Category Archives: Rhys, Jean

something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

This is England, and I’m in a nice clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. Voyage is the third in her series of four novels exploring the experience of women facing the indifferent cruelty society reserves for those who don’t quite fit.

RhysVoyage

Anna Morgan is a teenager recently come to the UK from the Caribbean. Her father died and her stepmother pointedly had no place for her, so to England it was. It’s not a voluntary homecoming, or any kind of homecoming at all for that matter. Anna loved the Caribbean, the warmth and colour of it. She was mostly raised by her family’s black housekeeper and (to her stepmother’s disgust) played with the mixed race children. She sees blacks as “warm and gay”, whites as “cold and sad”, which given she’s white says more about her than it does about race relations.

Anna finds England a dismal and dispiriting place. She works as an actress, barely surviving. Her outlook is bleak, as reflected in this quote where she sees a couple kissing:

A man and a girl were leaning against the railings in Berwick Square, kissing. They stood without moving in the shadow, with their mouths glued together. They were like beetles clinging to the railings.

There’s a lot to pull out there. “A man and a girl”, already a power imbalance. That image of their mouths glued together which seems to me somehow nauseating and nauseated. Then the beetle imagery. Anna isn’t a romantic. Except, of course, that she is. How can you be 18 and an actor and not be a romantic?

Anna shares a room with her friend Maudie, also a showgirl. While walking one evening they meet two men who pick them up and buy them drinks. Anna later goes to dinner with one of them at his club and sleeps with him there. It’s the price you pay for the food and company. It’s expected. He puts money in her handbag before she leaves. It wouldn’t do to give it to her directly, she’s not a prostitute after all.

The man is Walter and Anna’s relationship with him is inherently unequal. He’s older and richer. They meet at his club or other places he chooses. She loves him. He pays her rent. It’s not what Anna was looking for but it’s not as if there’s much better on offer.

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Anna places her hopes on Walter, too young to realise what she is to him. When he dumps her he does so by having a friend write to her (cheque enclosed, naturally). It’s the Edwardian equivalent of dumping someone by text. It’s cowardly, though by his own lights Walter hasn’t behaved badly. Surely Anna wouldn’t have expected him to marry her? He treated her well when they were together, let her down as politely as he could, gave her a reasonable sum to tide her over until she finds another man. What more could he do? All he asks now is that she return any of his love letters that she may have kept so as to avoid potential future embarrassment.

Walter isn’t the only one to treat Anna shabbily. Her landladies judge her; when she visits her family in England they want nothing to do with her; her stepmother’s written her off. Anna has no skills, no contacts, nothing to offer save herself to whatever man might be interested.

In modern parlance Anna is depressed, and Voyage in the Dark is (among the many other things it is) a masterful exploration of depression as lived experience. At night she can’t keep her thoughts at bay, by day she can distract herself until the next night:

When it was sad was when you lay awake, and then it began to get light and the sparrows started – that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling. When the sparrows started to chirp.

But in the daytime it was all right. And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me that it’s better to be dead than to live like that. Dressing to go and meet him and coming out of the restaurant and the lights in the streets and getting into a taxi and when he kissed you in the taxi going there.

In most books sparrows chirping would be a symbol of hope. Rhys is better than that, smarter. Here the sparrows are just another reminder of exclusion and irrelevance. Depression is a stained glass window all in grey. Everything outside is coloured by it.

The language here brings the reader within Anna’s experience. I opened a page at random while writing this piece and found a chapter beginning as follows:

There were two slices of dark meat on one plate, two potatoes and some cabbage. On the other plate a slice of bread and a lemon-cheese tart.

‘I’ve brought you up the bottle of vermouth and the siphon you asked for,’ the landlady said. This one had bulging eyes, dark blobs in a long pink face, like a prawn.

We move seamlessly from a fairly prosaic description of the meal to the line about the vermouth (which tells us that Anna is drinking) and then to the description of the landlady who has herself become a sort of unappetising food. The text is suffused with disgust. Note too that “This one”. Like the men, the landladies change particulars but not nature.

In a decade or so Anna will be Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both live by sharing their emotions and their bodies with men who’ll move on in due course to something more permanent. Both are honest, but nobody wants their honesty. If they were of a higher social class, if they had money, they could live independently but they don’t so they can’t. That doesn’t leave many options.

At the same time Rhys avoids the simplicity of saying it’s all society’s fault. At one point Anna shares with a woman named Ethel, who tries to make a go of herself with a small business. Anna finds that incomprehensible, turning instead to Maudie and another friend Laurie who live outwardly glamorous and inwardly shabby lives wearing clothes bought for them by the men they go out with. It’s another manifestation of depression – Anna finds it easier to drift and to depend on the men she meets than to adopt Ethel’s puritan work ethic.

Novels about teenagers are usually about learning self-reliance, becoming yourself (whoever that might be), finding confidence and discovering the world. Anna discovers the world all right, but she doesn’t like it much and it doesn’t have much time for her. Later in the novel when she meets another man she reflects “My mouth smiled at him.” It’s a true but chilling line (something I could say of a great many of the sentences here). It’s ok though. He only wants her mouth smiling, that outward show. He doesn’t really care if the smile remains once he leaves the room. They never do.

Other reviews

The two I’d immediately single out are by the Lonesome Reader, here, and by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Blog, here. Both rightly pick out the same key quote:

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’

Of course, it won’t be.

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Filed under Modernist fiction, Rhys, Jean

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.

After

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.

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Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Rhys, Jean

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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Filed under Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean, Short stories

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.

Quartet

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

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

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