Quartet, by Jean Rhys
Quartet is a short novel that’s long on cruelty, self-pity and despair. It’s well written, remarkably so for a first novel, but it’s ugly too. Largely autobiographical, written in response to a broken relationship with Ford Maddox Ford, it’s passionate and angry and if you’ve not read any Jean Rhys it’s a very good place to start.
First published in 1928, Quartet is the story of a young woman named Marya Zelli. She’s married to Stephan Zelli, and together they are living in Paris. Sometimes they are well off, sometimes poor, rarely in between. They are, however, largely happy.
Marya loves Stephan, she is unhappy when she meets him, but he has the certainty she lacks. He is “sure of himself, so definite, with such a clean-cut mind”, his self-assurance attracts her, his dominance even. “He criticized her clothes with authority and this enchanted her.” Stephan by contrast sees Marya as having an “air of fatigue, disillusion and extreme youth”. The dynamic between them is left for the reader to conclude, but it is not an equal relationship. Rhys’s eye is unsympathetic, she notes that Stephan “had all his life acted on impulse, though always in a careful and businesslike manner.”
When Stephan is unexpectedly arrested, thrown in jail for trafficking in stolen goods, Marya is left adrift. She is not a self-reliant woman, and she has no money, and if there is one thing true in Rhys’s fiction it is that a woman without money is in a dangerous place. For Marya, the answer lies with a man named Heidler and his wife Lois, an English expatriate couple who offer her a room in their house.
Heidler is a massively solid man, older, intelligent but with an “expression of obtuseness – perhaps even brutality”. Lois is younger than him, “country with a careful dash of Chelsea”. On their first meeting, they talk of Marya as if she weren’t present, Heidler puts his heavy hand on her knee under the table. Once she is in their home, Marya is exposed to his advances, caught between him and Lois, who appears to be turning a deliberate blind eye. To them the whole thing is some sort of game, but it is one that Marya is emotionally ill equipped to play.
And plotwise, there’s not so much more. The novel charts Marya’s affair with Heidler, its impact on her and on her relationships with Stephan (whom she visits in prison) and with Lois. Heidler, like Stephan in this one thing only, is utterly lacking in self-doubt, the women revolve around him and their existence is largely defined by his. There are novels in which strong women lead independent lives, this isn’t one of them.
I commented above on Rhys’s eye being unsympathetic, that’s true throughout this short (less than 150 pages) novel. There’s a brutality in her gaze, she sees a world that is without pity and in which love is all too often an expression of weakness. The novel is full of marvellous descriptions, little vignettes of Paris life and of the vague existences of people for whom things haven’t quite worked out as hoped:
Opposite her a pale long-faced girl sat in front of an untouched drink, watching the door. She was waiting for the gentleman with whom she had spent the preceding night to come along and pay for it, and naturally she was waiting in vain. Her mouth drooped, her eyes were desolate and humble.
Happiness in this world is fleeting, hard purchased. For people like the Heidlers it seems easier, their own lack of doubt inures them to the savagery that surrounds them, but Marya is too open and too emotional to close herself off that way – she is not built to be happy, perhaps not stupid enough.
Or, perhaps, she is simply mired in self-pity and depression. Marya is to a large extent her own enemy, she is not a woman who makes good choices. We are given little insight into Stephan or Heidler’s interior worlds, no real understanding of their motivations or thoughts, but what is clear is that neither loves Marya as she does them. Marya, put simply, could do better.
Marya’s world is one that is filled with small incidents and large emotions. Marya is unstable and prone to outbursts. She fits poorly into the bourgois world of the Heidlers’, whose friends soon see her as a woman who has set out to trap Heidler not seeing that the truth is quite the reverse. Marya is shaped by the Heidlers’ narratives (by their personal myths Powell would say), her frail needs are overwhelmed by their expectations. They, in turn, are confused by her refusal to follow the script they have determined for her, by her resistance, futile as it may be.
Where Quartet succeeds is in its vision of people who are not quite managing, people who are living in Hemingway’s Paris but aren’t fashionable enough to find their way into one of his novels. Stephan is an adventurer, but not a successful one. Marya is desperate, her own victim. They are people locked out of a happier world they can see right in front of them, but cannot quite get into.
Here, walking to the tram, Marya passes a merry-go-round:
Marya stayed there for a long time watching a little, frail blonde girl, who careered past, holding tightly on to the neck of her steed, her face tense and strained with delight. The merry-go-round made her feel more normal, less like a grey ghost walking in a vague shadowy world.
Rarely have I seen someone enjoying themselves described in a fashion that makes it sound quite so unappealing.
Where Quartet struggles slightly is linked with its strengths. There are times when Rhys’s eye is a little too pitiless, where a little more empathy might help the book. The excellent foreword by Katie Owen makes it clear how autobiographical this work is, and perhaps that’s the issue. Rhys herself was angry with the real life equivalents of her characters, and it shows. Although there’s the occasional hint of their humanity, Lois and Heidler in particular are almost monsters, sometimes one wonders if that’s entirely fair. There’s a viciousness to the descriptions that can make for hard reading:
Lois was extremely intelligent. She held her head up. She looked at people with clear, honest eyes. She expressed well-read opinions about every subject under the sun in a healthy voice, and was so perfectly sure of all she said that it would have been a waste of time to contradict her. And in spite of all of this, or because of it, she gave a definite impression of being insensitive to the point of stupidity – or was it insensitive to the point of cruelty? Which? That was the question. But that, of course, is always the question.
Still, although the anger of the novel sometimes lets it down, it also gives it real impact. There are passages which I thought simply breathtaking, wonderfully well written. I’ve already quoted too much in this review, I’ll come to why in a moment, but I can’t resist two last quotes just to show how good Rhys can be. Here, Marya reflects on the hotel room Heidler installs her in once he has made her his mistress:
An atmosphere of departed and ephemeral loves hung about the bedroom like stale scent, for the hotel was one of unlimited hospitality, though quietly, discreetly and not more so than most of its neighbours. The wallpaper was vaguely erotic – huge and fantastically shaped mauve, green and yellow flowers sprawling on a black ground. There was one chair and a huge bed covered with a pink counterpane. It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession of petite femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir vivre and all the rest of it.
Here, much later and while resting in Nice, Marya is visited by Miss Nicholson, a friend of the Heidlers. They go to the zoo together:
There was a young fox in a cage at the end of the zoo – a cage perhaps three yards long. Up and down it ran, up and down, and Marya imagined that each time it turned it did so with a certain hopefulness, as if it thought that escape was possible. Then, of course, there were the bars. It would strike its nose, turn and run again. Up and down, up and down, ceaselessly. A horrible sight really.
‘Sweet thing,’ said Miss Nicholson.
There is tragedy in that first quote, and savage horror in that second (which is perhaps the entire novel in microcosm). The book is filled with such moments. It’s not a light read, but it is a very good one.
So, why so many quotes? Unfortunately for me, my reading of this novel coincided with a brutal period of work, which meant I had to stop reading entirely for over a week and then finished it while exhausted (now passing, in case anyone wonders). That lost for me a lot of the novel’s narrative flow, and meant that although I couldn’t help but notice how many passages were well written, I didn’t get as good an overall feel as I’d have liked. That’s a shame, and I’ll revisit it in future, but it does mean that my review of it becomes a bit like my experience of it, a collage of impressions rather than a more coherent whole.
Rhys struggles a bit with the ending of Quartet, which isn’t as strong as the rest of the novel. There’s a sense that she didn’t quite know how to wrap it up, perhaps even that there is no obvious ending. Even with that though it’s an excellent introduction to her work, it’s not as good as Good Morning, Midnight (which I discuss here), but it’s still a surprisingly mature work and one that I’d recommend for a spare gloomy evening.
For the curious, John Self wrote a review of another Rhys, Voyage in the Dark, here. He makes a comparison with Patrick Hamilton, which is typically insightful of him and I think the two writers do complement each other with their visions of joyless relationships with drink and other people. In addition, the always interesting Guy Savage writes up Wide Sargasso Sea here, it’s the novel she’s famous for though I note he doesn’t consider it her strongest.