Having encountered Jean Rhys for the first time in October, reading Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for Jean Rhys Week, I was very much looking forward to La Grosse Fifi (which features four stories from The Left Bank) in anticipation of her Collected Stories being published next year.
The subject matter is unsurprising: another down-at-heel heroine, Roseau, eking out a continental existence in an unappealing hotel (“Doesn’t it look awful?”). Her stay shapes the story, her initial inertia –
“I’m going to leave. It’s just been sheer laziness to make the move and my room is rather charming.”
– giving way to action in its final lines as we leave her packing. It is as a fellow guest she encounters the Fifi of the title, a large middle-aged French woman spotted in the dining room with her much younger lover. (Though Rhys is often regarded as bleak, we see her humour in the description of Fifi’s well corseted figure, “her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest.”) Roseau’s English friends, Mark and Peggy, find her ridiculous, an attitude Roseau immediately disapproves of:
“For some inexplicable reason she disliked these jeers at Fifi, resented them even more than she resented most jeers.”
When Roseau finds herself in despair one night (a mood which begins with the classic Rhysian line, “Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think”) it is Fifi who comes to comfort her. At the heart of the story is Roseau’s view of Fifi which is never made explicit. Does she see a fearful presentiment of her own future? Or does she adore Fifi’s ability to find joy in life and live with the consequences? (When her gigolo leaves her we are told “head up, she faced a hostile and sneering world.”)
Certainly ageing seems to be a preoccupation in all these stories. In ‘Vienne’, a much longer, more impressionistic story, the tone is set from the opening lines:
“Funny how it’s slipped away, Vienna. Nothing left but a few snapshots.”
In ‘Tea with an Artist’ the revelation comes at the end, as the narrator suddenly sees something of her youth in the elderly wife of the artist:
“And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with her big hand. There was in that movement knowledge, and a certain sureness: as it were the ghost of a time when her business in life had been the consoling of men.”
In the final story, ‘Mixing Cocktails’, there is instead a sense of foreshadowing as the young narrator talks on her “nightly duty” of mixing cocktails – “Here, then, is something I can do…”
Each, then, is wonderful in its own way, but ‘La Grosse Fifi’ is, I think, a masterpiece.