Tag Archives: Jean Rhys

Greetings, Novel Reader

Greetings fellow novel readers. As I will be away in Poland when this post appears I have decided to bring together a small number of books with a simple link. They all have a salutation or greeting in their titles. These titles step outside the norm for novels. Perhaps the authors wanted to make a direct engagement with their reader. But don’t take the connection between these five novels too seriously. It’s my way of presenting some recommendations.

  1. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Sophie Jansen is in Paris in the late ‘30s, having a break from her awful life. She is an exiled Englishwoman alone, out of place in London, and on the way to being out of place in respectable Paris. She has a very small amount of money. The story follows her as she struggles to survive and as she recalls her past when she was a young wife and previous times when she has been in Paris.

Told by Sophie in headlong first person narrative, shifting swiftly between the periods of her life she makes one first realise how often one averts one’s eyes from such people and then how close one’s own life could be to that desperation that makes her declare she is an inefficient human being, unemployable, unreliable and unable to hold herself steady in the world. Sophie has gradually crossed the line to become a woman without even her sex to sell.

Some of the writing is surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful. AL Kennedy describes ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. I reviewed this novel on Bookword here.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939) Penguin.

  1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

This novel is set in the 1950s during the summer on the Cote d’Azure. Cecile has been living for 2 years with her widower father Raymond in Paris, leading life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They spend two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Then Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Elsa moves on and Cecile becomes determined to come between her father and Anne because they plan to marry.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity and gradually the balance tips in her favour and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, soon they pick up their old lives. This novel was reviewed recently on this blog, and many readers commented on their affection for it. You can read it here.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. Translated from the French by Irene Ash.

  1. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The narrator is an old man exploring what he might have done differently in his life, in particular in relation to a friendship during his school days.

The narrator’s mother died when he was a young child and he is agonised by the loss. His father never engages him about what it means. A kind stepmother is acquired after the necessary 3 years. At school he is bullied and continues to suffer. Playing on the building site of his new house, he meets Cletus Smith, whose parents have separated, and whose mother’s lover has been shot by his father. The boys do not reveal their private agonies to each other. And then Cletus disappears. A couple of years later, when the narrator has moved to a high school in Chicago, he and Cletus pass in the corridor, but neither boy acknowledges the other. The narrator wonders what if …?

Recommended by Heavenali on her blog, which you can find here.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) Vintage.

  1. My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This novel is an elaborate murder mystery, a historical fiction, a love story and an exploration of the cross-cultural influences of the late 16th century between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It’s like a very richly coloured and embroidered cloth.

A gilder is murdered, and the trail of enquiry involves the elaborate exploration of the workshops, religious outcasts, female roles and the Sultan’s treasury in 1590s Istanbul. The narrative is passed from one person to another, to a colour, to Satan, to at least two people as they die. The richness of the text is its main attraction: in the end the identity of the murderer is not so significant as his reasons for the killing.

My name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (2001) Faber & Faber. Translated from the Turkish by Erdağ Göknar.

  1. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016

Lucy is remembering being ill in New York with complications after appendicitis, missing her husband and young girls, looking at the Chrysler building through her window. Her mother, not seen for ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and the relationship of the two is revealed by their conversation and by the gaps in it we see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, especially with her parents, in poverty (cultural as well as financial), and with the city of New York.

My appreciation of this novel appeared on Bookword last year; you can read it here.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin.

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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The Romantic life of the writer Jean Rhys?

It’s such a romantic story. A novelist forgotten, rediscovered and a career reanimated and crowned with the publication of a masterpiece. Jean Rhys’s story is one of suffering, depression and penury. Proof perhaps that creativity arises from suffering.

Except, Jean Rhys’s story teaches us quite the opposite. Her suffering inhibited her creativity. This is my contribution to #ReadingRhys week from 12th-18th September.

282 #RRhys

Seeking information on ‘the late Jean Rhys’

Born in 1890 on the island of Dominica, Jean Rhys came to Europe at the age of 16, spending time in Paris and London. She led the life of a demi-mondaine, as a rich man’s mistress, a model and volunteering in a soldiers’ canteen during the First World War. After the war Ford Maddox Ford encouraged her writing and even established a temporary maison a trois to supervise.

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

She wrote many short stories and three successful novels before the Second World War.

  • 1927 Left Bank and other stories
  • 1928 Postures/Quartet
  • 1930 After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • 1934 Voyage in the Dark
  • 1939 Good Morning, Midnight [the link is to my review]

And then, as far as readers were concerned, she disappeared. I expect most people, if they thought about her at all, assumed she was dead.

What kept her from writing?

Several factors combined to work against her.

War: in England during the war she worried about the lack of news of her former husband and their daughter Maryvonne. They were both safe, but she was not able to receive news of them from Holland. The stories she did write were unsuccessful and not published. She and her second husband could not settle and moved out of London.

282 Rhys at window

Poverty: Jean Rhys seems to have had no money at any time in her life. And when her husband, Leslie, died in the late ‘40s and she married Max Hamar nothing improved. And then it got worse because Max was imprisoned for fraud. Don’t imagine romantic attics, rather see her living on the edge in almost uninhabitable bungalows in Devon.

Ineptness: ‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. Jean was quite unable to deal with the practicalities of life. When she arrived from Domenica she had no experience of trains or hot water. Later, in a drunken state she agreed to a contract that gave away far too many rights to any adaptations of her work.

Drink and depression: her inability to cope with practical matters was compounded by her paranoia, depression and tendency to drink. She ate too little and drank too much.

Bad luck seems to follow hopeless people, perhaps explaining the idea that people creating their own luck.

Rediscovery

Jean Rhys was finally rediscovered in the ‘50s through an advertisement from the BBC asking for information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. They planned to broadcast an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight.

Francis Wyndham was an admirer and an editor with Andre Deutsch and heard about her rediscovery. He helped her get some stories published, and sent her some money. Diana Athill, also an editor for Andre Deutsch, learned that she had nearly completed a new book. That was in 1957.

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Jean Rhys (in hat) with Mollie Stoner, 1970s via wikicommons

Wide Sargasso Sea was not completed for another seven years, until 1964. Her editors provided all kinds of help, but this was difficult to do when she always put a brave face on her difficulties. And at the moment when the manuscript was to be handed over to the publisher, with a few lines left to dictate to the typist, Jean Rhys had a heart attack. She had made Diana Athill promise not to publish without this final amendment. For a while her survival was in doubt, and there was a real risk that we might never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea. She did not complete the novel for another two years.

The struggles were not over even when she recovered, although alleviated. But she did complete a memoir called Smile Please.

What we learn

This is not a story of a troubled romantic artist, her troubles somehow enriching the creativity. Jean Rhys’s story reveals that talent is easily negated by poverty, drink and depression. There were times when she felt her brain was empty, like an automatic dispenser she had see on a tube station: This machine is EMPTY till further notice.

Creativity requires encouragement, money, good health, freedom from anxiety and time to write a novel.

Acknowledgements

Two sources were essential for this post:

Jean Rhys (Lives of Modern Women) by Carole Angier, Penguin Books 1985

282 Stet cover
Stet: an editor’s life
by Diana Athill, Granta Books 2000

This post is part of the blog reading week called #ReadingRhys co-hosted on the blogs of Jacquiwine and Solitary Reader

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Most Popular Posts on Bookword

I’ve been walking in France. So only one new post and now I refer you to some of the most popular posts on the Bookword Blog to date. Please comment and let me know what you think.

I am thrilled by the success of the older women in fiction category. About 50 novels have been suggested so far. And I initiated the list because I thought there was a shortage of older women in fiction! Two novels are included in the list below. You can visit more of the twelve reviews in this series. Click on the category to find all the posts.

Book Reviews

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This review has never been out of the 15 most read of my posts. It’s a charming but distressing account of an older woman who on being widowed moves to live in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, London. Published in 1971, it still has things to tell us about ageing today, not least the challenge of loneliness. I wrote about what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey in a more recent post, which you can find here.
  2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I reviewed this soon after I launched the blog, and in the last 6 months it has become very popular (something to do with search engines?) and is currently the single most popular post on my blog. Elizabeth Bowen was a wonderful writer, and in this novel she explored Ireland in 1920 and the ways in which people communicate and don’t. The title refers to the impending troubles in Ireland of the 1920s. I have also reviewed her war-time novel (one of her best) The Heat of the Day, chillingly observant about people and why they behave as they do.25 Stone Angel
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Also in the series on older women in fiction, this is the story of Hagar Shipley, who is furious at her growing dependence as she ages, and at the ways in which she is treated by her son and by the medical staff who care for her. She is not going quietly into that good night. Margaret Laurence was a Canadian writer.
  4. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys was not afraid to look into the darker aspects of life, in this case a woman who has very few resources, except her body, living in the demi-monde of Paris. It is bleak, amusing, insightful and leaves a sense of unease, especially in view of the author’s own later life.

    The young Jean Rhys

    The young Jean Rhys

Connected to Books

  1. Decluttering my books. Who would have guessed that the trying question of managing books would be so popular? And so riven with emotion. What to remove and the manner of the disposal. I was preparing to move house at the time I wrote this post, but it seemed to strike a chord with people who buy books. Book buyers always need more room.
  2. How do you organise your books? Another popular post about book management. This one also surprised me because so many people showed an interest in how books are arranged in their homes: alphabetically, by genre, by colour, by size …?

83 WPFF bookpile

Others

A word rant, rather against my better judgement I made some criticisms of word use, as I like to play up the positive and not use the blog to vent spleen. But people had two reactions: they read it, and if they knew me they declared a fear of offending me with their use of language.

And our tribute to our editors, on the publication of our book also received lots of attention.101 RWA cover

I hope you find something to enjoy in this round-up of popular posts from the blog.

 

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The Craft of Blogging – (7) Finding Readers

Is anyone out there? Is anyone reading my blog? I sometimes wondered, especially when I started, but even after nearly two years I check my blog readership most days. One reason to blog, for me, is because it is a kind of ‘citizen publishing’. So there’s no point unless I find readers.

138 google logoThanks to Google Analytics I know quite a bit about how many people read my blog each day, what they are reading and whether they are new readers or returners. I know that if I write about books, the physical objects, I get many comments. Acquiring books, arranging books, decluttering books, art made from books and books for prisoners – these have always provoked responses. My most recent post on this theme is Abandoning Books, which is still attracting interest.

Last SeptemberAnd I also know, thanks to Google Analytics, that some of my book reviews are ‘stayers’, that is that they are read steadily – every week they appear in my top 10 most-read posts. Occasionally another review will join the standards: recently my comments on The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen became even more popular than the evergreen review of Mrs Palfrey in the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Other reviews rise and then fall away again, like Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

mrspalfrey greenThis feedback is very helpful to me to understand the blog’s readership. The statistics are useful, especially as I am not interested in simply maximising the number of readers, for this is not a commercial blog. Rather I want to know which posts are being read.

Getting readers

Here are six things I have learned about building readership in two years of blogging.

  1. Quality matters

138 Oblique bookshelfThe advice from successful bloggers is to post quality items at regular intervals. One reason I am a slow blogger is that I want to be sure of the quality of my writing, after all writing is the subject of my blog. Not only do the books I write about deserve good attention but so do the readers of the blog. Sloppy writing on a post can easily put readers off. I have not returned to blogs where I have suffered this.

And good quality posts include interesting pictures and links.

  1. Post at regular intervals

Regular intervals? Well, I am not sure about this. Do they mean frequent? I’ve said I am a slow blogger. I vary posts irregularly between five and six days. I don’t have any evidence that the variation affects my readership. Some people say that there are good days for posting. Certainly I know that the day fewest readers visit my blog is Saturday. But I doubt whether the day of posting makes much difference to bibliophiles.

  1. Have a subscription button

138 subscribeI encourage readers to subscribe at the end of every post. [Have you signed up?] This means that a steady group of people receive notifications of new posts.

  1. Use twitter to promote the blog

I follow and am followed by many more people on twitter than on my blog. Many of them declare bookish interests. I use hashtags to promote blog-related tweets including about my posts and often they pass them on … hooray for social media. The bookish ones I use are described by blogger Paula Read Nancarrow. I also use #readwomen2014 because I like to promote women writers. I blogged about that here.

  1. Use other connections

When I started blogging two years ago I sent all my friends the link via email. I now have an http link in my e-mail ‘signature’ which I rarely remove. Sometimes I send a friend a link to a post I think will interest them. And I do the same with my reading and writing groups. I try to comment frequently on other blogs. After all I can’t expect comments on my blog from readers unless I do.

  1. Other suggestions – websites, wider social media eg Facebook,

You will read advice to get yourself listed on bookish websites that list blogs, and to use other social media (especially Facebook). I am sure these can be useful. Anyway, I think they may be beyond my current technical capacity!

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Bloggers with large followings: what have you done to promote your blog? What advice do you have to give bloggers who want to reach more readers? What am I missing?

 

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#readwomen2014

You will understand my title even if you don’t know what a hashtag is (a twitter thing) or have never heard that 2014 is the year of reading women. It started when Joanna Walsh, writer and illustrator, decided to call 2014 ‘the year of reading women’ and sent Christmas cards listing 250 names to encourage recipients if not to read women exclusively at least to look up some of the named writers. From this #readwomen2014 grew. She wrote on the Guardian blog about it: Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?

100 BookshelfI’m not one of those who have decided to only read women writers, but I do want to do my bit to encourage people to read women, especially in the face of fewer women getting published, fewer women’s books being reviewed, and fewer women reviewers. (See the VIDA statistics for the record of different publications, aka the hall of shame). And there are days at a certain literary festival where there are no women featured at all. We need #readwomen2014.

Some reviewers, prompted by #readwomen2014 decided to read, and therefore review, only books by women in 2014. An American journal, Critical Flame, decided to go one step further and dedicate 2014 to women writers and writers of colour. This kind of action challenges the idea that white males set the standard and are the default position for how the world is to be seen in fiction: through the male consciousness. It encourages diversity.

It’s an attractive idea – expanding reading horizons. You could look at the gender balance of your recent reading*. Or of the books on your shelves. Or of the books in your local library. You could ask yourself how any imbalance has come about? How much is it to do with how you find out about books?

Last week I heard about a newly established mixed reading group, who picked their books for the first year, and not one of them was by a woman. And no one present had noticed.

83 BWPFF logo biggerSo in the spirit of #readwomen2014, and because this is my 100th blogpost, and because the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 will be announced this week, I am using my blog to wholeheartedly recommend reading more fiction by women (and, yes, to split an infinitive or two!). So here’s some suggestions from Bookword blog, with links to the posts.

Everything on my older women in fiction theme is by women. You can find these by clicking on the category link on the right. My review of Margaret Laurence The Stone Angel has been consistently one of my most read posts for over a year.

Elizabeth Taylor – novels and short stories (link to reviews by clicking on the category link).E.Taylor 1

Elizabeth Bowen – In the Heat of the Day.

Claire Cameron – The Bear (longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize).

Ruth Ozeki – Tale for the Time Being.

Jean Rhys – Good Morning, Midnight.

Ann Tyler – almost anything by her, and I reviewed The Accidental Tourist.

Carolyn Heilbrun – Writing a Woman’s Life for some non-fiction.

musselfeast_web_0_220_330Foreign fiction by women should not be ignored either. Try The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch. It has just been given a special mention at this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

And Tove Jansson – The Summer Book.

*I checked my reading record over 12 months and it is 70/30 in favour of women. Perhaps I need to read more male writers.

 

More about #readwomen2014 in Guardian article by Alison Flood.

And for an excoriating post about the label ‘women’s fiction’ see Joanne Harris’s blog Capitalize This.

 

So: will your next book be written by a woman? Tell us one of your recommended reads by a woman.

 

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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:

All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)

We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.

The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared.  Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.

Good M Mid

Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.

 ‘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-basin 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.

In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.

41 young j Rhys

Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …

She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.

Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.

Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’

I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.

41 jean-rhys

Further Reading:

Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)

Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)

 

REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.

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