La Grosse Fifi, by Jean Rhys
A little while back I wrote a post about my personal canon as it stands today. It was a list of authors whose work particularly resonates with me. I wrote the post on a particular day and the result was a particular list. Another day might have produced a different one. Whichever day I’d written it though it was always a certainty that Jean Rhys’s name would be there.
As I write this the Man Booker International Prize has been in the news. Philip Roth won, which led to one judge quitting the panel in part on the rather odd basis that Roth writes the same novel time and again. I haven’t read Roth yet so I don’t know if he does, but if he does what of it? Many, many highly regarded authors mine the same territory for their entire careers. That fact alone says nothing of their work’s quality.
Jean Rhys has her territory. Hers is the landscape of women not quite doing ok. Her characters are outsiders looking in on a world that doesn’t particularly understand them and doesn’t particularly want to. Men are unreliable and other women offer little support. It’s a lonely world and one in which the existence of a woman on her own can be extremely precarious.
Penguin Modern Classics recently brought out a series of pocket editions in its modern classics range. Each one has a few short stories by an author, or a short novella. La Grosse Fifi features four stories excerpted from Rhys’s 1927 collection The Left Bank and Other Stories and it’s a nice little introduction to Rhys’s style. If you already like Rhys, you’ll like this. If you don’t know her this is a pretty good place to start.
The title story, La Grosse Fifi, is classic Rhys. The narrator, Roseau, is an Englishwoman staying on her own in a questionable hotel in France. She becomes interested in another guest, Fifi, and forms a sort of friendship with her.
Fifi [...] was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass.
Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled, patent-leather shoes.
Fifi is not the sort of woman a well bred English girl should be seen with. She’s fat, vulgar, worse yet she is accompanied by a gigolo to whom she is devoted but who like Fifi is both a bit seedy and a bit absurd. Roseau herself though is not entirely the right sort of woman. She says the wrong sort of thing, stays in the wrong sort of place, she’s interesting but perhaps a little too interesting.
‘He’s running off to tell his wife how right she was about me,’ thought Roseau, watching him. ‘How rum some English people are! They ask to be shocked and long to be shocked and hope to be shocked, but if you really shock them … how shocked they are!’
(The ellipses there are in the original text.)
Things rarely go well for women in Rhys’s world. A choice must be made between freedom and respectability. Respectability though is money too. A woman might live as she chooses, but without a husband she will struggle to survive and dependable husbands do not marry undependable women. Fifi is tragic and her love affair with her gigolo slightly pathetic but as Roseau recognises Fifi is also a woman leading her own life on her own terms. Others laugh at her, but Roseau does not.
For God knows, if there’s one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it’s the fiction of the ‘good’ woman and the ‘bad’ one.
If there’s any quote that summarises Rhys for me it’s that one.
La Grosse Fifi is a strong tale shot through with compassion. The last two, Tea with an Artist and Mixing Cocktails are much shorter mood pieces. Effective enough but limited in their scope. The other story in the collection though is Vienne and that’s worth the price of admission on its own.
In Vienne a young woman is in Vienna with her husband. He plays the currency exchanges and they spend their evenings among the well off and the women who accompany them. Her husband has money, but they came from poverty and she fears they could easily return to it. She loves him, but are his sure investments as sure as he thinks they are? As she reflects “Lovely food. Poverty gone, the dread of it – going.”
Vienne is a dazzling tale. It captures a between-the-wars Vienna caught in a fever dream of money and sex. Most women in the story are dancers who sleep with the rich men who attend their shows; not prostitutes, quite, but not romantics either. Those women are free but depend on men, and when their looks go the men and the money will too. Their best bet is to marry one before their looks fade and hope they’ve made the right choice.
The narrator isn’t a dancer, but her position isn’t that different. Her existence is precarious. Her happiness dependent on her husband’s success. She’s married while she still has her looks. She’s in love. She hopes she made the right choices.
Few authors capture the fear of poverty like Rhys does. I grew up poor myself, my mother and step-father unemployed in a council estate in a grim part of London. It’s impossible really to explain to those who haven’t left a place like that how strong the desire is never to go back to it. Impossible for me anyway. Rhys manages. This is a long quote, but the clarity of Rhys’s gaze makes it well worth setting out in full.
We dined in a little corner of the restaurant.
At the same table a few days before we came, a Russian girl twenty-four years of age had shot herself.
With her last money she had a decent meal and then bang! Out -
And I made up my mind if it ever came to it I should do it too.
Not to be poor again. No and No and No.
So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.
I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.
So-and-So will help me.
How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly, then hysterically.
I can’t go down, I won’t go down. Help me, help me!
Steady – I must be clever – So-and-So will help.
But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.
You get nervous. He doesn’t understand. I’ll make him -
But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead.
Can’t you help me, won’t you, please? It’s like this and this -
So-and-So becomes uncomfortable, obstinate.
I mustn’t cry. I won’t cry.
And that time you don’t. You manage to keep your head up, a smile on your face.
So-and-So is vastly relieved. So relieved that he offers at once the little help that is a mockery, and the consoling compliment.
In the taxi still you don’t cry.
You’ve thought of someone else.
But at the fifth or sixth disappointment you cry more easily.
After the tenth you give it up. You are broken – no nerves left.
And every second-rate fool can have their cheap little triumph over you – judge you with their little middle-class judgement.
Can’t do anything for them. No good.
C’est rien – c’est une femme quie se noie!
But two years, three years afterwards. Salut to you, little Russian girl, who had pluck enough and knowledge of the world enough, to finish when your good time was over.
There is a problem with this collection. Rhys wrote assuming a certain kind of audience with a certain kind of education. Characters often break into French, and it’s not translated. If you don’t have at least a memory of school French then there are bits here you’ll just plain struggle with. You need at least a passing familiarity with the language.
My French is weak but managed just well enough that I could follow what was happening and being said. If you’ve none at all that will be an issue. In Vienne it’s worse because Rhys also expects a very basic understanding of German. I really do mean very basic, a handful of words would be fine, but I don’t have any German at all and that meant I had to guess meanings a couple of times and at one key point had to ask my wife to translate a particularly key word.
Perhaps ironically given Rhys assumes a certain level of fluency in the reader Rhys herself gets it badly wrong with the names of some of the characters in Vienne. That story features a number of Japanese investors present in the city, and their names are pretty obviously made up to sound Japanese-ish or are Japanese words that sound about right (one is called Shogun of all things). I appreciate that Rhys couldn’t (as a contemporary writer could) just google some actual Japanese names but it is jarring.
In the end though it’s not the problems I had with languages that stick with me, or Rhys’s problems with Japanese names. It’s these women hoping for the best and knowing they’re not going to get it. Rhys is an extraordinary stylist. She captures an inner world which doesn’t change much story to story, novel to novel. It’s probably her inner world (Vienne seems very close to some real events in Rhys’s life). She’s writing the same thing over and over. But she writes it beautifully. Novelty and literary merit have very little to do with each other.