Chloë Ashby

The Art of Fiction

Second Place, Rachel Cusk, Faber, 2021, 224pp, £14.99 (hardcover)
Painting Time, Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore), MacLehose, 2021, 288pp, £16.99 (hardcover)

‘The point is to imagine,’ murmurs Paula, the walleyed protagonist of Maylis de Kerangal’s engaging new novel, Painting Time. She’s talking to Kate, with whom she’s studying the art of trompe-l’œil at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels. Kate is sick of ‘copying, imitating, reproducing’. Throughout the book, which follows Paula through her studies and a string of decorative painting jobs, there’s a tension between forgery and truth. Paula sees herself as part of a gang of copyists – ‘bamboozlers of the real, traffickers of fiction’. That gang includes novelists.

Painting and writing are natural bedfellows, and in the nineteenth century the romance bloomed. Art fired the imagination of French novelists Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust; in The Masterpiece (1886), Zola gives us a scathing and (mostly) fictional account of the Parisian art world and the painterly struggles of a revolutionary artist modelled on his childhood friend Paul Cézanne. Four decades later, Virginia Woolf put Lily Briscoe and her struggles with a canvas near the centre of To the Lighthouse (1927). Entire novels have been born out of single artworks – from Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) – while others have explored chapters of art history, including My Name is Red (1998), a meditation on Islamic art by Orhan Pamuk. In recent years, novelists have used art as a jump-start and a structural device. Ali Smith was leafing through a magazine when she saw the Italian painter Francesco del Cossa’s Month of March (circa 1469), an allegorical fresco that led to her unforgettable novel How to be both (2014). Art inspires and elucidates and acts as a portal into another time and place.

Painting Time begins with the reunion of Paula, Kate and a third especially talented student, Jonas, in 2015, before flashing back to the six heated months they spent together at 30 bis, rue du Métal in Brussels between October 2007 and March 2008. The institute itself is a house of painting ‘whose façade seems to have been lifted from a canvas by a Dutch master’; when Paula steps inside, she ‘disappears into the décor’. She’s here to master trompe-l’œil: ‘the meeting of a painting and a gaze, conceived for a particular point of view, and defined by the effect it is supposed to produce.’ Teaching the students how to imitate woods and marbles and semi-precious stones is a sadistic director who is so much a part of her surroundings that she fits into them ‘like the last piece of a puzzle’.

Art is what binds Paula, Kate and Jonas: ‘The all-nighters spent painting side by side… were their common good.’ In Zola’s The Masterpiece, Claude Lantier labours mightily at the easel, and De Kerangal’s characters, too, suffer for their art. Pain arrives soon after Paula enters the studio: she experiences headaches, stripped sinuses, blistered heels (from pacing in front of her easel all day) and sore eyes ‘like bruises you press with a finger’. Those eyes are soon peeled eighteen hours a day, an average that includes ‘the sleepless nights spent slogging, and other nights of partying’. In Painting Time, life and art slip and slide. When Paula picks up her palette and brush, she loses herself in daubs of paint. Day and night become fungible, and the students work as if past, future and even present have collapsed into one. At the institute, clandestine connections form – ‘connections that grow tighter and tighter as the weeks roll by, forming a network that grows more and more dense, more and more active, such that the school finds its organic form and begins to function as its own ecosystem’.

A similar sort of ecosystem forms in Rachel Cusk’s new novel, her first since the tour de force Outline trilogy. A literal merging of life and art, Second Place is a loose fictional retelling of Lorenzo in Taos, a 1932 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan, an American socialite and patron of the arts. In the 1920s the well-to-do heiress settled in Taos, New Mexico with her fourth husband, a Native American called Tony, and started a colony that welcomed artists and writers, among them D. H. Lawrence.

In Second Place, Mabel becomes a restless, introspective woman writer – our narrator, M – and Lawrence an eminent and irascible male artist called L. The book opens with M recalling the revelatory sunny morning in Paris when she first set eyes on his paintings. At the time, she was ‘a young mother on the brink of rebellion’ and standing in front of his work she felt her ‘impossible yearnings’ become ‘crystallised in reverse by the aura of absolute freedom his paintings emanate’. L’s art helped her to see clearly: ‘I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances.’

Fifteen years later, under the illusion that his painterly vision might again come in handy, she invites him to stay in the artist’s-retreat cabin – the so-called second place – close to the secluded coastal home she now shares with her new husband, Tony. She says she wants to see the marshy landscape – which is ‘full of desolation and solace and mystery, and… hasn’t yet told its secret to anyone’ – through L’s eyes. In fact, she wants to see herself through them. But when L shows up together with a beautiful young woman called Brett (‘just a pal’) shortly after M’s twenty-one-year- old daughter Justine and her well-brought-up boyfriend Kurt arrive, M experiences claustrophobia rather than clarity. She becomes increasingly infatuated with L, who sparks her desire for artistic self-expression – ‘a dangerous part of me, the part that felt that I hadn’t truly lived’.

With characteristic poise, Cusk explores the sticky issues surrounding art and who gets to make it. M contemplates having children versus making art and turns over in her mind the difference between an artist and an ordinary person: ‘the artist can create outside himself the perfect replica of his own intentions. The rest of us just create a mess, or something hopelessly wooden, no matter how brilliantly we imagined it.’ Her use of the male pronoun is more than a slip of the tongue. The ‘freedom’ that L’s paintings exude is ‘a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke,’ a freedom that ‘belongs likewise to most representations of the world and of our human experience within it, and that as women we grow accustomed to translating into something we ourselves can recognise’.

Weighing heavily on all this is male privilege, a privilege under check. The art world is changing, and some artists are thriving while L’s sales dwindle. ‘Some of them happen to be younger than him,’ says Brett, ‘and a different colour, and a couple of them are actually women, which adds to his feeling that the world is against him. The trouble is, he feels impotent.’

And yet it’s M who is powerless in L’s presence, who depends on him and his work to give her ‘a version of the freedom I had wanted my whole life’. In the novel, that freedom is in short supply. She slowly grows to understand that ‘L had a way of making you see yourself without being able to do terribly much about what you saw’. Like the many women on whose bodies male artists have worked out their individualism, she’s the object of his gaze: ‘he had the ability to cast me into doubt and to expose in myself what was otherwise shrouded over.’ The sense of exposure is heightened when L glimpses M and Justine skinny-dipping in the milky light of the moon.

In Painting Time, Paula too feels uneasy under the watchful gaze of the other students. She struggles to paint in the middle of a group: ‘Consenting to be seen, to give access to what happens inside her in the act of painting, injures her reserve – as though she were naked.’ Initially, she withdraws, hurrying from the studio and the eyes behind her at the end of each session. In time, though, she dares herself to meet those eyes and even to form an opinion of their work, ‘in this big woolly web of gazes intertwined’.

Spinning the web is De Kerangal, whose long looping sentences, beautifully translated from the French by Jessica Moore, are balanced by taut scene changes. The tone is conversational, and every so often the third person tips into the first to draw us closer: when Paula throws herself into her first commission (a perennial blue sky in a baby’s room) the omniscient narrator says, ‘I would have loved to have been inside her mind’; elsewhere, like a camera lens we zoom out from Paula’s fractured thoughts with a simple ‘we can see her clearly now’. With words, De Kerangal conjures the same painterly realism that her characters hope to achieve in paint. Style mirrors subject.

In Second Place, Cusk’s brushstrokes are brief. The encounter between M and L could be described as feverish, but the writing is cool and detached. The novel is told in the first person, by M, to a contextless friend, Jeffers. And yet, as in Outline, although we’re in M’s head, we struggle to see her clearly because she struggles to see herself.

It’s a common struggle, and one that crops up in another recent novel with a gendered power imbalance. Raven Leilani’s Luster is about sex, work and what it means to make art. It follows Edie, a twenty-something Black woman who inserts herself into a wealthy older white couple’s open marriage, and who yearns to be a painter but doubts herself: ‘I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad.’ When she moves in with Eric and Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter, Akila, she finally has the time and space to exercise her creativity. While Cusk explores the dissonance between men and women in the art-making process, Leilani focuses on what it means to try to lay claim to the right to make art when you’re a young Black woman.

It’s perhaps too much to label art in fiction a resurgent trend, but there are more and more new novels with an artistic slant. Melissa Ginsburg’s The House Uptown involves an obsessive painter drifting into dementia. Howard Cunnell’s The Painter’s Friend tells the story of a working class painter and was inspired by artists such as Agnes Martin and Frank Bowling. Calla Henkel’s Other People’s Clothes charts the knotty friendship between two American art students living and partying in Berlin.

Like the trompe-l’œil tortoiseshell in Painting Time, the most successful novels fool you, if only briefly, into thinking they’re real. They draw you into worlds constructed out of words. When Paula first enters the Institut de Peinture, she peers at the illustrated marble facing and wood panelling, the fluted columns and the open window overlooking a rosy dawn. She places her hand against each surface, then repeats the motion, ‘stepping back and then leaning in closer, touching it, as though she were playing at making the initial illusion disappear and then reappear’.

Both De Kerangal and Cusk explore the power of art and who has the privilege of making it. Seeing it, too. Paula’s final job is a facsimile of the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne. It’s been closed since 1963, but people are prepared to make the trip to see the forgery. As M says of both L’s paintings and the marsh where she lives with Tony, they have ‘the quality of something remembered, that shares and is inextricable from the moment of being’. Both art and fiction have the ability to conjure another time and place, to reclaim the past, to extend the present, and to realign perspective. And art in fiction? Anything is possible. Like Lily Briscoe at the end of To the Lighthouse, we can have our vision.

Words by Chloë Ashby.

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts journalist. Since graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she has written for the TLS, the Guardian, FT Life & Arts, frieze and others. Her first non-fiction book, Look At This If You Love Great Art, was published in June 2021. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, will be published by Trapeze in April 2022. For more information, visit

To buy Second Place and other works by Rachel Cusk, visit Faber.




To buy Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore), visit Hachette.

This review essay originally appeared in the Aug / Sep 2021 edition of The London Magazine. To buy that edition, as well as our other back issues, go here.

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