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After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

My choice for the 1930s club is After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys. Published in 1930, it was her second novel, and is set in sad rooms in Paris and Bloomsbury in London. Julia is a young woman who has no independent means of support. 

The 1930s Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. You read a book from the year and post your thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to pick a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but reread books and read published books, especially from the 20th century. 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

Janet finds herself in a sad room in a down at heel hotel in Paris after she has split up from Mr Mackenzie. It is clear that she has been financially dependent upon the men she slept with, but Mr Mackenzie’s solicitor has cut off her weekly allowance.

What is she to do? Increasingly desperate she finds Mr Mackenzie in a restaurant and challenges him. Later she is pursued by Mr Horsfield who takes pity on her but cannot manage her. She returns to London, where her sister Norah is behaving properly but is no more successful than her. Their mother dies and Janet gets nothing. She returns to Paris and continues to sink. In the last scene she once again receives money from Mr Mackenzie.

It’s a novel about managing life, or rather about the mistaken idea that life can be controlled. Propped up by convention the men believe they do control it, but it is clear that Julia challenges this notion.

Is this autobiography?

The young Jean Rhys

‘How this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery,’ said her editor, Diana Athill.

And indeed it might appear that this novel is autobiographical. Other sources suggest that while Jean Rhys drew from her experiences, there is a crucial difference: 

‘A novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any.’ 

This quotation from the author can be found in Diana Athill’s introduction to Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979).

Much of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie concerns people trying to control their lives. Janet is poor at it, and moves from one gentleman to another, borrowing money and asking favours. She appears to be managing very badly. The men in her life, and her sister, are not doing much better. The men draw on conventions to try to appear in control. But Mr Mackenzie is at a loss when Julia appears in the restaurant in which he is dining. She complains that his lawyer has said there will be no more cheques. 

Mr Mackenzie thought, ‘Never again – never, never again – will I get mixed up with this sort of woman.’

His collar felt too tight for him. He thrust his chin out in an instinctive effort to relieve the constriction. The movement was exactly like that of a horse shying. (25) 

Mr Mackenzie vacillates between horror of what she might do and attempts to humiliate her. After a moment, this happens.

A cunning expression came into Julia’s face. She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink.

‘I despise you,’ she said.

‘Quite,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He sat very straight, staring at her.

Her eyes did not drop, but a mournful and beaten expression came into them.

‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘all right. Have it your own way.’

Then, to Mr Mackenzie’s unutterable relief, she gathered up her gloves and walked out of the restaurant. (26)

Jean Rhys, while she suffered from men’s behaviour towards her, did not resent them. Indeed she claimed in a radio interview that writing about such incidents, while autobiographical, was also therapeutic. It purged her unhappiness. Once something had been written out, she said, it was done with. (Quoted by Diana Athill in Smile Please).

Jean Rhys was innovative in this novel, for example she uses multiple points of view to show her protagonist’s situation. We are taken into the heads of the people she meets, or reports on, and by this means we are shown how Janet is a challenge to people. She has not left Mr Mackenzie at the start of the novel, although she does leave him at the end. He is still as self-satisfied as at the start, and while he may not want to be ensnared by another woman like Julia, we know that he will go on exploiting women.

Julia, in short, is like that person on the street whose eye you do not want to catch. She makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet you pity her for not managing her life. But in truth all lives are, to some degree, unmanageable. We are all just a small step away from chaos or disaster or poverty. 

No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was her second] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was. [Diana Athill in Stet.] 

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys, was first published in 1930. I used the  Penguin Modern Classic edition (2000) with an introduction by Lorna Sage. 138pp

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys was reviewed on Bookword in July 2013.

The Romantic Life of the writer Jean Rhys was published in September 2016, in which I suggested that it is amazing that Jean Rhys wrote so well in the light of her considerable difficulties.

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The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I failed. I got to page 93 out of 185 and I stopped reading. I have tried. For several weeks I have picked up this book and read the first chapter. Then put it down and later tried again. Now at the half-way point, ten chapters out of 20 have been read, but I can’t go on. I’ve weighed up the time it was taking to read this novel against what I felt I got out of it. I’ve decided to move on to other books.

The title of this post should really read: The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

The Quest for Christa T

Christa T is not an especially remarkable woman. Like the narrator, she grew up in eastern Germany during the war, and like many in that area, fled before the advancing Red Army. Living in East Germany (the DDR), as normality is resumed, the girls meet again in university and form a loose friendship. The narrator reconstructs Christa T’s life from the documents she left when she died young of Leukaemia.

Part of the novel seems to be about the impossibility of recreating anyone’s life, fictional or real. She opens the novel with doubts about memories.

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T.- that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive color on things.

But must we give her up for lost? (1)

It’s this kind of elliptical yet lyrical prose that made reading it so hard. And the novel continues by exploring witness evidence, documents, and conjecturing what happened in the gaps. There is very little narrative, more a series of events alongside the narrator’s suggestions of what might have been happening in Christa T’s mind and explanations of her responses.

What are we to make of the author’s name being shared with the main character? Why has Christa Wolf embarked on this search, the quest for her namesake, at all? I guess I’ll never know because I am moving on to other reading.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf lived 1929 to 2011, mostly former East Germany. The area in which she was born is now in Poland, and when her family fled the advancing Red Army at the end of the war they ended up inside the Russian Zone.

She worked as a literary critic and journal editor and although critical of the DDR leadership during the Cold War period she remained a socialist. She won many awards for her writing. From reading her obituaries and about The Quest for Christa T it seems that Christa Wolf was interested in individuals who make their own way rather than following the crowd. This had obvious implications for the East German state. Her book was not banned when it appeared in 1968, but only a limited number of copies were printed.

A Novel in translation

Well, I am sorry for my failure to get beyond half way. The Quest for Christa T was my October choice for the Women in Translation project. I chose it because it appeared in several lists of recommended reads for #WIT and others had responded positively. For example, on Heavenali’s blog and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I plan to read another, but more recent, text by a German writer: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2017) in November.

I would like to hear from people who got further with Christa T than I did, and who got more out of it.

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf, first published in English in 1970 by Hutchinson & Co. The translation from the German is by Christopher Middleton. I read a library copy from Exeter Library stacks. Virago also published a version.

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