Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

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

“Death always doubles off”

The Crazy Kill, by Chester Himes

Over Christmas I read an article which quoted PD James. She talked about how the pleasure of crime fiction was the knowledge that by the end of the book order would be restored. Bad things happen, but good wins out. The world is, ultimately, just.

That’s true of some crime fiction, but not of any crime fiction I enjoy reading. It’s not true of Chester Himes. In the 1950s Harlem of Himes’ novels the bad guys generally do get punished, but so do several other people along the way and there’s no restoration of order because there was never any order to begin with.

Here’s the opening of The Crazy Kill:

It was four o’clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem, U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.
A colored man was stealing a bag of money.

The bag is full of change. It’s on the seat of a double-parked car, just near a cop on patrol and a grocery store manager who’s opening up and will be back in a moment to pick up the bag and take it inside. Problem is, a bag doesn’t have to be left alone long in Harlem to go missing.

Nearby at a wake Reverent Short is leaning out of a first-story window watching proceedings. He leans too far out, falls and ends up in a large basket of bread sitting outside the bakery below.

The Reverend’s fine, but when he returns to the wake he does so with what he claims to be a vision. He saw a dead man, and when the partygoers go outside they find right in that same bread basket the body of Valentine Haines, stabbed through the heart with the knife still jutting out.

Before long everyone’s wondering who killed Val. Was it Johnny, local gangster and Val’s business partner? Was it Dulcy, Johnny’s girl and Val’s sister? What about Chink Charlie? He’s got the hots for Dulcy and he owns a knife just like the one sticking out of the corpse. Everyone says Val had no real enemies, but there seem to be a lot of people who might be in the frame for his death.

The Reverend’s throwing out accusations and stirring up trouble; Dulcy doesn’t seem to mind Chink Charlie paying her a little attention; and Johnny’s a jealous man with a violent temper. If things carry on as they are Val’s body won’t be the only one with a knife sticking out of it. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed are soon on the scene and applying pressure.

The questioning was conducted in a soundproof room without windows on the first floor. This room was known to the Harlem underworld as the “Pigeon Nest.” It was said that no matter how tough an egg was, if they kept him in there long enough he would hatch out a pigeon.

I won’t say more about the plot. It’s only there because without it nothing would happen. As ever with Himes the real substance is in the characters, and in the sense of Harlem life. Johnny is a successful gambler and gets a lot of respect, even from the police. He wears sharp suits and drives a fancy car. The Reverend says, and believes, that he’s sworn off all alcohol, but he drinks a nerve tonic of his own devising which is a mix of hard drugs and harder liquor.

This is a Harlem filled with gambling joints, whorehouses, the Holy Roller Church where the Reverend preaches and where the congregation roll around on the floor when the spirit moves them. It’s Summer, it’s hot as hell, and tempers are running high. The only place there’s any relief is in the bars and gambling joints where people like Johnny spend their time:

Inside it was cool, and so dark he had to take off his sun glasses on entering. The unforgettable scent of whisky, whores and perfume filled his nostrils, making him feel relaxed.

In a sense this is Damon Runyon territory. It’s a different decade, a different part of New York and everyone’s black, but otherwise he’d recognise a lot of this. Just look at the names some of the characters have: Chink Charlie, Baby Sis, Reverend Short, Valentine Haines, Deep South, Mamie Pullen, Dulcy, Johnny, Pigmeat, Poor Boy, Doll Baby, Alamena, and of course Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed themselves.

The difference though is that Chester Himes doesn’t write comic novels. His characters have none of the loveable nature of Runyon’s rogues. Take away Runyon’s humour, and his affection, and the milieu isn’t so different. Damon Runyon after all portrays a world in which people scheme, cheat, take crazy risks and kill. Runyon does it with a laugh. Himes’ books have plenty of laughs, but hollow ones, and you can smell his characters’ sweat.

There’s always a question with novels forming part of a series as to where one should start. With the Harlem cycle the answer has to be at the beginning with A Rage in Harlem. The answer definitely shouldn’t be The Crazy Kill. It’s solid, but probably the weakest of the three I’ve read so far.

Jones and Ed barely feature, which isn’t vastly problematic as Himes’ interest is always more in his criminals than his detectives, but their presence sets up expectations about the kind of novel this is which aren’t quite realised. The plot, clearly intentionally, makes very little sense which is fine as Himes is all about the atmosphere but does make what happens all a little random (which again is clearly intentional, but even so is a little unsatisfying).

Although The Crazy Kill features a crime, and detectives who solve that crime, it’s not really a detective novel. At the end I found myself wondering if it would have been better with a little more detecting, or with none at all. It’s messing with Mr. In-Between that causes the problems there are here.

In writing this I found two reviews online by other bloggers, here and here. That first link has two extremely well chosen quotes and so I’d strongly suggest at least following that to get a little more of a taste of Himes’ prose. Otherwise, if you’ve read the first two Himes and enjoyed them then you should absolutely read this, but if you’re not already a fan this won’t be the one to convert you.

The cover up above is from the Vintage Crime edition, which I don’t particularly recommend as it has absurdly large margin spaces. There’s a Penguin Modern Classics edition now available, and if I were buying this now that’s what I would get. For the curious there’s also apparently a biography of Himes written by James Sallis, which makes it rather fitting that this review follows my review of Drive.

On a very final note, I found two alternative covers for this online, which I thought I’d share because they’re just great examples of vintage cover art. Particularly the first.


Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir

all the more human

Flypaper, by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman

Robert Musil is famous (being a bit generous with that word there for a moment) for his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. By all accounts it’s an incredible work. I’m too fond of editors to ever welcome the idea of reading an interrupted book – one that not even the author finished polishing – but I’ve been told that for Musil I should put that prejudice to one side.

Fair enough, but The Man Without Qualities has another barrier besides being incomplete. It’s nearly 700 pages long. That’s a lot to launch into with an author I don’t know.

Enter Penguin Modern Classics with their pocket editions each coming in at around the 60 page mark. Flypaper is a collection of fueilletons, short essays, by Robert Musil. There’s nine of them in this tiny collection, and as an introduction to Musil it’s about as good as it could be. That’s the joy of these little Penguin editions. They cost almost nothing, they’re concise and they’re a tremendous way to try out an author who for one reason or another you might be unsure about investing in.

Each of the nine little pieces in this collection is a small marvel of mercilessly precise observation. The title narrative, Flypaper, consists of a description of a piece of flypaper and the slow death of the flies that land on it. It’s at times hard to read. Partly I admit because I had nightmares about flypaper as a child (someone unwisely left some above my bed at a relatives home, meaning I had a front line view of exactly what Musil describes here. Whether that caused the peculiar horror I still have of the sight of dying insects or whether that fear already existed and so made the flypaper terrible I have no way of knowing). Partly though because Musil takes something as insignificant as the death of a fly and by not looking away invests it with majesty and with a more universal significance.

Here’s Flypaper’s first paragraph, after which it gets much more disquieting:

Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognised as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers holds us tight.

Musil then explores the flies ever tiring attempts to free themselves, each miring them more firmly to the paper. He talks of moments of furious struggle, of sudden exhaustion, of the slow despair and futility of a fight against inevitable disability (as wings and limbs become stuck fast) and death.

There is real empathy here, and it is the empathy which makes it so awful. The next, Monkey Island, examines a small island in the heart of Rome. A wide and deep ditch separates the island from the land around it, and on it is a tree and a colony of monkeys none of whom can quite jump or climb that ditch.

This then is the monkeys’ kingdom. Musil’s gaze sweeps over it, from the strongest monkeys who form the royal family of the island to the outcasts who live within the ditch itself. It is a microcosm of us, a point Musil has no need to underline but which cannot be avoided as he shows the social and literal gulf dividing those monkeys who have from those who feed from fallen crumbs.

I won’t describe each essay. They are superbly written. Some, like those first two, draw out uncomfortable truths about our own existence. Some, such as The Painstpreader or It’s Lovely Here are satires, of artistic mediocrity on the one hand and of tourists’ desire to encounter “something that is acknowledged by experts as beautiful” on the other.

The briefest piece, titled Sarcophagus Cover, is a touching description of two ancient Roman sarcophagi that have on them a couple still gazing affectionately at each other through the long centuries. The last, The Blackbird, is a sort of fable different in nature from all that has gone before. Not so much an essay as an example of his fiction, but no less finely crafted. Musil has range.

This next quote is an entire piece, albeit a very short one. I hesitated to quote it, since after discussing Flypaper and Monkey Island there’s a risk of giving the impression that Musil only focuses on the cruel. That’s not true of course. What Musil focuses on is the world.

Fishermen on the Baltic

On the beach they’ve dug out a little pit with their hands, and from a sack of black earth they’re pouring in fat earthworms, the loose black earth and the mass of worms make for an obscure, moldy, enticing ugliness in the clean white sand. Beside this they place a very tidy looking wooden chest. It looks like a long, not particularly wide drawer or counting board, and is full of clean yarn; and on the other side of the pit another such, but empty, drawer is placed.

The hundred hooks attached to the yarn in the one drawer are neatly arranged on the end of a small iron pole and are now being unfastened one after the other and laid in the empty drawer, the bottom of which is filled with nothing but clean wet sand. A very tidy operation. In the meantime, however, four long, lean and strong hands oversee the process as carefully as nurses to make sure that each hook gets a worm.

The men who do this crouch two by two on knees and heels, with mighty, bony backs, long, kindly faces, and pipes in their mouths. They exchange incomprehensible words that flow forth as softly as the motion of their hands. One of them takes up a fat earthworm with two fingers, tears it into three pieces with the same two fingers of the other hand, as easily and exactly as a shoemaker snips off the paper band after he’s taken the measurement; the other one then presses these squirming pieces calmly and carefully onto each hook. This having been accomplished, the worms are then doused with water and laid in neat, little beds, one next to the other, in the drawer with the soft sand, where they can die without immediately losing their freshness.

It is a quiet, delicate activity, whereby the coarse fishermen’s fingers step softly as on tiptoes. You have to pay close attention. In fair weather the dark blue sky arches above, and the seagulls circle high over the land like white swallows.

The phrases there. “A very tidy operation.” The fishermen with their “kindly faces” impaling the worms. The transition from fat life to “squirming pieces” and the tidy convenience of the sand-filled drawers. The fingers that “step softly as on tiptoes”. Marvellous imagery culminating in that final vision of freedom and beauty and utter indifference. To the fishermen the worms are no different to the hooks or the drawers; the gulls are part of their scenery, as they are to the gulls.

I’ve not commented on the translation. Obviously I’m not familiar enough with German to read the original (or I would have), so I can’t say how faithful this is. I can’t say that of any translation really. Still, the language is spare and precise and beautiful and I can’t believe but that Wortsman has done an excellent job here.

The point, as I understand it anyway, of the Penguin pocket editions is to tempt readers to try new writers. For me it’s worked. I’ve tried Musil, who I knew about but was daunted by, and I’m no longer daunted. I plan now to pick up a copy of his short novel The Confusions of Young Torless and that going well I think The Man Without Qualities is looking a lot more enticing than it once did. Well done Penguin.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Fueilletons, German, Modernist fiction, Musil, Robert

… a precious moment gone and we not there

A month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

J.L. Carr isn’t I think a well-known author today. To the extent he’s remembered at all it’s for his 1980 Booker shortlisted novella A Month in the Country. William Golding’s Rites of Passage won that year. I haven’t read Rites, but to have beaten Country all I can say is that it must be bloody good.

The narrator of Country is Tom Birkin. In 1978 he’s an old man, but in 1920 he was still young and he spent a summer in the English village of Oxgodby where he uncovered a medieval wall painting located in the local church. The narrative then is an act of memory and nostalgia. Birkin is not unreliable, but this is no longer his direct experience.

Here, walking in driving rain, Birkin first sees the church:

It was an off-the-peg job: evidently there had been no medieval wool boom in these parts. This had been starveling country, every stone an extortion. The short chancel had an unusually shallow pitched roof; it must have been added a good hundred years after the main building (which had a steep pitch flattening into aisles). The tower was squat. Don’t get the wrong impression; all in all, it was pleasant-enoough looking and, when I came closer, I saw that the masonry had been fettled up very nicely – limestone ashlar not rubble. Even between the buttresses it had been beautifully cut with only a hint of mortar and, near-enough drowning as I was, I silently applauded the masons. The stone itself – just a tinge of pale yellow in it, magnesium – it must have been quarried near Tadcaster and ferried up the rivers. Don’t let the detail irritate you: even in those far-off days I thought rather highly of myself as a stone-fancier.

Firstly, that’s a lovely piece of description. Secondly though it’s a description which tells us something of the describer. This is a man comfortable with detail, with the inanimate and with the distant past. Is he as comfortable with the animate and the present? We soon find out as Birkin meets the local vicar, the Reverend Keach:

He was four or five years older than me, maybe thirty, a tall but not a strong-looking man, neatly turned out, pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him and, long after he must have become used to my face-twitch, he still talked to someone behind my left shoulder.

What I like in that passage is how not only do we get a pretty good description of Keach, again we learn a lot about Birkin too. Most importantly, we learn of his twitch, and so given the period know that he must be a veteran recovering from the horrors of the war.

Birkin knows what he is doing and the work goes well. He lives in the church tower to save money and makes friends with a fellow veteran named Moon who is now an archaeologist. Moon and Birkin understand each other. They were both in the war and they both brought it home with them. As the work continues though Birkin finds himself more and more drawn into Oxgodby life, and not least into the lives of the Reverend Keach and his stunningly beautiful wife – a woman Birkin increasingly feels a connection with.

There’s a lot going on here. The painting itself reveals a mystery. It’s a masterwork. Why then was it covered over so quickly after it was made? Why does it show a man falling into hell whose face is drawn so precisely as to seem a portrait? What happened to the painter? The distant past begins to reveal itself as Birkin’s own past recedes. He is adopted by the village stationmaster and his family who involve him in their church services and Sunday dinners. Twitching and reclusive Birkin is brought back into the world.

At times Country is an extremely funny novel. I loved Birkin being seconded to act as speaker to a small Wesleyan congregation, despite his being painfully ill-suited to the task. There’s a family expedition to buy a new church organ which is another piece of small comic brilliance. Alongside that is that sense of memory and the effects of time – what is lost and what is preserved. The act of uncovering the painting in 1920 is an act of discovery of the past in the same way that the act of remembering that long-past summer is for Birkin in 1978. In both cases the result is not what actually was, but rather as good a reconstruction of it as can now be achieved. As Birkin reflects:

… it simply isn’t possible to return a five-hundred-year-old-wall-painting to its original state. At best, I aimed at approximation, uniformity, something that looked right.

The same could of course be said for the entire narrative.

Part of the power of Country is its tremendous sense of place. Carr makes Oxgodby feel solid and alive, but at the same time it seems faintly idealised (reflecting that within the narrative it is both real and remembered). Carr has a tremendous grasp of telling detail and a knack with description which manages the unusual trick of being sentimental (even nostalgic) without being cloying.

There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilbery shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.

Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woolen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons tumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the pastoral in painting, and I’ve not read many literary examples of it. That though is a beautiful piece of pastoral writing. It sounds like Heaven made Earthly. It’s a gloriously sun-dappled piece of prose.

Carr captures that sense one has sometimes of a moment as both timeless and yet fleeting. Birkin’s summer, and the book itself, seems to last for an age and yet be over all too soon. As Birkin reflects, “… we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” Birkin’s story is one of hope, but also of loss.

There have been periods in my life, as in most, which seem much longer in memory than in fact they were. That’s natural, because what we remember is influenced so much by the personal – how something mattered to us, how it made us feel. A weekend-break can later stand out more than the otherwise uneventful year it was part of. That’s unavoidable and part of being human, but it does make such times all the more important.

If I’ve not made it clear by now this is an exceptional book. I discovered it through Kevinfromcanada who reviewed it here and Trevor of themookseandthegripes who reviewed it here. I’ve sought not to repeat their comments too much and both are well worth reading. Country is extremely well written, it’s subtle and it’s often slyly funny. It’s a genuine pleasure to read and a book that I’m sure I’ll reread. In truth it’s a joy of a work and in a small way something of a masterpiece.

A final quote. Here Birkin reflects on the character of the man who created the brilliantly executed painting that he is slowly uncovering:

Here I was, face to face with a nameless painter reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, ‘if any part of me survives from time’s corruption, let it be this. For this is the sort of man I was.’

I said at the beginning that Carr is little known today. Still, if any part of him survives from time’s corruption, it should be this. For this is the sort of man he was.


Filed under Booker, Carr, J.L., Novellas

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.


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

Classic Himes

Penguin is bringing out the first five of Chester Himes’ Harlem Noir novels in its modern classics range. I’m delighted by this. The Himes’ novels are underrated and not particularly well known now, but they really are classics and they do deserve much more attention than they receive.

I’ve written about the first two novels here. Here’s the new Penguin covers:

Happy as I am about this I am a little surprised to see five making classic status at once. Penguin treated Ambler similarly of course but each of his were stand alone novels. Still, it’s welcome recognition for a neglected writer and that’s always a good thing.

On a more personal aside, I’m still presently reading Proust’s second volume. Unfortunately work pressures meant that I haven’t made the progress I’d hoped so it’s still not finished. Thankfully it is very good. I did however read a small Penguin collection of Jean Rhys short stories which I shall write up soon.


Filed under Crime, Himes, Chester

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

If you are a tenant, you catch your arse forever, but if you are a landlord, it is a horse of a different colour

Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

As I write this, I am on a skiing holiday in Banff, Canada. Accordingly, I may be slow to respond to any comments.

Moses Ascending is the 1975 sequel to Sam Selvon’s glorious 1956 novel, The Lonely Londoners, which I discuss here and which Kevin from Canada discusses (together with Moses Ascending, here). Ultimately, both works form part of a trilogy, ending with the 1983 novel Moses Migrating, itself reviewed by Kevin from Canada here.

The Lonely Londoners probably counts for me as my great discovery of 2008, the novel which brought me the most unexpected pleasure, being well written, passionate and very funny while simultaneously giving real insight into the 1950s immigrant experience (and the immigrant experience more generally).

With Moses Ascending, we find ourselves no longer in the 1950 world of hopeful Caribbean “boys” trying to make their way in the face of native prejudice. Instead we are now in the more directly confrontational world of the 1970s. New immigrant populations have arrived, meeting fresh hostility (including from the previous wave of immigrants, of which more later) and the children of the original immigrants are themselves now natives, born and raised in England and with a different outlook to that of their parents.

Moses, a central character of the original novel, here is still writing his memoirs and has come to regard himself as an intellectual figure, but he is no longer central to the West Indian ex-pat community as he once was. Where twenty years ago he welcomed those new to Britain, helped shelter them and establish them so that they could find their own ways, now he has lost track of his old friends, has himself become a landlord of a crumbling Shepherd’s Bush tenement house with a five year lease left to run before it is condemned, and has become embittered and cynical.

Although The Lonely Londoners dealt squarely with issues of racism, estrangement and the objectification of the immigrant, its tone remained one of optimism and warmth. Here, that optimism has faded, soured, though the anger that was present in the original remains. Where The Lonely Londoners has a ten page prose poem praising London, a poem that includes recognition of prejudice but also is full of the sheer joy of Summer in the city, here almost at the outset we enter into five pages of controlled satirical fury – Moses speaks of how the black man should rejoice for it is his labour that makes the city function, him that sees the pre-dawn hours and is privileged to work when others sleep. From the second page of that passage:

Strangers to London – even bona fide Londoners too – have been heard to remark that they can’t see the hordes of black faces what supposed to clutter the vast metropolis. Ah, but at what time of day do they make this observation? If they had to get their arses out of bed in the wee hours, if they had to come out of cosy flat and centrally-heated hallways to face the onslaught of an icy north wind and trudge through the sludge and grime of a snow-trampled pavement, they would encounter black man and woman by the thousands.

This section continues for another three pages after this harsh punchline, culminating in the coldly ironic observation that if the white population knew how good the blacks had it then it would be the whites themselves who would rise up in revolution.

The early part of the work is then fairly philosophical in tone, Moses reflects on the world, now that he is a landlord he finds himself treated with a new respect, better treated than other blacks, he has money in his pocket and as landlord has power over his tenants. Moses is no longer servant to others, indeed he now has a servant himself:

All these [domestic] arrangements were attended to by my man Friday, a white immigrant named Bob from somewhere in the Midlands, who came to seek his fortunes in London. My blood take him because he was a good worker, young and strong, and he put down three weeks’ rent in advance. By the time the three weeks was up he was spitting and polishing all over the house, tearing down old wallpaper and putting up new ones, painting and puttying, sweeping and scrubbing. He was a willing worker, eager to learn the ways of the Black man.

The only thing I didn’t like about him was he went out most evenings and come back pissed, drunk like a lord. As we became good friends, or rather Master and Servant, I try to convert him from the evils of alcohol, but it was no use.

I decided to teach him the Bible when I could make the time.

Again, we are in the realm of vicious satire, we have an express reference to Robinson Crusoe and a clear inversion of the traditional white stereotypes of the black man. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Moses and Bob is a caustic reminder of the normal depiction of the black character in fiction of this period.

As the novel continues, it becomes more plot driven, Moses has among his tenants a black power group residing in his basement, Kid Galahad from the first novel returns, now as a fashionably dressed black power activist shouting slogans and seeking Moses’ financial backing for the movement. Brenda, a young female activist, moves into the basement to run the movement’s activities, but soon starts sleeping with both Moses and his man Bob. Selvon is generally good at sketching characters – Moses himself, Bob, Kid Galahad with his appeals to black solidarity which always amount to a request for funds, unfortunately Brenda is a crude depiction of a woman who is routinely sexually available at the whim of the male characters and who in a bizarre scene appears to get turned on by Bob attempting to sexually assault her and so allows herself to be seduced by Moses. Apparently, a feminist later slapped Selvon in the face for his depictions of women in his work, and based on his depictions of them in this novel I can’t say that was wholly unfair. I will return to this later however, as other interpretations of Brenda as a character are possible.

Moses becomes unwillingly involved in the black power movement, going on a demo out of curiosity and being swept up in the police response, which leads to his arrest even though he is not among those breaking the law. Moses activities throughout this work brush against criminality, often through little choice of his own, and Selvon uses this as an opportunity to explore relationships between the black community and the police in this period – relationships that at the risk of veering into the personal I can attest (having grown up in this part of London in the 1970s ) are pretty accurately captured:

I don’t know about you, but when you are a black man, even though you abide by the laws you are always wary of the police. It does not occur to you that there could be any casual contact, or innocent, or even self-beneficial. It got angelic saints who would be standing up talking about God and Jesus Christ in reverential tones, and they see a policeman in the offing, and the meeting break up, evaporate without trace.

As I noted at the outset, Moses being a man of property is better treated than other blacks, has come to regard himself as superior to many of them. The police act as a sharp reminder that to many in the white community, whatever he may have achieved, he is to them just another black face among many.

Other tenants also bring problems with them, again in a tone of bleak comedy, Moses becomes suspicious that two Pakistani tenants are running a people smuggling operation, using his house as part of a route through which new Pakistani and Indian immigrants are brought illegally into the UK. Moses gets to know one of these men, observing him sacrificing a sheep in the back garden (this is probably based on a real incident of this kind which I recall from childhood) and experiencing a mixture of curiosity, fear and animosity towards these new arrivals and their to him peculiar customs, just as once the white population did with him.

Much of this is very funny, where it works less well however is that the depictions of the Pakistanis are again not as convincing as some of the other portraits in this work. One, referred to as Paki (which, for the benefit of any non-UK readers, is today considered a very racist term), mentions how he does not need sleep as he can go into a trance and meditate. Although ostensibly a Muslim, Paki practices yoga which is of course a Hindu practice and what appears to be Buddhist style meditation. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of this work comes with an essay from Hari Kunzru which, although generally favourable, suggests that Selvon himself might not have inquired much more into the realities of the different Indian subcontinent populations than did his character Moses, this may be fair, though as with Brenda other interpretations are possible and I shall return to this issue also.

So, by now I have suggested that in this work Selvon manages to be both racist and sexist, which is an unfortunate charge sheet. Leaving aside other possible takes on those elements, is it then worth reading? Definitely, although I did not enjoy this as much as The Lonely Londoners, it does still have a great deal to say and it is often very funny when saying it. In examining the strained relationship between established and new waves of immigrants, Selvon investigates a topic that is all too often ignored but which remains highly relevant, few after all have more to lose from the arrival of new populations than those who have only just begun to feel settled themselves and racism can take more forms than simple prejudice from natives to immigrants – prejudice between disparate immigrant populations is real too.

Selvon is also in fine form on the generational conflicts within the black community, most evidenced in the mocking regard in which Brenda holds Moses, she may sleep with him but she shows him little respect. The movement sees him as a source of funds, but it is clear that to them he is yesterday’s man, valuable for his newfound prosperity but otherwise a dinosaur. Perhaps with Brenda’s sexuality Selvon was seeking to depict a new kind of woman, a woman who chose with whom she wanted to sleep and who was not merely an object for the pleasure of others, a woman of a sort that was emerging in this period into public consciousness. If so, I don’t think he succeeded, but when he succeeds at so much else it is not for me a fatal flaw.

Moses himself also remains a fascinating character, particularly here steeped as he is in bitterness, resentment against his own community and suspicion of the new world he sees forming around him. His misadventures as he seeks to understand his Pakistani tenants, and so gets sucked into their illegal operations, are genuinely funny as are the myriad ways in which the black power movement exploit him against his will. Moses now is subject not only to alienation by reason of race, but also by reason of his age.

Selvon uses Moses in another interesting way, as a vehicle through which to explore the black literary voice and the black experience of 1970s Britain after some twenty years of integration. Moses’ literary voice is ridiculed for its failure to follow conventional rules of grammar, the concept of a black voice which does not follow a white created norm does not yet exist, and Moses finds himself prone to fits of despair as he contemplates both his life as a writer and his life as a black man in a country which for all he has more respect than formerly still considers him a second class citizen.

The experience of that policeman coming and knocking at my door and asking all of them rarse questions had me depress. I don’t know if I can describe it properly, not being a man of words, but I had a kind of sad feeling that all black people was doomed to suffer, that we would never make any headway in Brit’n. As if it always have a snag, no matter how hard we struggle or try to stay out of trouble. After spending the best years of my life in the Mother Country it was a dismal conclusion to come to, making you feel that one and one make zero. It wasn’t so much depression as sheer terror really, to see your life falling to pieces like that.

What particularly strikes me in the above quote, is that of course a man of words is precisely what Moses does see himself as. Moses spends his days writing his memoirs, consider himself an unrecognised literary talent, an author. To say as he does here that he is not a man of words is to make a declaration of despair. It is a subtle note, and shows again how Selvon can bury tragedy within a sentence such that if you do not read closely you may never realise it is there.

Selvon then continues to mix anger, injustice, farce and comedy. Moses Ascending is full of jokes, ranging from lengthy set pieces with complex set-ups to one-liners which as here literally made me laugh out loud:

I try to get the double bed but the store say they can’t deliver before 1984, and my lease would expire before that.

I have rarely seen the problems of the Britain of the 1970s captured with such precision as Selvon manages in that one sentence.

Before I finish on this work, I wanted to return to my earlier charges of racism and sexism. Moses is a writer, working on his memoirs. His manuscript appears to be The Lonely Londoners, existing itself within the fiction, and Moses Ascending appears also to exist both as the fiction and as the work of Moses within the fiction. In reading Selvon we are reading Moses. This reopens questions of whether it is right to ascribe to Selvon the difficulties with depictions of women and Pakistanis referred to above, is Moses after all a reliable narrator? When women and Asians are objectified, is this Selvon objectifying or Moses? Is it intentional?

I think there is a genuine question there, but at the same time I think that if Selvon is attempting to reflect Moses’ own sexism and racism through the seemingly objective descriptions of female and Asian characters, he does not wholly succeed, I found these passages awkward and whatever Selvon’s intention may have been I think the result is problematic. As such, Moses Ascending is to me more a work of its time than was The Lonely Londoners, which I think was such a success as to wholly transcend the time of its creation. For all that, I am eager to read Moses Migrating, the third of the trilogy, and although I have reservations here that I did not have with the Lonely Londoners I also think this is a novel that manages to communicate anger and sadness both while remaining very funny and finding genuinely new things to say.

Moses Ascending


Filed under London, Selvon, Sam, Vernacular

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

I have had a great love for the Sahara

Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is a French author, best known for his 1942 children’s bestseller titled “The Little Prince”.

As well as The Little Prince however, Saint-Expupery also wrote a number of serious novels and a memoir based on his experiences as a pilot with a French operated North African air mail service. Wind, Sand and Stars is that memoir, and is one of the works I took with me on my recent holiday to Libya.

Memoir however is a tricky word in this case, really Wind, Sand and Stars (referred to just as Wind, going forward) is a work of humanist philosophy, of poetry and a meditation on what it is to be human and on our obligations one to the other. It is not a work of recollection intended simply to tell us what happened in a particular period of the writer’s life.

Wind was originally written in French, with the title Terre des Hommes. I read the William Rees translation in the Penguin Modern Classics edition. I am not familiar with the original French, but the English in this version is easy to read, skilfully applied and captures a real sense of poetry and vision. The Penguin edition also comes with an excellent introduction by Mr Rees, in which he explains details of Saint-Exupery’s life and other works and explains the differences between his translation and an earlier US translation published while Saint-Exupery was alive. Essentially, the Penguin edition is far closer to the French original, the US version was changed to meet assumed US tastes and so lost the tightness of the original prose (the Penguin edition is a concise 119 pages).

The Penguin translation also restores the original foreword, bizarrely omitted from the US edition, where Saint-Exupery explains the importance of a man testing himself against nature and the world so that he may better know himself, and going on to explain further his purpose in writing the book as follows:

In my mind’s eye I still have the image of my first night flight in Argentina. It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain.
Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Even the most unassuming of them, the flame of the poet, the teacher or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men…
We must surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape.

As the book progresses, Saint-Exupery tells tales of his colleagues in the night mail, heroes as he sees them, men who guide their planes through the night sky each time knowing it may be for the final time. The planes these men fly are unreliable, open cockpitted, prone to mechanical error. Navigational aids are few, it is not unusual for men not to return from a flight (and indeed Saint-Exupery later died while flying, which perhaps is how he would have wanted it).

Saint-Exupery speaks of Henri Guillamet, a friend and colleague to whom he dedicates the book and who on crashing in the High Andes endured extraordinary hardship in order to survive, spurred on not by thoughts of his own survival but by fear of the grief his death would cause his wife. Another colleague pioneers new routes, each time testing himself against the unknown and a very real risk of death. He talks of a French Sergeant in a desert outpost which never sees enemies, and to whom the arrival of a pilot is as the arrival of rain after a long drought. He speaks then, in large part, both of loneliness and of the heroism of those who continue despite it. Loneliness, for Saint-Exupery, is unavoidable – we are each locked in our own heads and he is unsympathetic to those who choose lives of bourgois comfort and avoid facing the realities of existence as he sees them.

What does it mean, Guillaumet, if your days and nights of service are passed in the checking of gauges, in balancing your craft by gyroscope, in sounding the breath of your engines, in urging on fifteen tons of metal withou your shoulders: The problems confronting you are ultimately the problems of all men, and you share the nobility of the mountain-dweller with whom you are on a direct and equal footing. Like a poet, you are a connoisseur of the first signs of dawn. From deep in the chasms of troubled nights, you have willed so often the coming of that pale flower, that gleam of light which rises from the dark lands of the east. Soemtiems that miraculous spring has unfrozen slowly before your very eyes, and healed you when you thought that you were dying.
Your use of a scientific instrument has not made a dry technician of you. It seems to me that those who are alarmed by too many of our technical advances are confusing ends and means. The man who struggles in the hope of material gain alone indeed harvests nothing worth living for. But the machine is not an end in itself; it is an implement. As the plough is an implement.

For Saint-Exupery then, technology does not diminish man, the world itself certainly does not. We are only diminished by ourselves. His is a romantic vision, it is a vision which owes something to the works of such French writers as Chateaubriand (who I recommend only from historical interest I’m afraid, though others love him), it is fundamentally a poetic and mystical vision, but refreshingly it is not an anti-scientific one.

Saint-Exupery talks a number of times of this self-diminution, most affectingly in a passage about two young girls he encounters while staying at a remote farmhouse, run down and with vipers nesting under the table. The reference to nineteen in the following passage is a reference to his own sisters’ habit in youth of grading male visitors out of twenty.

I am dreaming, today. All that is very far away. What has become of those two fairies? Married, probably. But will that have changed them? The passage from girlhood to womanhood is such a serious thing. What do they do in their new homes? What has happened to their relationship with wild grasses and with snakes? They were in touch with something universal. But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dreams of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who loves only trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery.

For Saint-Exupery then we are things of glory, reduced to the prosaic by circumstance and the mundane. For him, we do this to ourselves and to each other, his work is in large part an argument for the importance of humanity as a thing of value. We, as human beings, matter.

Where Wind excels then, it not just in its poetic and evocative language or in its deep love of the empty landscapes of the desert and the sky, but in its recognition of the importance of human life and of human consciousness. Wind is painfully aware that each of us is a world, inviolate and unvisitable, ultimately unknowable. There is no sense in this work of a beneficient providence, of the ability of the metaphysical to sustain us, instead all we have is each other and in this Saint-Exupery sees a moral imperative.

This is further illustrated by an episode where Saint-Exupery frees a slave (the Libyans of the time still kept such) who unlike most has not become reconciled to his lot. Saint-Exupery buys his contract, releases it and gifts the freed man with money to establish himself. When the man spends the money buying gifts for children he does not know, Saint-Exupery understands it is because he must reestablish himself as a man, as one to whom people can be grateful and have affection, in order to rid himself of the burden of his own consciousness of his slavery. A great compassion flows through these passages, again romanticised (the man may simply have been very foolish in how he used the money in reality, but this is a work of poetry, not realism) but affecting for all that. Saint-Exupery speaks too of how the slaves, when old and exhausted, are simply abandoned to lie down in the sand and die. Of one such dying old man, he says:

It was not his suffering that pained me. He hardly seemed to be suffering. But in the death of a man an unknown world is dying, and I wondered what images were sinking into oblivion with him. What Senegalese plantations, what white Moroccan towns were vanishing. I had no way of knowing whether within that black shape the last light was flickering on paltry concernsL the tea to be brewed, the animals to be taken to the well… whether a slave’s soul was fading into sleep or whether, revived by a tide of memories, mankind lay dying in all his glory. The hard bone of his skull was to my eyes like the old treasure chest. What coloured silks, what images of festivals, what obsolete and pointless vestiges had survived his shipwreck in the desert. I could not know. The chest lay there; it was fastened and it was heavy. I could not know which place in the world was disintegrating within that man through the immense sleep of his final days, disintegrating in that consciousness and in that flesh which little by little was reverting to root and darkness.

I found this a hugely powerful passage. Saint-Exupery here captures the sheer tragedy of any human death, of every human death. Each of us lost, no matter how humble we may be, is the loss of a world. Saint-Exupery sees some comfort in the works we leave behind us, children, contributions to society or to knowledge, the tragedy with the slave is by making him such his masters left him unable to leave behind that which would have given his life meaning and so with his death his world dies alongside him.

Only when we ecome aware of the part we play, even the most unobtrusive part, will we be happy. Only then will we live in peace and die in peace, for what gives meaning to life gives meaning to death.

The book progresses through a series of exploits, crashes, daring flights, encounters with the Libyans and Arabs. Its most gripping section however is a description of an incident where Saint-Exupery and his navigator crashed in the Sahara desert while off course. Without supplies, the two men struggled through the desert, experiencing hallucinations, terrible thirst, eventually blinding patches of light appearing in their vision as they neared death. Only a chance encounter with a bedouin saved them, and of this terrible ordeal Saint-Exupery again makes poetry.

I have had a great love for the Sahara. I have spent nights in rebel territory, and have woken in that vast golden expanse shaped by the wind like the swell of the sea. I have waited for rescue, sleeping under my wing, but it was not like this.

This section of the book has great power, it is a tale of survival in terrible circumstances, but not reduced to a macho boy’s own adventure as so many such tales are. Rather, things go wrong, men nearly die, and instead of marvelling at their stoicism we instead explore the thoughts of a man facing his own death. Saint-Exupery speaks again of the importance of life as a thing in itself, and of how life is worth living whether we believe ourselves to have thirty years left or just thirty hours. To be alive, for Saint-Exupery, is in part its own reward.

Were I to wish to criticise this work, I would note how romanticised it is, Guillaumet is hardly drawn as a full human being but rather as a heroic or even mythic figure, others are similarly images of nobility and sacrifice. But such a criticism rather misses the point, as I have said above, this is not a work of realism. It is not reportage. Rather, it is an argument that human life has value, even though it is fragile and easily lost.

At the close, Saint-Exupery speaks of his horror at how many of us are forced by circumstance or society to be less than human. He travels in a train with Polish workers and their families, all sleeping. The children are beautiful, unspoiled. The adults though have had the grace beaten from them through years of poverty and hard toil. Born human, they have had the fruits of their humanity denied to them, instead bought off with cheap entertainments and denied what Saint-Exupery would (perhaps idealistically) grant to all. I will give the final words to Saint-Exupery:

Too many men are left sleeping.



Filed under French, History, North Africa, Saint-Exupery, Antoine de