeois women what Flaubert did with Madame Bovary

Second Place
Rachel Cusk
Faber, £15.99
Reviewed by Neil Mackay

If nuance has a final doubt in this age of blunt conformity and unconscious politics within the pages of fiction. There, the author can find anything they want without bowing to the expectations of an online crowd.
Fiction has become, almost ironically, the last safe haven in the digital age – where the most pressing issues can be broached in anatomy class without the dread of having to find out. a bad idea and hard to support that bad. stubbornness.
In her latest novel, Second Place, Rachel Cusk takes on the issue of contemporary politics as a bloody post-conviction escapee, fearless in the mind of a new woman who sees herself as a feminist but, in fact, has as much male thrall and power as the heroine of a 19th-century novel. In this book, Cusk goes to places where the A speaker will tread on a work of contemporary non-fiction for fear of being criticized as anti-feminist.
Second Place tells the story of a noble woman, named M, who invites a shallow artist, known as L, to stay in her country home. M built a vacation home – a “secondary” – nearby, and thought about running her own beauty salon.
Cusk is a familiar comedian. His story describes the strangest of modern social classes, “the bohemian bourgeoisie” – that member of the middle class, mostly living in relative wealth through inherited wealth, who reject the conformity of the ninth world to the fifth. a throuple and spliff after dinner Nigella cooked on the Aga.
M thinks she is different, new and liberated. In fact, despite all the abuse, M is the one who sees men as strong and powerful. He makes fun of “easy” men. He is a pain. It doesn’t spoil the book – it’s good. M is a real character, in all her defiant glory, not some meme of a fake woman.
Cusk does for the women of today’s bohemian bourgeoisie what Gustave Flaubert did for the women of the 19th century bourgeoisie – make fun of them. There are many parallels to be found between Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Cusk’s M: both dreamers build castles in the sky, only to fall down in reality. The main difference, of course, is that Emma, ​​a man who was created, lived in a society where women were destroyed for breaking the rules. M breaks the rules but is also in trouble – her boyfriend Tony, who is the only “good” character in the book, is also up for mockery.
The problem for Cusk is that his fame precedes him. Some of his stories are very divisive. The abortive memory of Cusk Aftermath is the subject of a significant political debate. In some quarters, he has been painted as narcissistic, petty, cruel, reckless, entitled and self-indulgent. There are more examples of M.
The idea that fiction reflects the soul of its author is a modern absurdity. As a novelist, I wrote fiction about medieval heretics and child murderers in the 1980s. I assure you I have never seen one. Cusk – like all storytellers – uses his imagination. Obviously, what he tells is true, but he seems to maintain a firm dividing line between fiction and non-fiction. Second Place may capture Cusk’s life but it’s not “about him”.
However, anger at Cusk’s new book is almost predictable, from several quarters. That whiny M will be seen as it is – small, dirty, dirty. A writer of Cusk can’t be smart enough to create a character like M in terms of self-improvement. We should praise the author with wisdom and simplicity. Cusk admits that he felt his pain was fake, even though it was real pain. “I was determined not to falsify anything for the record,” said M.
Cusk is a talented writer. Her Outline trilogy is a beautiful fictional account of 21st century life through the eyes of a brilliant, flawed, creative woman. Cusk is a runner for women’s identity. Much of her writing is reminiscent of the work of two other great feminist writers: Clarice Lispector, best known for Hour of the Star in 1977, and Jean Rhys who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. The two women – like Cusk – hacked their way, without truth, through the jungles of misogyny and female desire; brave pioneers. Cusk follows their path, albeit more slowly, more easily, and more quietly.
Most of all – and this is why Cusk deserves the word “big”, at least – he is asking to be a replacement for Milan Kundera. He is involved in the search for a way of being – the philosophical foundations of what makes us human. The sounds of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being float around the pit.
Like Emma Bovary and many Kundera characters, M believed that she could turn her life into art. He placed the statue on a pedestal and knelt before it. In doing so, he risks being destroyed. We are human beings, after all, not art. Like Muriel Spark’s character Lise in The Driver’s Seat, M is engaged in exploring her destruction at the hands of men. That’s a bold idea to pursue in 2021.
Cusk’s novel falls into a critical category. At the end – after the book closes – Cusk comes out to tell us that Second Place was inspired by Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of the time when DH Lawrence came live with him in New Mexico. The M and L words are a clear riff on Luhan’s story. I am one of only a handful of others alive who have read Luhan’s book – and only there because I studied Lawrence in college.
Such documentation is not required. Second Place doesn’t need M or L words – just give them names, for love – and is not promoted from Luhan. Each story can stand on its own two feet. The second place is easy; Finding the truth from a small book read today is futile, and only gives Cusk’s critics another reason to attack him.

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