Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien:

 

Novella a Day in May 2020 #20

Lie With Me – Philippe Besson (2017, trans. Molly Ringwald 2019) 148 pages

(For those of you who have noted the translator’s name – yes, that Molly Ringwald!)

Lie With Me tells the story of a closeted gay love affair between two teenage boys living in small town called Barbezieux, in southern France. The narrator is looking back on his relationship with a slightly older boy called Thomas Andrieu (the novella is dedicated to a man of the same name, but Lie With Me is presented as fiction):

“I recently returned to this place of my childhood, this village that I hadn’t set foot in for years. I went back with S. so that he would know. The grid was still there with the ancient wisteria, but the lime trees had been cut down, and the school closed a long time ago.

[…]

‘It must have taken great determination to have lifted yourself out.’

He didn’t say ‘ambition’ or ‘courage’ or ‘hate’. I told him: ‘It was my father who wanted it for me. I would have stayed in this childhood, in this cocoon.’”

The narrator knows he is different to his schoolfriends, and he knows why. It isn’t because his father is the schoolteacher, or because he is physically awkward, although these things don’t help. It is because he is gay:

“In this one regard, I would stop being the model child. I wouldn’t follow the pack. Out of instinct, I despised packs. That has never changed.”

Thomas is older than him, a mysterious and much cooler boy who both fits in and holds himself aloof:

“He also likes his solitude. It’s obvious. He speaks little, smokes alone. He has this attitude, his back up against the wall, looking up toward the sun or down at his sneakers, this manner of not quite being there in the world.”

The narrator is interested in Thomas but he seems entirely unobtainable. It is Thomas who makes the first move:

“I feel this desire swarming in my belly and running up my spine. But I have to constantly contain and compress it so that it doesn’t betray me in front of others. Because I’ve already understood that desire is visible.

Momentum too, I feel it. I sense a movement, a trajectory, something that will bring me to him.”

Lie With Me follows their relationship from beginning to end. There is an elegiac quality from the older, now successful writer – openly gay, well-travelled and living a cosmopolitan urbane life – looking back, but there is no sentimentality.

Instead, there is a pervading sadness, even following the first time they sleep together:

“I should be able to stay in this state of ecstasy, Or astonishment. Or let myself be overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of it all. But the feeling that prevails the moment he disappears is that of being abandoned. Perhaps because it is already a familiar feeling.”

In this Guardian article, Tessa Hadley felt Lie With Me suffered from not enough focus on Thomas. The characterisation of the lover is thin, but personally I felt this worked. The first throes of romantic love, especially teen romantic love, can be very much wrapped up in how exhilarating it is for the individual. The narrator is waking up to the possibilities of life, the possibilities of gay life, far away from his childhood town and its constraints, and I felt his self-focus worked well.

Lie With Me is a coming of age tale, with the narrator realising not only who he is as a gay man, but of all that he could be, reflected in his lover’s eyes:

“In the end, love was only possible because he saw me not as who I was, but as the person I would become.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #17

Those Without Shadows – Françoise Sagan (1957, trans. Irene Ash 1957)

I really wanted to include something by Françoise Sagan in NADIM this year, as I recently saw a repeat of Clive James’ Postcard From Paris on BBC4 which included a lovely interlude driving round the streets of the city with Ms Sagan. Why anyone would get into a car with her when she had the reputation for driving the way she did is beyond me, but I’m glad he did as it was very entertaining to watch from afar. I can’t get the clip but the whole episode is available on YouTube, and you can see the Sagan section from 2:35-6:36:

When I posted about The Suicide Shop I mentioned that other readers seemed to like it more than I did. I’ve had the opposite experience with Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an). A quick search tells me this is not a popular read! Admittedly its not Bonjour Tristesse, but then so few books are 😉

Those Without Shadows was written four years after her classic work, when Sagan was still only 22. It follows a group of entirely vacuous Parisians as they live their lives without any purpose. I didn’t find it nihilistic though, I felt Sagan was treating her characters with amused affection.

The novel opens with Bernard ringing his lover Josée in the early hours of the morning, where her phone is answered by an unknown male voice:

“Now he was going home to find his bad novel lying in disorder on his desk, and his wife in bed asleep.”

His poor wife Nicole adores him, who knows why?

“After three years she loved him more every day, and this, he felt, was almost repulsive, for she no longer attracted him. He liked to remember the picture of himself when they had been in love, the decision he had shown in marrying her, for since that time he had never been able to make any decision at all.”

I thought that was so incisive, and so brutal. Bernard’s love for his wife (or lack thereof) is all about himself. He is repulsed by her because she no longer reflects the vision of himself he wants to see. The clarity of this dynamic is so believable and destructive.

This is echoed in Josée’s new relationship with a medical student, Jacques.

“It is really quite amusing. It’s not even a question of physical attraction. I don’t know if it is the reflection of myself in him that I like, or the absence of that reflection, or just him himself. But he is not interesting, he is probably not even cruel. He just exists”

Bernard and Josée are part of a group who congregate at the Maligrasse’s parties. Alain and Fanny Maligrasse like to surround themselves with younger people. Alain is “badly paid, cultured, and very fond of his wife. How had it happened that their joke about Béatrice had become the enormous weight he had to lift every morning as he got up?”

Béatrice was the character I liked least. Generally the people who inhabit this world are self-focussed but not deliberately cruel (Bernard tries to be kind to Nicole but generally fails through his own self-regard). Béatrice, desperate to be a successful actress, is happy to attract men to her as a distraction but really cares nothing for how hurt they get when she inevitably discards them.

Sagan doesn’t cut her characters any slack, but she does it through the judgements they place on themselves, which makes it more readable than if an authorial voice was constantly reminding us how dreadful they all are:

“He re-read it dispassionately and realised how bad it was; worse than bad, not merely tedious but intensely tedious. He wrote in the same way people cut their nails, attentively and absent-mindedly.”

I love that banal domestic detail of nails, next to ambitions for high art. While I can understand why people would not enjoy this novella, it was this sort of wry humour that meant I quite enjoyed it.

There are some decent people amongst the crowd too: Josée’s lover Jacques, Édouard who is provincial and naive and in love with Béatrice, and Jolyet, a theatre producer who is old enough to see himself clearly:

“as always when his own mediocrity was brought home to him, he felt a fierce sort of pleasure.”

So, definitely not one for when you need characters to root for, but as a quick, insightful portrait of pretentious and self-obsessed young things, I found it pretty enjoyable.

My post earlier this month on Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark led to a discussion on the questionable decisions made by Penguin’s art department in the late 1970s/early 80s. My copy of Those Without Shadows is another prime example:

“It was a symbolic awakening, but Édouard did not realise it. He did not know that his passion for Béatrice would henceforth be reduced to the contemplation of her back, We invent our own omens which seem bad when things are going against us. Édouard was not like Josèe who, waking at the same moment, looked at her lover’s smooth, hard back in the dawn, and smiled before going off to sleep again. But Josèe was a great deal older than Édouard.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #11

The Suicide Shop – Jean Teule (2007, trans. Sue Dyson 2008) 169 pages

It’s a funny one this. I only post about books I recommend and I do recommend this quirky, gothic, post-apocalyptic tale, but something stopped me loving it as much as some of Gallic Books other offerings.

The titular shop is run by the Tuvache family, who for generations have offered people ways to end their lives. They are mournful in nature and bleak in outlook, apart from Alan, the youngest Tuvache who is bad for business.

“please PLEASE stop smiling! Do you want to drive away all our customers? Why do you have this mania for rolling your eyes round and wiggling your fingers either side of your ears? Do you think customers come here to see your smile?”

Poor Alan’s schoolwork is no better, failing to capture the environmental desolation that humans live with:

“A path leading to a house with a door and open windows, under a blue sky where a big sun shines! Now come on, why aren’t there any clouds or pollution in your landscape? […] Where’s the radiation? And the terrorist explosions? It’s totally unrealistic. You should come and see what Vincent and Marilyn were drawing at your age!”

Alan and his siblings are named after famous suicides: Turing, van Gogh and Monroe. Vincent refuses to eat and is planning a grisly theme park where people can die in various inventive ways, Marilyn is depressed and feels ugly and cumbersome. They are a perfect fit for their family; only Alan resolutely forges his own path, despite living in a shop where the carrier bags state: “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!”

There isn’t a plot so much in The Suicide Shop, rather we follow the family through the years as Alan proves an irresistible sunny force, exerting more influence over his family than they initially realise. Their bafflement with Alan reminded me of The Addams Family, (which I loved as a child), completely at a loss as to what to do with someone who doesn’t share their world view.

“We force him to watch the TV news to try and demoralise him”

As you’d expect, the humour in The Suicide Shop is very dark. It sells rusty razor blades with a sign that says “even if you don’t make a deep enough cut, you’ll get tetanus” but overall it’s a gentle humour, like the woman who grows attached to the trapdoor spider she buys to end her life, names it Denise and starts knitting it booties.

Looking on goodreads, there’s plenty of people who adored this story and I’m not entirely sure why I’m not one of them.  But I still found The Suicide Shop a quick, diverting read with some entertaining touches.

“Life is the way it is. It’s worth what it’s worth! It does it’s best, within limitations. We mustn’t ask too much of life either. It’s best to look on the bright side.”

The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film in 2012, directed by Patrick Leconte. Here’s the English language trailer:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #9

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (2014, trans. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken 2015) 159 pages

The Red Notebook walks a very thin line and I suspect for some readers it will have crossed that line, from whimsical romance at a distance, to creepy stalker tale. Looking at goodreads most seem to have gone for the former, and that’s how I read it too, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the latter view.

Anyway, I’ll put my psychological reservations to one side and let you know about a charming novella that conjures Paris beautifully, features a cameo from Patrick Modiano, and plays into that old romantic trope of lovers that are destined for one another.

Laure is a widow in her 40s who mugged for her mauve handbag and ends up in hospital in a coma. Bookseller Laurent – similar name, similar age to Laure – finds her bag after the mugger has dumped it having removed ID, purse and mobile phone. He tries to hand it in but police bureaucracy means he ends up holding on to it, trying to piece together the owner from its contents:

“a little fawn and violet leather bag containing make-up and accessories, including a large brush whose softness he tested against his cheek. A gold lighter, a black Montblanc ballpoint (perhaps the one used to jot down her thoughts in the notebook), a packet of licorice sweets…a small bottle of Evian, a hairclip with a blue flower on it, and a pair of red plastic dice.”

The titular notebook is part of the contents, and it is a diary which Laurent reads to try and find clues to who Laure is:

“I’m scared of red ants.

And of logging on to my bank account and clicking ‘current balance’.

I’m scared when the telephone rings first thing in the morning.

And of getting the Metro when its packed.

I’m scared of time passing.

I’m scared of electric fans, but I know why.”

Laurent has some success in piecing together Laure’s life, and in the process we learn about them both. Laurent has a teenage daughter who is brattish but loving, and a girlfriend to whom he’s not entirely committed. He likes his job and he’s interested in literature.

He’s also increasingly interested in Laure and a sequence of events lead to him collecting her dry cleaning and cat-sitting for her (!) It was at this point I thought things had gone too far, but then Laurain manages to tip the balance of power in a believable turn of events that meant the story kept me on side.

If you’re in the mood for some escapism across the channel and some gentle romance, then The Red Notebook could be just the ticket.

Novella a Day in May 2020 #7

Monsieur Linh and His Child – Philippe Claudel (2005, trans. Euan Cameron 2011) 130 pages

I only knew Philippe Claudel as a film director until Emma’s review of Monsieur Linh and His Child put his work as a novelist on my radar. Do head over to Emma’s review as she has lots of interesting things to say about this novella. She also rightly pointed out it would be a perfect read for NADIM, so here it is!

Monsieur Linh arrives in an unspecified French port town as a refugee from an East Asian war. His son and daughter-in-law were killed, and he has fled with his baby granddaughter, Sang Diû.

“Six weeks. This is how long the voyage lasts. So that when the ship arrives at its destination, the little girl has already doubled the length of her life. As for the old man, he feels as if he has aged a hundred years.”

Monsieur Linh is a lonely and isolated figure. His fellow refugees cook for him but do so without any warmth or affection. He is deeply traumatised and lives only for his granddaughter.

One day, walking in the unfamiliar town with its cars, strange food, odd smells and a language he doesn’t understand, he meets Monsieur Bark, when they sit on the same park bench. Monsieur Bark is a widower who is grieving deeply for his wife.  He smokes and talks incessantly, although Monsieur Linh cannot understand a word.

“When Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words. What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.”

The language barrier does not mean that there is a lack of understanding between the two men. Claudel demonstrates without sentimentality how a true friendship develops between them, affectionate and accepting and full of meaning for both. These two deeply traumatised men are able to help each other heal in a way that is wholly believable and deeply moving.

Monsieur Linh and His Child is a wonderful, heartwarming story about the nature of unconditional love, friendship, and how we can help alleviate others’ pain without words. It’s about the humanity that bonds us all, and that is a timely reminder in today’s political climate. Highly recommended.

Here is the French cover, because as Emma rightly pointed out, the UK edition is ugly:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #13

Scars on the Soul – Francoise Sagan (1972 trans. Joanna Kilmartin 1974) 124 pages

This is a strange novella. It’s a story of a Swedish brother and sister living in France, and an extended reflection on Sagan’s writing life: a direct address to the reader.

“It isn’t literature, it isn’t a true confession, it’s someone tapping away at her typewriter because she’s afraid of herself and the typewriter and the mornings and the evenings and everything else.”

Sagan tells the story of Sebastian and Eleanor van Milhelm who are entirely feckless and devoted to one another.

“Life without her, drink without her, were like lukewarm water, Not a bad thing, all said and done, to have one’s life circumscribed to that extent by someone who – whatever she might say – was as much his slave as he was hers.”

While they are not quite incestuous, they certainly have an unhealthy attachment to one another. They move around living off their looks, finding benefactors who will pay for their lifestyle so that neither have to get jobs.

“ ‘Someone’ being that providential person who, because of their charm, their wit, their luck, would act as temporary provider for brother and sister. This person so far had never failed to materialise and was usually discovered by Sebastian, Eleanor, as in this case, being too lazy to go out.”

Yet the van Milhelms are not despicable. They are not malicious or even particularly manipulative; there is the sense that those they live off share an understanding whereby everyone knows what the deal is. There is a sense of ennui as their lives are essentially empty, yet it’s a sad story rather than a depressing one.

Scars on the Soul is certainly a post-modern novella, drawing attention to the art of Sagan as a writer and the artifice of the novel.

“There are moments when I’m on the point of writing ‘But I digress,’ an old-fashioned courtesy to the reader, but pointless in this case, since my purpose is to digress. Nevertheless, this blow-by-blow account of eroticism has irritated me. I’m returning to my van Milhelms ‘who frequently indulge in that sort of thing but never talk about it.’”

I think this novella wouldn’t be for everyone, as it is neither one thing nor the other – not fiction or non-fiction, not short story or essay. Yet I found it satisfying. I was invested in the van Milhelms story and I enjoyed Sagan’s witty reflections on writing and her fame after many years (this was written in her late 30s after the success of Bonjour Tristesse at the prodigiously young age of 18). It’s not something to read when you want a meaty, plot-driven story but Sagan is a hugely talented, skilled writer and there is much of interest here both in the fiction and in the portrait of one writer’s life.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #5

Breaking Away – Anna Gavalda (2009, trans. Alison Anderson 2011) 143 pages

Breaking Away is a simply plotted novella which appears deceptively straightforward in its storytelling, but builds towards a meaningful resolution.

Garance is in her late twenties and cadges a lift to a wedding with her brother Simon and annoying sister in law Carine. The characterisation of Carine starts the novella off on an enjoyably bitchy note as the chaotic Garance, who has stayed up all night playing poker and is waxing her legs on the backseat, offends beauty pharmacist Carine’s sensibilities.

“Carine is utterly perplexed. She consoles herself by stirring sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.”

They stop and pick up another sibling, Lola, who likes to conspire with Garance to wind up Carine. At which point I began to feel for Carine – maybe she wouldn’t be such a nightmare if the siblings weren’t so cliquey and excluding. At this point though, the portrait of Carine does modify slightly.

“She may be a first class pain but she does like to please others. Credit where credit is due.

And she really doesn’t like to leave pores in a state of shock. It breaks her heart.”

Their fourth sibling, Vincent, isn’t at the wedding, so the three of them leave Carine and bunk off to go and collect him. Garance reflects on her various siblings’ trials and tribulations and how their upbringing has influenced who they are. She decides her parents are culpable:

 “Because they’re the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and further. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that would come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.

They got it wrong.

The confidence never came.

So here we are. Sublime losers.”

But the humour in the novella stops it being self-pitying. In fact, the four of them are doing OK. They’re just enjoying taking a rare moment to spend time together.

Breaking Away captures a moment in time for the four siblings, and has an elegiac quality, for time past and relationships that must inevitably change. The tone isn’t sad however, more resolute; it’s about how love endures beyond all the external changes.

“What we were experiencing at that moment – something all four of us were aware of – was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people.”

To end, plenty of songs are name-checked in Breaking Away, including this one which “taught us more English than all our teachers put together”:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #2

The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2014, trans. Ros Schwartz 2015) 194 pages

Easily the worst part of my day is my commute. If London rush hour had existed in fourteenth century Italy, I’m sure Dante would have made it one of his circles of hell.

But if Guylain Vignolles was on my morning tube, I’m sure things would be vastly improved. This titular hero is thirty-six years old and lives alone save for a goldfish named Rouget de Lisle V. He finds people difficult and so he has become something of a loner.

“His aim was to be neither good-looking nor ugly, neither fat nor thin. Just a vague shape hovering on the edge of people’s field of vision. To blend into his surroundings until he negated himself, remaining a remote place never visited.”

However, there is one point in his day when he does not blend into his surroundings. On his morning commuter train he reads the passengers excerpts from random books. They are pages he has rescued from his job at a book-pulping plant, a job he hates. Stealing the pages away from under the surveillance cameras of his horrible boss and disturbingly enthusiastic colleague is an act of rebellion, of resistance against the disregard shown to the books and all they contain.

“When the train pulled out of the station and the passengers alighted, an outside observer would have had no trouble noticing how Guylain’s listeners stood out from the rest of the commuters. Their faces did not wear that off-putting mask of indifference. They all had the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.”

Despite his odd manner and social reluctance, Guylain does have friends. There is the security guard who only speaks in a very particular poetic style:

“The day he discovered the alexandrine, Yvon Grimbert had fallen head over heels in love. Faithfully serving the twelve-syllable line had become his sole mission on earth.”

There is also his ex-boss, who had a terrible accident at work:

“Giuseppe Carminetti, former chief operator of the TERN treatment and recycling company, ex-alcoholic and ex-biped, was going to do his utmost to recover the books that contained what was left of his pins.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Giuseppe’s legs were pulped along with some books and subsequently turned into paper. He is now fixated on hunting down all the books that were printed on such paper, thereby reclaiming his legs.

You may have realised by now that you need a pretty high tolerance for whimsy when reading The Reader on the 6.27. I have a high threshold and so I really enjoyed this novella. The idiosyncratic characters are still believable, and their relationships touching. The power of the spoken word and of literature in all its forms is comically evoked – particularly when Guylain gets recruited to read at a retirement home – but is still a powerful message.

Guylain’s reading matter changes when he finds a memory stick in his usual seat which contains the diary of Julie. While it’s undoubtedly intrusive that he reads the diary its believable that he is trying to do so in order to return the stick to its owner.

Unlike with whimsy, my tolerance for male protagonists falling in love with objectified female fantasy figures is rock-bottom. For me, Didierlaurent got the balance for this part of the story right, and Julie has strong, authentic female voice.

There’s no sense at any time that this sweet story isn’t going to play out in a truly cockle-warming way so it’s not a surprising read, but then it’s not trying to be. A tale of outsiders who, though they would never realise it, are absolutely charming.

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (Jean Rhys)

This is my contribution to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

Firstly, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930).

My edition is this 1970s Penguin - the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading - bad Penguin!

My edition is this 1970s Penguin – the subtitle manages to be both cheesy and misleading – bad Penguin!

I feel I should have found this novel much more depressing I did. Julia is a woman whose looks are fading, an impending disaster for her, as she has no money and lives off the handouts of lovers who will find her easier to discard the older she gets. At the moment she has an ambiguous quality:

“Her career of ups and downs had rubbed most of the hallmarks off her, so that it was not easy to guess at her age, her nationality, or the social background to which she properly belonged.”

People tend to judge her harshly rather than kindly, particularly because she is a woman and at a time of more rigid social rules, they can read her lifestyle in her clothes, hair and makeup.  The men who use her escape more lightly, such as the titular lover with whom her relationship is breaking down:

“He was of the type which proprietors of restaurants and waiters respect. He had enough nose to look important, enough stomach to look benevolent. His tips were not always in proportion with the benevolence of his stomach, but this mattered less than one might think.”

After her cheques from Mr Mackenzie stop, Julia returns to England from France. Not quite estranged from her family but not on fond terms with them either, she lives in seedy Bloomsbury boarding houses:

“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 stood for the act.”

I find that an astonishing piece of writing. To take a description of a dilapidated room and show how that reflects the mood of the person in it is one thing, but to extend it in such a way, so original and startling, really demonstrates why Rhys deserves to be lauded.

Julia ricochets around London, trying to find a man to take care of her. Rhys does not judge her protagonist which must have been quite shocking for 1930. Julia is sexually active, unmarried, childless, and is not punished by Rhys for such deviation from the feminine ideal. While she is a sad figure, even tragic, Rhys shows how we share a commonality with Julia rather than marking her out as Other.

 “She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing.”

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is a sad novel, but what keeps it from being depressing, for me, are the gentle touches of Rhys’ humour, such as in the description of Mr Mackenzie, and the fact that Julia holds on to her resilience. She is not a victim, despite being treated appallingly, but rather a realist, who knows that her options as a woman in her circumstances are limited. Rhys has a great deal to say but does so in a non-didactic way, leaving the reader to reach their own conclusions.

Secondly, Good Morning Midnight (1939). Superficially, this sounds very similar to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie: Sasha Jansen returns to Paris alone and broke. She is losing her looks and feels lonely and desperate… but it is quite different.

A more recent Penguin edition - blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

A more recent Penguin edition – blessedly free of a cheesy subtitle

Sasha does not flail around trying to extract money from everyone.  Rather, Rhys writes this novel in the first person, using a degree of stream of consciousness to explore how a single woman at this point in history comes to terms with her life and the future that awaits her. Sasha is fragile:

“On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realise how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something…”

She is self-destructive and lonely:

“I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vimamus….’ Drink, drink drink…As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes…Nothing. I must be solid as an oak.”

And yet, amidst the sadness, there is resilience. We learn of Sasha’s past in Paris as she walks the streets, meets new people and is drawn back into her memories. The stream of consciousness and flitting between past and present is a highly effective. Rather than feeling like a contrived literary style, Rhys is able to create a real sense of being inside Sasha’s head and how someone would think: not in straight lines but (to steal an analogy from Jeanette Winterson) in spirals, back and forth.

paris1932

Image of 1930s Paris map from here

Based on these two novels, I would say Rhys is brilliant at creating flawed, vulnerable women who are somehow survivors – they have a strength which is not immediately obvious, that perhaps they don’t even recognise themselves.

“I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed, but look how hard I try. Three hours to choose a hat; every morning an hour and a half trying to make myself look like everybody else. Every word I say has chains around its ankles”

A single woman with a sexual history who is no longer young does not have the most rosy prospects in interwar society and Rhys does not shy away from this. However, there is a sense that Sasha (and Julia) is not alone in her struggles. The search for meaning in a society that can degrade through disregard affects many and there is fellowship and sympathy to be found.

“I look thin – too thin – and dirty and haggard, with that expression that you get in your eyes when you are very tired and everything is like a dream and you are starting to know what things are like underneath what people say they are.”

Wiki tells me that when first published, (male?) critics found this novel well written but too depressing. I thought it was beautifully written and sad, but not depressing. I think for me depressing comes with a certain bleakness, and I didn’t find either novel bleak: neither Julia or Sasha ever quite lose hope.

To end, if anyone can capture the vicissitudes of a life well-lived in Paris: