Archive for the ‘Jean Rhys’ Category

La Grosse Fifi

December 15, 2016

la-grosse-fifi

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.

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Voyage in the Dark

September 14, 2016

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If Julia in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie often feels the cold of London, Anna, in Voyage in the Dark, feels it colder:

“She’s always cold…She can’t help it. She was born in a hot place. She was born in the West Indies or somewhere, weren’t you, kid?”

Shortly after her friend, Maudie, comments, “I’ve never seen anybody shiver like you do.” It’s difficult not to feel that the coldness is more than physical, something fundamental, and that “the cold nights, the damned cold nights” represent the loneliness borne of her being out of place (transported from the Wests Indies to England after her father’s death) and having only a half-interested step-mother for support. (At one point she says, “I felt I was more alone than anybody had ever been in the world before.”)

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Her loneliness is alleviated, unsurprisingly (if you’ve read Rhys before) by a wealthy man, Walter, whom she meets one night in Southsea, renewing the acquaintance when she returns to London. As Maudie tells her:

“You go out with him if he asks you. These men have money; you can tell that in a minute, can’t you? Anybody can. Men who have money and men who haven’t are perfectly different.”

One is tempted here to echo Hemmingway’s response to Fitzgerald – the difference is they have more money – but Rhys’ world is one where passion may feature but love does not. This is largely because the emotions of her characters are revealed moment by moment, with no past or future, making idealism, or even consistency, unlikely. When Walter first kisses her she pushes him away, but “as soon as he let me go I stopped hating him.” She then waits for him to kiss her again:

“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.”

This is not only psychologically convincing, especially considering Anna’s youth (she is nineteen), but our moment to moment access to her thoughts and feelings also adds to the impression of a precarious existence, one in which planning for the future is foolish. The scene also further utilises the climate to suggest the coldness both of the relationship and society in general: “the pillow was as cold as ice”; “The fire was like a painted fire; no warmth came from it.”

Access to money, however, changes how Anna feels about herself:

“My voice sounded round and full instead of small and thin. ‘That’s because of the money,’ I thought.”

Maudie is unabashed in advising her to make the most of it:

“The thing with men is to get everything you can get out of them and not care a damn.”

Her relationship with Walter is based on the money he provides, and the unspoken understanding that it isn’t permanent:

“When it was sad was when you woke up at night and thought about being alone and that everybody says the man’s bound to get tired.”

Rhys’ protagonists have middle class origins and are used to a certain amount of material comfort but lack any means to procure it. Both Julia and Anna have suffered the loss of their father, and therefore their income. They have little hope of even moderately paid employment, nor do they have much of a welfare system to fall back on. Marriage seems the most obvious option for Anna (Julia is already married, but separated from her husband), but she (as it is suggested Julia once did) embarks on an affair that rules out marriage within her own class. (Of course, it might be argued that marriage to escape poverty is little different from Anna’s arrangement with Walter anyway).

Above all, Anna has little faith in her future, or her ability to make choices – in her interior life (the novel is in the first person) it is difficult to think of a decision she makes about her own life, or a decision which she understands as one she has made about her life. It is no surprise that her future is decided, in the novels final lines, by another:

“She’ll be alright…Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.”

Anna’s fate may seem dated, but her experience of narrowing choices and her sense of isolation is not. It is perhaps for this reason that Rhys’ work remains as vital as it ever was.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

September 11, 2016

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Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie opens with a description of one of the many “cheap hotel” rooms that her down-at-heel heroines inhabit. It is here, in Paris, Julia has retreated “after she had parted from Mr Mackenzie” six months before to live (according to her landlady) “the life of a dog”. Later, in London, her sister Norah will cast her eyes around her accommodation there and say, “This really is an awful place. Why on earth do you come to a place like this?” The city may have changed, but circumstances remain the same. “You ought to get away for a change,” she is advised, but by that point we realise that change is no longer possible.

Julia leaves Paris when the money Mr Mackenzie has been sending her dries up. A final cheque moves her to confront him, her rejection of the money and the blow she lands (“She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink”) suggest his first impression of her is correct:

“…she wasn’t the hard-bitten sort…Afraid of life. Had to screw herself up to all the time.”

An observer of this scene, George Horsfield, takes pity on her:

“Hang it all, one can’t leave this unfortunate creature alone to go and drink herself dotty”

Horsfield convinces her to return to London, where she tours her nearest relatives hoping they might offer her some help. They disapprove of Julia’s life however – she is, for example, married but has lost track of her husband in Europe. Norah can only offer her a place by her dying mother’s bedside; her Uncle Griffiths a pound towards her return fair to France. The problem, as always, is money, as Horsfield had swiftly realised:

“He felt that he could imagine what her mother and her sister were like. No money. No bloody money…They would be members of the vast crowd which bears on its back the label ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave…”

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Refused by her family, Julia writes to her first lover who agrees to meet her and later sends her money. Horsfield also helps out. If there are strings attached, Julia is also culpable of attaching them, begging Horsfield not to leave her alone one night:

“He thought: ‘I knew she’d do this.’”

Julia’s life is one of seedy rooms and temporary men. Whereas when her first affair ended she remembers, “You felt as if your back was broken, as if you’d never move again,” she now boasts to Horsfield:

“I can always get somebody, you see. I’ve known that ever since I’ve known anything.”

If Julia is bitter it is not at her choices but at her lack of luck:

“I had a shot at the life I wanted. And I failed… All right! I might have succeeded, and if I had people would have licked my boots for me.”

Later she says to her sister, “All you people who’ve knuckled under – you’re jealous.” Rhys exposes the lottery of life; Julia at least has rolled the dice. Even her wealthy first lover, Mr James, admits:

“I despised a man who didn’t get on. I didn’t believe much in bad luck. But after the war I felt differently.”

There are no happy woman in this novel. Norah, who “knuckled under”, has spent years caring for her sick mother, “brought up to certain tastes, then left without the money to gratify them”, her mother bedridden and dying, with her “bloodshot, animal eyes” suggests what lies ahead. Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost.

The only joy comes for Rhys’ masterful prose. When Horsfield first watches Julia, feeling “detached and ironical,” Rhys is both mocking him while at the same time underlining the novel’s’ tone. Even her still lifes, the rooms Julia flits through, are imbued with a bitter wit, from Uncle Griffiths’ parlour, “a large, lofty room, crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs” to that first room:

“But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa for the act.”

In scenes like these Julia plays her part, the idea and the act, each “disconnected episode to be placed with all the other disconnected episodes which made up her life.”