Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think.

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.
No good.
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.

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17 Comments

Filed under Modernist Fiction, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean, Short Stories

17 responses to “Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think.

  1. Reading Jean Rhys dates back to a time when I had the leisure that when I liked an author I could read all of his or her work in one go. I remember I read one of her short stories and liked it so much that I read everything she wrote. I still remember Sleep it off, Lady, Quartet, After LEaving Mr MacKenzie and Wide Sargasso Sea to be very good. But there were others. I’m not much of a re-reader but I think I will read her again.
    I’m glad you like her and reviewed her. You really capture very well what her writing has to offer. I think she isn’t getting so much attention anymore. I hopefully this changes again.

  2. I have Wide Sargasso Sea at home, I didn’t have time to come to it yet.

    When I was reading your post, several things came to my mind, except the fact that I’d probably like Jean Rhys.
    – The name La Grosse Fifi reminded me of Mademoiselle Fifi by Maupassant. I haven’t read that Maupassant but I wonder if it’s a coincidence.
    In French, “la grosse Fifi” is extremely vulgar. Her name shows how vulgar she is. Is the narrator tall and slender ? Roseau means reed in French, and when I read that someone is named Roseau in a book in the 1920s, I immediately see a tall, slender woman with short air and in those 1920s outfits.

    – Why does she use so much French? (like naming Vienna “Vienne” like in French?)

    – About poverty. Gary used to say that being poor again was his greatest fear.

    I’m always really surprised by all the French sentences I encounter in English literature. That’s OK if the writer wanted to do it but I’m always shocked that they aren’t translated in footnotes. There were plenty of French words in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and nothing was translated or even explained, except when Orwell took the time to do it.

  3. I forgot to say that in the French imagery, a reed is something that bends but does not break. (From a tale by La Fontaine, named The Oak and the Reed)

  4. Caroline,

    To their credit Penguin have treated her well. Nice editions with good covers and this introductory book for those unsure about her (it’s only £2.99 so it’s easy for someone to give a writer they’re not sure about a try).

    She is a bit unjustly neglected now, but so many writers are. I think she’s one of those writers who’re no longer well known but who individual readers discover and love. But yes, I’d like to see her better recognised.

    Bookaround, the French thing isn’t unusual in fiction of that period. Huxley is terrible for bunging in bits of other languages (not always correctly incidentally) and he’ll draw on three or four without translating any of it. TS Eliot of course is extremely inaccessible in that regard.

    I think they just assumed a certain kind of education in their readers. If you didn’t have it you had to work harder. They were fine with that. The problem arises now because we’re nearly a century later and we’re not educated in the way their audience was.

    La Grosse Fifi is a vulgar character so that fits. I didn’t know the meaning of Roseau. I can’t remember if her character was described or not now, but I certainly pictured her as tall and thin. Then again, Rhysian protagonists tend to be a bit on the slender side.

    The Gary quote makes sense. The fear of poverty is greatest in those who’ve experienced it, because I suspect they can’t romanticise it.

  5. I thought of Maupassant too.

    I bought this book, Max, when you first mentioned it some time ago. I’ve read almost Rhys’s whole canon.

  6. leroyhunter

    These Penguin minis are good stuff, aren’t they? I read the Paul Bowles one a while ago, 3 beautifully written little pieces of perversity and nastiness.

    I’ve never read Rhys, so it’s good to get a view from someone who knows her stuff. She seems to have been quite prolific. What’s a possible start point?

  7. I started with Good Morning, Midnight which is exceptional. The problem is it’s possibly her best, which in one sense makes it a great place to start but in another less ideal.

    The next I read (I still have a fair few to go) was Quartet. It’s not as good as Good Morning, Midnight, but it is still very good and I’d probably start there and then progress with her as she develops her themes in later books.

    I’ve written up both here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/rhys-jean/. Quartet isn’t as polished as the later book and I think it’s ending is definitely weaker, but with those caveats it’s still better than a lot of writers’ best novels.

  8. leroyhunter

    Now you say it Max I remember you raising that point about “starting at the top” with someone’s work and using Rhys as an example. I’ll take a look at those reviews, should have checked your archive in any case.

  9. I am woefully short on Rhys, ie I have never read anything other than a few pages of Wide Sargasso Sea before pledging to read it in full at some time. Which never came, but will. Is that the best place to start? I’d a few authors listed that I knew I needed to acquaint or reacquaint myself with and Rhys is certainly one. Brian Moore was another; Judith Hearne was exceedingly good and Rhys will be the next up, I think.

    On Roth: I have to agree. I read the article outlining the judge’s reasons for quitting the panel and I felt the argument was weak. She mentioned Roth’s ‘self-obsession’ somewhere; I can’t say why that would bother anyone. Is generosity now some kind of hallmark of great writing? I thought the act of writing, often, was moving into oneself. And the question of repetition: that struck a nonsensical note. I think what you have is someone objecting to Roth as a symbol and then deliberating over superfluous, poorly marshalled matters.

    I think it’s fair to say we have extremely similar backgrounds, Max. Few authors capture that specific feeling of helpless dread. I think Paul Auster’s best book, Moon Palace, does do that rather well, though.

  10. I’ve not read Wide Sargasso Sea Lee, so I’m not absolutely sure. It’s the least tempting of her works to me, possibly because I’m not hugely tempted by Jane Eyre and would need to read that first.

    I’ve read some Moore, but not Hearne. I should rectify that.

    The anti-Roth arguments were odd. It reminded me a bit of Hofmann’s rant against Zweig. It’s not that I think Zweig can’t be criticised, it’s that Hofmann dwelt too much on the personal rather than the literary. The same mistake seemed to happen with Roth. Wood’s demolition of Auster (whether one agrees with it or not) is the model for me of how these things should be done.

    On Auster, I don’t know that one. I haven’t read enough Auster to form a view on his wider body of work (a la Wood) but I’ll check out Moon Palace.

  11. OK, so you wrote this nearly three months ago, but my excuse is that life has been busy with holiday in Japan, work trip to the Pilbara, and medical dramas in the family but now I’m trying to pick up a few posts I’ve missed from the bloggers I like to read.

    I picked this one because I agree with your comment that “Many, many highly regarded authors mine the same territory for their entire careers. That fact alone says nothing of their work’s quality.” Jane Austen comes to mind, Anita Brookner is another. The point as you say is the quality …

    And secondly, I’ve read some Jean Rhys stories – The wide sargasso sea which I liked well enough though didn’t fully buy her thesis, and the three stories in the little Penguin 60s collection Let them call it jazz. Her writing is stylish and, for that reason, I’d happily read more, similar or not to those I’ve read.

    BTW I’ve only read one Roth so I can’t say yay or nay re him!

  12. WG,

    Comments on old reviews are always a pleasure actually. They need no excuse as far as I’m concerned.

    I hope things are improving for your family.

    Brookner is a nice comparison. If the writing’s good what does it matter if themes recur? It’s about the writing, and the truth of what’s written.

    I’ve still not read Wide Sargasso. I suspect it’ll be the last of hers I read. I’d reviewed some of her short stories though and some of those too are very effective (I’ll have to look out for that collection you mention).

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. There’s no such thing as a late one.

  13. Thanks Max … I’m glad you feel as I do re later comments. I certainly plan to read more Rhys, as I find time.

    And thanks re family … yes, things are settling down but am still on daily hospital visits to my father who had major surgery on 29 July.

  14. Pingback: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys « Book Around The Corner

  15. Hi Max, thanks for your comment on my post about Let Them Call It Jazz. I’ve just had a lovely time reading through your piece above, so glad you mentioned that you’d written about Rhys yourself (I’m also pleased to note that you like ‘late’ comments!)

    All I’ve read of her is Wide Sargasso Sea and the little Penguin 60s collection of 3 stories that whisperinggums mentions above, so I’m just starting to read more of Rhys after years of loving those. After I wrote about her story I treated myself to the Collected Short Stories from Norton! Really looking forward to reading them & coming back to your thoughts on La Grosse Fifi & Vienne and on Rhys overall, especially re: poverty. Think you’ve really hit on something I respond to in her work here.

  16. I’ve written about a couple of her novels here first. Don’t do as I did and read Good Morning, Midnight ahead of the others! It’s brilliant, but perhaps best saved for the end of that series rather than at the start of it which was the order I went with.

    I’d be delighted to hear your further thoughts. She’s one of my favourite authors.

  17. Pingback: Link blog: Of drunks, criminals and profanity » Spectator Blogs

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