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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Rachel Cusk’s New Novel Turns Up the Heat at a Private Artist’s Retreat

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This is probably the place to pause and say that Cusk tells us, in a short afterword, that her novel “owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos,’ Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.”

Credit…Siemon Scamell-Katz

You don’t need to have read Luhan’s memoir (I hadn’t until this week) to enjoy Cusk’s novel. Luhan’s book is a treat, though, and deserves to be better known. Lawrence was irritable and intense, as is the painter L in Cusk’s novel.

Both books are addressed to “Jeffers.” In Luhan’s case, this was her friend, the poet Robinson Jeffers. In Cusk’s novel, Jeffers’s identity remains a mystery. Someone could write a term paper on the overlap between the books.

My favorite overlaps are funny little ones. In Luhan’s book, for example, Frieda Lawrence, who visits with her husband, has “a mouth rather like a gunman.” Cusk gives L’s girlfriend, Brett, an unusual mouth, too (“her strange letterbox mouth hung blackly open”). Luhan rarely turned down the opportunity to smash a line home with an exclamation point, and it’s interesting to see her overheated tone bleed into Cusk’s cooler aesthetic.

M catastrophizes nearly every moment. After an early conversation with L, she writes, in language that is not untypical in this novel: “I would like to have burst into tears — such strange, violent impulses were coming over me, one after another. I wanted to lie down and hammer my fists on the grass.”

M did not expect L to bring a girlfriend, especially not a beautiful young one. Her reaction to Brett is the reader’s first sign that M is close to the brink, mentally, and that this book will be a windswept affair. She wails that Brett’s arrival “changes everything.” She is furious that L wants to paint portraits of everyone but her. She speaks of harming herself.

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