Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys
Actually, going on Jean Rhys’s 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight, it’s not funny at all.
Jean Rhys is a new writer to me, who I discovered through John Self’s blog The Asylum. John recommended this work as a good place to start with her work, for which he has my thanks.
Good Morning, Midnight was Rhys’s fourth novel and fifth published work (her first work was a short story collection), and in common with much of her early work is an examination of a woman struggling with depression and living a marginalised and alienated existence. I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which comes with an excellent introduction by AL Kennedy which for me helped illuminate the book without overcrowding it. Indeed, so good was the introduction, I now find myself more interested in reading Kennedy’s own work.
Good Morning, Midnight has only one fully realised character, it’s narrator Sophia Jansen. Jansen is a woman conscious that she is no longer young, but not yet old, who has come to Paris after a gap of some years. She is depressed, cries in public, drinks more than is socially acceptable. She is intensely fragile, hugely conscious of the judgements of strangers and both lonely and afraid of company. All other characters in the novel are seen through her eyes, and since she is mired in her own suffering and often ill-disposed to company, we see them only through a glass, darkly.
The opening paragraph of the novel sets the tone:
‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’
There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basic is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.
I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.
We are in the Europe of seedy rooms, of the squalor not of poverty but of never quite enough (though the squalor of poverty makes an appearance too). We are in the country of those who have not quite succeeded, and who have been cast aside as superfluous to society’s needs.
The novel is largely plotless, it is written in what is essentially a stream of consciousness, and as Jansen’s attention shifts so does that of the novel so that we find ourselves dipping into incidents years past – following the chronology of emotion rather than time. Rhys is a skilled writer, and this lack of plot is never confusing and the apparent lack of structure just that, apparent only.
In large part, the novel is an exploration of the experience of depression. Thoughts often drift off into ellipses, Jansen is prone to sudden tears, to crippling self-doubt. Frequently she simply thinks, considering her life and existence in general. At times her reflections are comic, as when she imagines the unborn fighting among themselves to avoid being next in the queue for birth, more often though her thoughts are not humorous at all:
People talk about the happy life, but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes. And do you think you are left there? Never.
As soon as you have reached this heaven of indifference, you are pulled out of it. From your heaven you have to go back to hell. When you are dead to the world, the world often rescues you, if only to make a figure of fun out of you.
As a depiction of depression, the work is masterly and wholly convincing. It is a short work, 159 pages in the Penguin edition, and that brevity allows an engagement with disaffection and apathy that in a longer work could risk alienating the reader. I would not call it an easy read, even so, but it is a rewarding one.
As well as an evocation of what it is to be depressed, the novel also addresses the experience of alienation. Here though, unlike the protagonists of authors such as Patrick Hamilton or Julian Maclaren-Ross, Jansen is a woman and the alienation is all the worse by reason of that. Jansen suffers not only from the stigma of insufficient money, poorly chosen relationships and drinking more than is socially accepted, but also from the shame of being a woman for whom these things are true. Society disdains the drunk, but it disdains far more the female drunk. Jansen’s position is worsened merely by reason of her gender.
Jansen moves through Paris almost as if she were a ghost, choosing bars which have few patrons, restaurants where noone will pay attention to her. She drinks, but is ashamed of doing so, seeing in the mirror her own bedraggled state and condemning herself as much as, if not more than, others do. She whiles away her days wandering the streets, avoiding meaningful contact, lost in her own private darkness.
I go into a tabac. The woman at the bar gives me one of those looks: What do you want here, you? We don’t cater for tourists here, not our clientele. … Well, dear madame, to tell you the truth, what I want here is a drink – I rather think two, perhaps three.
It is cold and dark outside, and everything has gone out of me except misery.
Jansen does meet some others during the course of the novel, two exiled Russians who treat her kindly, an artist who does likewise, these men she avoids for in her state of self-loathing she has little time for those who are kind to her. Others, a gigolo who latches on to her under the mistaken impression that she has money, she is more drawn to, destructively attracted to men who ultimately do not care and who do not treat her well. Men for her are like drink, a means to brief oblivion, both cause and reminder of her present condition.
At times, Jansen seeks to change her lot, she has her hair done, seeks a different room, buys a new dress. None of it assists, the problems are internal, she has no idea of how to be normal or happy and is in any event ambivalent about both those things and the mass of people who are examples of them. She seeks to escape her depression, but has no belief that she can, and since what she seeks to escape is inside her she has no real prospect of success in any event.
In large part then this is a novel of despair, of an intelligent woman for whom all options seem equally barren and futile, and who however she tries cannot quite make herself fit in to what is expected of her. There are signs that she has been happy in the past, but never securely and never for long.
But, after all, those were still the days when I went into a cafe to drink coffee, when I could feel gay on half a bottle of wine, when this happened and that happened.
But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.
Good Morning, Midnight is a skilfully written work about a painful subject matter, about hopelessness, self-destruction and crushing apathy. It is evocative, it is remarkable in its depiction of the inner life of a woman lost in depression and the hell of poor choices, it is subtle and clever and pitched at the right length not to outstay its welcome. Having read it, I likely will read more Rhys, though given the nature of her work perhaps not too soon after this one.
As with much literary fiction, Rhys stands or falls by her prose, it seems only fair then to leave her the last words as she once again captures the experience of depression more accurately than any other writer I can personally think of:
You are walking along a road peacefully. You trip. You fall into blackness. That’s the past – or perhaps the future. And you know that there is no past, no future, there is only this blackness, changing faintly, slowly, but always the same.