Category Archives: Paris

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of the great writers of the 20th Century. She wrote four novels which are in some senses the same novel, but she’s hardly the only author to keep returning to the same territory. Like Patrick Hamilton she doesn’t flinch from the indifferent cruelty of the comfortable to the marginal.


That’s a pretty much perfect cover image for this book. Here’s the opening two paragraphs to give a sense of the sharpness of her style:

After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected. There were three cats – white Angoras – and they seemed usually to be sleeping in the hotel bureau.

The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a French-woman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.

Julia Martin is a 30-something woman living in late 1920s Paris. She’s survived on her looks and her lovers, but as the first fades the second are harder to come by. She has neither job nor savings and no cushion of family money to fall back on. She’s barely holding on, coming home each night with a bottle of wine for company and waking up to reflect that striped wallpapers “made her head ache worse when she awoke after she had been drinking.”

Julia was recently dumped by Mr Mackenzie of the title (she didn’t leave him, the title is ironic). Since then she’s been living off a weekly stipend he’s sent her both to assuage his guilt and in return for her not bothering him further. Now he feels he’s paid enough, so he’s stopping the cheques. For him it’s tidying his affairs; for her it’s a desolation.

At least for now Julia’s still an attractive woman, though she’s worried about her weight and signs of fatigue are showing. Charm is a dwindling currency as she well knows. Every day, desperate as things are, she still does her make up.She fears not doing so would be the first step to becoming the woman who lives on the floor above; a feared future:

The woman had a humble, cringing manner.Of course, she had discovered that, having neither money nor virtue, she had better be humble if she knew what was good for her. But her eyes were malevolent – the horribly malevolent eyes of an old, forsaken woman. She was a shadow, kept alive by a flame of hatred for somebody who had long ago forgotten all about her.

With Paris too full of memories and too short on prospects, Julia is forced to return home to London to stay with her sister. Julia’s family are “members of the vast crowd that bears on its back the label, ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave”. They’re respectable people. They don’t understand Julia’s need to escape a life they’ve all accepted, and they don’t sympathise now she’s forced to return.

Rhys excels at capturing small humiliations and the fantasies that sustain us. Julia approaches an old lover for money, consoling herself that he’s rich and that their affair though it ended years ago ended well and surely he’ll remember her kindly. To him she’s a curio from the past, like someone you lost touch with years before who pops up on Facebook asking to be friends even though you long since stopped having anything in common.

For most of the novel Rhys focuses on Julia’s thoughts and feelings, but in her encounters with others the viewpoint slips across so that we see their perspective.  It’s impossible not to sympathise with Julia, but equally what does she expect? She’s moody and volatile, far from easy to live with; for the men she’s a passing affair that nobody, including her, ever expected to last.

Rhys doesn’t look away from the uncomfortable. It would be easy to make Julia a nicer person and the men heartless, but it’s not that simple. Julia rebelled against her class and expectations. She fled to men and Paris and a life her family would never approve of. Rebellion however is expensive, and this is a world and a time without a safety net. Julia’s problem isn’t her age or her weight or the very real constraints of her gender. Julia’s problem is money. If she had money the rest could be managed. As M. Folantin found in Huysmans’ With the Flow, when you’re broke your wallet determines your options.

The great sin here is hypocrisy. Julia is condemned even by those who once slept with her, yet who doesn’t want to find a little life before they die? Her real crimes are to lack the advantages of her lovers – their gender and their money – and to lack the acceptance of her family that all you’ll ever have is what the status quo allows you. Her men and her family both judge her, but like all hypocrites they don’t weigh themselves in the same balance.

The contents page tells you she returns to Paris but even if it hadn’t no reader would be surprised when she does. Julia left London for good reasons and she can’t fit back in to the world she quite purposefully left behind. Paris of course was a failure too, though of a different sort, and part of Rhys’ talent is to sail a fine course between hope and despair. Julia is demoralised, rejected and pushed aside but she never quite gives up.

She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.

The specifics of Julia Martin’s world are gone. Women today have more options and more opportunities to realise themselves other than through men allowing them to. Even so, the book still rings true. A spot of prolonged unemployment; a divorce after years raising children; a bout of depression; many of us are only a stroke of bad luck away from everything falling apart. If you’re young you can probably bounce back. Even 85 years after this was published though if you’re older you’d still best have money or the world can be a very cold place indeed.

Other reviews

I’ve reviewed Rhys’ Quartet here, a Penguin Modern Classics pocket edition of four of her short stories here, and probably her best novel Good Morning, Midnight here. Otherwise, Dovegreyreader reviewed this one here, and there’s an excellent piece in the Guardian about it here (which lays out pretty much the whole plot, but honestly knowing it doesn’t make much difference).

Edit: Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal also wrote a particularly good review, here.


Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Rhys, Jean

Didn’t you say that sex was a ferocious thing?

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.



Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean

I write what I see, what I feel, and what I have lived, writing the best that I can, and that is all.

Marthe, by J.-K. Huysmans

Marthe, subtitled “the story of a whore”, is the 1876 first novel of French writer J.-K. Huysmans, most famous for his work Là-Bas, the Damned.

Huysmans is often seen as part of the Naturalist movement of French fiction. He was a disciple of Zola (with whom he later fell out over what he regarded as an excess of materialism and absence of spirituality in Zola’s work), as well as of Edward de Goncourt. Marthe was the first novel addressing the life of licenced prostitutes in French society, a theme more popular than Huysman guessed when he began the work as Goncourt was producing his own novel on the same theme and within a few years so too did Zola. Huysmans had to rush his work to print, a possible explanation for its very hurried ending, and even went so far as to fabricate a backstory for its authorship, so as to ensure his came first of all and to avoid possible charges of plagiarism.

All this, as well as details of initial public reactions, the confiscation of the first print run and something of the climate to which it was released is brought out in the lucid, fascinating yet concise introduction to the Dedalus edition of this work. Together with that introduction, written by the translator (of whom more shortly), the Dedalus imprint comes with useful but not excessive endnotes and examples of original art (and indeed of originally rejected art, thought too risque).

The Dedalus edition of Marthe is translated by Brendan King, a freelance writer and translator with a PhD in the life and work of JK Huysmans. That level of expertise shows in the text, this is a lively translation which is a pleasure to read. Huysmans is fond of slang, of intentional archaisms, of wordplay (the subtitle itself could be read as “the story of a daughter”, “the story of a young girl” or “the story of a whore”, a fact which King notes of itself says much about 19th Century France), King brings all this to life and I would consider his name on any future translated works I encounter a draw in its own right.

So then, all that aside, what of the novel itself?

Marthe is, as the subtitle suggests, the story of a whore. When we first encounter Marthe, she is an actress, in a theatre company notable more for its lack of success than any other trait, she is a former prostitute and it soon becomes apparent that under the laws of the period if discovered as such she can be forcibly returned to the brothel from which she escaped. The story is a simple one, Marthe acquires an admirer, a young journalist named Léo, they become enamoured of each other and the novel follows the course of their relationship, as well as Marthe’s (often dubious) relationship with aging alcoholic actor Ginginet, the man who brought her into acting. There is a plot, relationships between characters develop and alter, but it is not a complex one and therefore I do not wish to speak of it at any length here.

What I would like to speak to is the peculiarly Huysmanian mix the novel contains of humour and social criticism, coupled on occasion with an almost gothic sensibility (at times it is slightly reminiscent of Therese Raquin, which I think must have been an influence, though personally I hugely prefer Marthe to Therese). Here we have two descriptions of the life of the theatre, from different sections of the book:

The audience started to get restless again. What it appreciated above all was the entrance of an enormous actress whose nose seemed to be marinading in a sea of fat. The tirade of verse that spouted from the bunghole of this human wine-barrel was punctuated by a great battery of drumming from the stalls and the poor woman was so bewildered she didn’t know whether to stay or make a run for it.

The play fell flat. Apple-cores flew, owl-like tu-whit-tu-whoos drowned out the noise from the orchestra pit made by two sad old baldies who were scraping the bellies of their cellos. Marthe and Léo took flight. It was every man for himself. The curtain fell. No one was left on stage apart from Ginginet and the two authors of the play, who looked at each other, crushed.
The actor consoled them with a few wise words.
‘Youg men,’ he said, ‘ the profession of dramatic author may not provide you with bread, but at least it’ll grant you plenty of apples. This lot will serve to make a nice apple turnover. As for my opinion on your work, here it is: those who hooted the play were right, those who bombarded me with missiles were dunces. And now, sound the trumpets, I’m off!’

In both passages there is a clear use of physical comedy, but also a refusal to shrink from the unpleasant. The beautiful and the ugly both exist, and so Huysmans depicts both, but in fulfilling that mandate he is not opposed to having a laugh along the way. Equally, Huysmans is drawing on earlier literary traditions, Ginginet is a Rabelaisian character, a rogue I found myself often liking even though he is a drunk, a lecher, lazy, dishonest and a panderer (but perhaps that’s why I like him).

Marthe then is full of humour, indeed at times it is extremely funny (as is Là-Bas, Huysmans’ comic ability is hugely underrated). Marthe does not, however, aim simply to amuse. Rather, it is an almost forensic examination of certain situations, places and people. In this, it is profoundly Naturalist, containing as is typical of that movement a frank approach to sexuality, a study of the individual as product of society and a generally pessimistic (if here blackly funny) tone. Huysmans is often at pains to depict a scene as precisely as he is able, to create an almost painterly sense of it, as this example shows:

The saloon was almost empty when she went in and hadn’t been swept yet. The mirrors on the walls, smeared with pommade from the heads that continually leaned against them, were clear at the top and tarnished at the bottom; the floor, powdered with rouge, was starred with dried spit, phlegm, cigar butts and pipe dottle, the marble table-tops were ringed with tacky stains from dirty glasses, and, at the back of the room on a sofa, a living image of infamy, lay the landlady’s father, whose job it was to work the beer pumps.

Such depictions occur throughout the book, in masterly passages portraying the inside of a brothel, the work of an artificial pearl workshop (painstakingly researched by Huysmans apparently), the exact contents of a morgue and the routine of those working in it. All is precise, all is exactly so, Huysmans lavishes on squalor the attention most authors would reserve for scenes of great beauty. It would be wrong to say that in doing so he gives that squalor its own beauty, he does not nor does he intend to, rather he says “this is” and in doing so shows us exactly what the “this” consists of.

The examination of squalor lies not only in examination of place, but also in examination of people. Marthe has no prospect of redemption, and does not especially seek it. She is trapped, by her circumstances, her inclinations and by her own history. As a former prostitute, she is always at risk of return to the brothel, as an actress she is barely more than a prostitute anyway. She drinks too much, she is promiscuous and not overly faithful, she sells herself because that is what women of her station do, and her fate could be that of any of them. If anything, it is her beauty that causes her to be trapped where the women she grew up with were not. Hers is a life in which the choices are few.

Marthe contains passages of great subtlety, the conversation between Léo and Marthe as they go to his apartment for the first time, running out of things to say to each other and sex becoming an escape from awkwardness, this is brilliantly observed. Huysmans is often at his best when addressing the banalities of flawed relationships, the small compromises and strained silences, above all the petty resentments. It also contains, however, it’s share of dramatic speeches, of confrontations and battles, each of which is full of passion but none of which achieve any great change to the characters’ fates:

‘Look!’ She shouted, getting more worked up the more she cried, ‘youd have done better to let me die. Believe me, I’ve thought about it enough! You know how it is, you lose your head for a moment, you think it’s all very simple to climb up on to a parapet and jump. That doesn’t last long, let me tell you. You get a right fright, up there. It churns your stomach, that boiling water under the bridge; it’s as if you’re being gripped by the throat, being strangled. And that’s stupid as well, because it would be better to finish it all quickly than to continue to live like I’m doing! Don’t you see, Ginginet, you can say what you want, but Léo is a good boy all the same. I’ve behaved like the worst of women with him. I’d get sloshed you know, and he’d put me to bed, and he looked after me when I was ill. Would you have done that? You? you’d try to get pissed on what was left in the bottle. As for what you think of me, I don’t give a damn. Between people like us there’s no such thing as love. We meet someone and sleep with them, just like we eat when we’re hungry. Oh, I’ve had enough of this life of continual fear, I’ve had enough of being hunted like an animal. I’ll give myself up. And what if I do? When you first looked at me with your startled eyes the day you accosted me in that bar, didn’t you think you’d found a virtuous one? You picked up a filthy tart, my dear. And you know, it’s no good trying to clean it off, it sticks with you forever, comes back like an oil stain on a dress. And anyway, when all’s said and done what’s that to me? Neither father nor mother nor good health, that’s called good luck when you do what I do.’

Marthe ends hurriedly, anticlimactically even. It is not a perfect work by any means, Goncourt criticised Huysmans for sometimes using flashy language or archaisms and in doing so killing a scene. It’s a fair criticism, as is Zola’s comment that the tone overall could in places usefully be lighter. But fair also are Goncourt and Zola’s respective compliments, that Huysmans is exceptional at bringing small scenes to vivid life, the daily routine of Léo and Marthe when they live together, a description of a wineseller, Marthe’s memories of her time within the brothel. This is a small book, almost a novella, and it is not perfect, but it contains many rewards and having read it my affection for Huysmans as a writer is if anything enhanced. I look forward to further of Mr King’s translations, and hope he has many more of them in him.

Marthe. I have linked, of course, to the Dedalus edition. The link is worth clicking for the marvellous and wholly apposite cover, a Degas painting, alone.


Filed under 19th Century, French, Huysmans, J.-K., King, Brendan (translator), Paris

God, it’s funny, being a woman!

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.

Good Morning, Midnight


Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean

This will destroy that

Originally posted 24 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

I recently finished reading the Jonathan Sturrock translation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, this is the Penguin classics edition and as you would expect is well but not obtrusively footnoted. It is the unabridged text, thus containing chapters such as “A bird’s-eye view of Paris”, which interestingly were not included in the first edition of the novel (of which more shortly).

My French isn’t good enough to read the original text, so I can’t comment on the fidelity of the translation, but in terms of readability Sturrock did an excellent job. The text is clear, easy to read, often very funny, archaisms are kept within reasonable bounds (the novel is set in the 14th century, some archaisms seem unavoidable) and he avoids jarring use of contemporary language or particularly English phraseology. Overall, for me this was a good translation.

So, what of the novel itself? Well, firstly, if your knowledge of the text comes from popular culture then it’s nothing much like you would expect. La Esmeralda takes a few chapters even to make an appearance, Quasimodo is more a supporting character than a central protagonist and some key characters are omitted from popular accounts entirely. The novel is primarily a love letter to a form of architecture, a eulogy for an art form Hugo sees as rightly surpassed but which he mourns nonetheless. The title of the Penguin translation is the same as that in the French, Notre-Dame de Paris, the common English title of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame fundamentally misses what the novel is about (insofar as any novel can be said to be about any one thing).

The central character of the novel is the cathedral, Notre-Dame itself. The other great character of the novel is Paris. As well as Notre-Dame and Paris there are some human characters, Pierre Gringoire the unfortunate playwright and philospher, Claude Frollo – an archbishop and alchemist who has devoted his life to science and has but two acts of clemency to his name (neither of which is rewarded), La Esmeralda – a beautiful but naive young gypsy, Djali – La Esmeralda’s goat which is charming and intelligent and knows too many tricks to be safe in a world of superstition and animal trials, Captain Phoebus – a handsome and womanising soldier, Louis XI, Jehan Frollo – a young student and libertine, Jacques Coppenole – a Flemish hosier and harbinger of later democratic movements, Quasimodo – a deaf hunchback. As with any large 19th century novel there are of course also a great many minor characters, some critical to the novel, some mere curiosities or diversions.

But, and this is key, the central characters are Notre-Dame itself and the city of Paris. The human (and goat) characters drive the plot, they provide entertainment, comedy and tragedy, but they are not what the book is about.

When originally published three chapters were omitted, Hugo claims this is due to their having been misplaced, but recovered in time for the second edition. Whether that is true or not I have no idea, but interestingly the omitted chapters are ones that many readers to this day still choose not to read. These are the architectural chapters, and they are the heart of the novel.

The thesis of Notre-Dame de Paris is that historically architecture was humanity’s way of recording itself, that our ambitions, thoughts, dreams and in a very real sense our literature were written in stone. That architecture itself was a summation of all other arts, capturing the essence of a culture in as lasting a fashion as was possible. This ends with the invention of the printing press, and with that invention literature replaces architecture. Where once a culture would preserve its thoughts in stone, now it could preserve them in words, but words easily copied and distributed so that though each individual copy had but a short life the words themselves would last as long as humanity itself did. The printing press gave literature a longevity even greater than that of architecture, and in doing so rendered architecture sterile, an art without function and one from which later geniuses would occasionally emerge in isolated instances but which fundamentally had become a pastiche of itself.

That is what the book is about, the occlusion of architecture as an artistic form by literature. Or at least, that is a key element of the novel. In setting out this thesis, Hugo spends whole chapters merely describing the cathedral and the city, the lines of the stone, towers, additions and amendments to great buildings, views, architectural movements, these are chapters that many readers simply skip as they in no way advance the plot of the novel and tend not even to mention any human characters – but they are the heart of the novel and in any event are beautifully written. The chapter in which Hugo goes on a massive diversion from the plot to set out in explicit terms the interrelationship between architecture, literature and the world of ideas is a spectacular piece of work, one which contains ideas still fresh and challenging today. To skip it because Quasimodo et al are offscreen for most of it allows you to get to the end quicker but at the cost of one of the novel’s finest sections.

Otherwise, the novel is a mix of comedy and tragedy. Indeed, it moves really from one to the other, starting with many comic elements which darken as the novel progresses until at the end hope is largely lost and characters die in terrible and tragic ways. The good are not rewarded, and by the end it is highly questionable if anyone in the novel is truly good anyway (certainly not La Esmeralda, wikipedia is quite wrong in saying she learns to look past Quasimodo’s ugliness, the novel is perfectly clear that she does not). The evil are not by and large punished (and again, it’s highly questionable who is evil, Claude Frollo attempts both rape and murder but twice in the novel acts utterly altruistically to protect the helpless and devotes much of his life to taking care of his wastrel brother). True love goes unrecognised, infidelity succeeds, death is capricious and lives can be lost on the distractions of a deaf judge. At the start the novel is tremendously funny, by the end we are in the territory of gothic horror.

The novel of course contains other conceptual strands, it’s a classic 19th Century novel of ideas, there is much about the inevitability of the move over time to democracy (Hugo and Francis Fukuyama seem to agree on that point), there are wonderful diversions to the lives of the criminal classes and a tremendous (and tremendously funny) knowingness about petty human vices. There are at least three great unrequited love stories.

But at the end, like Huysman’s La-Bas (which I highly recommend), it’s a eulogy for something past, for a world of craft and romance (in the broad sense, not merely romantic love), it is a (seminal) work of romantic fiction, it’s a call to arms to protect an architectural heritage being slowly destroyed by later revisions. It is not, however, a love story in the conventional sense.

Notre-Dame de Paris is well worth reading, it is an easy read in the main (other than in the architectural chapters, which need more careful attention), it has a plot which if not always entirely probable (I don’t think likelihood was something Hugo was particularly interested in) is always full of passion and incident, and it contains ideas on architecture and literature which remain relevant today. Not only is it worth reading, it’s worth rereading, particularly if as I managed you can read it while on holiday in Paris.


Filed under 19th Century, French, Hugo, Victor, Paris