“Shut up, I’m having a rhetorical conversation!” (Max Bialystock, The Producers, 1968)

This my contribution to the 1968 Club, running this week and hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf (trans. Christopher Middleton). This is the story of Christa’s life, told from the point of view of a schoolfriend who becomes reacquainted with Christa before leukaemia cuts her life short. The opening paragraph captures the concerns of the novel- the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person, and the fallacy of ever trying to capture them in order to portray them to others:

“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 colour on things.”

Christa is an enigma. She is self-contained but within that is a resistance; having survived Hitler’s Germany she doesn’t readily conform to East Germany’s strictures:

“she was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-the-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper in her mouth and let go with a shout: HOOOHAAHOOO – something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off-duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her.”

This is a watershed moment for the narrator, the point at which she notices Christa and begins to acknowledge her wonder at her friend. However, while Christa is compelling, she also lives a life that is completely ordinary. She grows up, gets married, has children, and works as a teacher.

“Christa T lived strenuously even when she seemed lackadaisical; that ought to be attested, though the point here cannot be attested, though the point here cannot be to justify her…she didn’t attempt to escape from it all, as many people were starting to do in those years. When her name was called: “Christa T!” – she stood up and went and did what was expected of her.”

Despite this, the quest is not one that can be fulfilled – at the end we are in the position of the narrator in that we don’t know who Christa T is either. This is Christa’s final resistance: she conformed exactly how she was supposed to under Nazism and communism, and yet the state, her friends, and the readers of her story cannot box her in.

“There it is again, the language of her sketches, there her voice is heard again.  Yet it will eventually have to stop; the moment is coming where the voice fails, and it can’t be interrupted. Some details pass me by, while I anticipate the end.”

The Quest for Christa T is fragmentary and non-linear, yet it still manages to be a satisfying whole. It is a subtle, beautifully written novel which allows for the reader’s intelligence to find their own meaning. But don’t just take my word for it, take David Bowie’s: The Quest for Christa T was one of his 100 must-read books.

Secondly, the short story collection Tigers are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys, which features two collections, the first 8 stores collected under the titular tale, the last 9 printed from The Left Bank, originally published in 1927. The rest of The Left Bank stories were judged by Rhys to be too weak to merit republication. Surprisingly though, these were my favourite part of Tigers are Better-Looking. While I enjoyed the first selection of stories, I felt they weren’t as strong as Sleep It Off Lady, her final collection of short stories published 8 years after this, which I had greatly enjoyed. While The Left Bank stories are essentially sketches, I thought they had real verve so I’ll concentrate on this section. When read all together they give a wonderful sense of a particular city at a particular time. Rhys captures people with artful description:

Illusion “Miss Bruce was quite an old inhabitant of the Quarter […] one thought of her as a shining example of what character and training – British character and training – can do. After seven years in Paris she appeared utterly untouched, utterly unaffected, by anything hectic, slightly exotic or unwholesome. Going on all the time all round her were the cult of beauty and the worship of physical love: she just looked at her surroundings in her healthy, sensible way, and then dismissed them from her thoughts”

And she is equally adept at capturing relationships, such as that between a painter and ex-prostitute in Tea with an Artist:

“And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with her big hands. 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.”

Rhys often drew on her own life and there are certainly stories here that will be familiar to anyone who has read her work: depression and poverty in Hunger, the life she knew as a shop model in Mannequin, but she also broadens her gaze. There is a touching portrait of an old man and child in From a French Prison, a tragic love affair in La Grosse Fifi quite different from the dinginess and malaise that characterises the affairs she normally writes about.The longest story is Vienne, and here is where the shadow of war begins to loom over the Europe she has been portraying. A young couple, too sad to be Bright Young Things, desperately traverse the continent without quite understanding the danger, but knowing they must reach safety.

“We drank a still wine, sweetish, at dinner. It went to my head and again I could tell myself that my existence was a dream. After all it mattered very little where we went. Warsaw, London…London, Warsaw…..Words! Quite without the tremendous significance I had given them.”

I don’t think Tigers Are Better Looking is Rhys at her best, but there is still so much to enjoy in this collection, flashes of brilliance even when the stories aren’t as strong. She’s a wonderful writer and reading this has encouraged me to dig out the remaining novels of hers that I have yet to read.

To end, the UK number one this week in 1968. All together now: la, la, la, la, la, laaaaaaaaaa….

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“She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet)

This is a further (mini) contribution (not my usual two-work blog post) 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

This time I’m looking at Sleep It Off Lady (1976) which is Rhys’ final collection of stories, published 3 years before she died. The stories are presented in a chronological order of the age of the protagonist, so it almost feels like a dipping into and out of someone’s life at various points; from the two young sisters living in Dominica in the first story Pioneers, Oh Pioneers to the young woman in Paris in Night Out 1925, to the elderly woman living alone in the titular penultimate story.

This approach is not dissimilar to her longer fiction, such as Good Morning Midnight, which used stream of consciousness to build up a picture of a life from fractured parts. All the things I enjoy in Rhys’ longer fiction are evident in her short stories. For example…

Her humour used to highlight a serious issue – such as mental illness encountered by repressed Edwardian Brits in the colonies:

“‘If,’ said Mr Eliot ‘the man had apologized to my wife, if he’d shown the slightest consciousness of the fact that he was stark naked, I would have overlooked the whole thing. God knows one learns to be tolerant in this wretched place. But not a bit of it. He stared hard at her and came out with: ‘What an uncomfortable dress – and how ugly!’ My wife got very red.  Then she said: ‘Mr Ramage, the kettle is just boiling. Will you have some tea?’” (Pioneers Oh Pioneers)

Her unblinking look at sexual politics which degrade women and empower men. This takes an even darker turn when she documents the sexual assault of a twelve year old (this is written very sensitively and not at all gratuitously, but neither does it let the reader off the hook – we can’t ignore what has happened):

“He talked of usual things in a usual voice and she made up her mind that she would tell nobody of what had happened. Nobody. It was not a thing you could possibly talk about. Also, no one would be believe exactly how it had happened, and whether they believed her or not she would be blamed.” (Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose)

And her startling observations that disconcert yet articulate something fundamental:

“But it was always the most ordinary things that suddenly turned round and showed you another face, a terrifying face. That was the hidden horror, the horror everyone pretended did not exist, the horror that was responsible for all the other horrors.” (The Insect World)

I’m so glad I took part in Jean Rhys Reading week as it encouraged me to explore this writer much sooner than I otherwise might have done.  I’ve no idea why, having rated Wide Sargasso Sea so highly when I first read it in my teens, I allowed Rhys to slip off my radar. Her writing seems drawn directly from her life yet she is able to explore themes that you don’t need to be an ex-colonial, chorus girl, artist’s model, thrice-married Parisian who is friends with Ford Madox Ford to find meaning in (at least I assume so, since that’s basically my life in a nutshell).

“Very widespread now – heart condition.” (Sleep It Off Lady)

I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her work, I only wish there was more of it.

 Jean Rhys  (1894-1979)

“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.

1930s Paris map

1930s Paris map

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:

“We look before and after, and pine for what is not” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

My lovely friend H feels I take life too seriously & this is reflected in my choice of reading matter.  As such, she keeps lending me light reads in the hope that I’ll chill out & stop living my life like I’m a some sort of doomed Hardy heroine (which I dispute: I harbour no plans to start bedding down at Stonehenge.  Far too cold, I prefer central heating. Probably just as well as they’ve restricted access to the monument now.) But because she is a good friend & I love her (and she’s probably right in general), I read the books she gives me.  This week it was Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (Faber & Faber, 2011), so I decided to write about it here, making the theme of the post prequels and sequels.

Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, set 6 years after the end of Austen’s novel, where Darcy & Elizabeth are happily married with 2 sons. I’m not a big crime reader, so I hadn’t read any PD James before, but I know crime aficionados who highly rate her.  To me the crime element of this novel was its weakest link – the plot was very slight and there’s no detective work as such, the crime is solved as the murderer confesses.  But I never wanted to blog about books in a critiquing way, so I’ll stop and look at what is to celebrate, as I planned.  James has great fun with the concept of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, with comments on the backstory like: “If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?” (Answer: Yes).  She also explains potential problems in the original, like why Darcy’s first proposal and following letter were so rude (he was trying to make Elizabeth hate him so he wouldn’t have to deal with his attraction to her).  Whether or not you like this explanation depends on how you’ve read the original, and while it’s a shame to pad out the room for interpretation which helps readers feel a sense of ownership over a novel, James is as entitled to her view as anyone else. She is obviously a huge fan of Austen and characters from Emma also make an appearance thorough a verbal report: a child is adopted by Mrs Harriet Martin nee Smith, friend of Mrs Knightley.

Part of modern scholarship on Austen is to look at what is hidden in her work: the slavery hinted at in Mansfield Park, for example. Writing from a 21st century perspective, James can make explicit certain factors like feminism and the Napoleonic War which readers today may pick up on but are only shadows in Austen’s works:

“We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them.  It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?”

“The war with France, declared the previous May, was already producing unrest and poverty; the cost of bread had risen and the harvest was poor. Darcy was much engaged in the relief of his tenants ..”

In this way James’ novel offers a chance to view well-known characters in more well-rounded way, taking into account their social and political circumstances in a wider perspective, beyond that of the Regency marriage market.  However, and I realise this is an obvious point so I won’t linger on it, PD James is not Jane Austen, and as such the novel reads a bit flat.  The effervescent wit is gone and there’s not really anything to replace it.

It was a brave decision that James made with Death Comes to Pemberley, as writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice is really a thankless task.  Austen and her characters are so greatly loved I doubt any author other than Austen herself could do them justice.  While placing them in genre fiction like crime is probably a good idea so that its clear you’re working within conventions other than those of the original novel, I can’t help feeling that Death Comes to Pemberley may prove disappointing for both crime fans and Austen fans.

For the prequel part of this post I’ve chosen probably the most well-known of all prequels: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966, my copy Penguin 1993). Wide Sargasso Sea looks at the events that occurred prior to Jane Eyre, and how Rochester’s first wife became the madwoman in the attic. Rochester marries the Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway in the Carribean.  There is a strong sexual attraction between them as Rochester describes:

“Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards.”

But this is not enough to cover the differences between them “It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry.” and the cracks in their marriage soon start to appear, with distrust, jealousy and violence on both sides.  The result of this we already know…

What happens to Antoinette is a commentary on both men’s exertion of power over women, and the coloniser’s power over the colonised.  Rhys takes the “other” of Jane Eyre and gives her a voice, placing us alongside Antoinette and showed how flawed and racist notions of “other” are.  Rochester, the rich white Englishman, seeks to control Antoinette and does so by renaming her and confining her – the parallels with slavery are clear.  As a woman, she is also subjugated by a society that is on Rochester’s side:

“When a man don’t love you, more you try, more he hate you, man like that…”

“I cannot go…I am not rich now, I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him…that is English law”

However, by giving the narrative voice to Rochester as well as Antoinette, Rhys ensures a balance to Wide Sargasso Sea that means you can’t write it off as limited perspective polemic. It has had a huge influence on how Jane Eyre is read, and I think this is because it is so sensitive and subtle a reading and portrayal of the characters.  Rhys succeeds in creating a backstory that is wholly believable and recasts the frames of reference through which Jane Eyre is viewed, without ever undermining the original work.  This can be seen in interpretations such as the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre which emphasised Bertha’s (as she is then named) sexuality, associated her with the colour red as in Wide Sargasso Sea, and had her played by the beautiful Claudia Coulter to make Rochester’s physical attraction to her easy to understand (the BBC also filmed a version of Wide Sargasso Sea the same year). The fact that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s behemoth of feminist literary criticism took the title The Madwoman in the Attic (1979, Yale University Press) shows how the character of Bertha (and characters like her) are being reassessed, and I think it’s reasonable to assume Wide Sargasso Sea played no small part in that.  Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, Wide Sargasso Sea stands alone as a great novel, and simultaneously hugely enhances reading the source work.  I recommend the latter unreservedly, and the former as a point of interest and a quick, throwaway read.

I was wondering how to photograph the books in a way that represented the theme, then as I looked at the covers I realised they sort of represented a before and after already – la petite mort followed, inevitably, by le grande mort.  What a depressing note to end on – I think H has got her work cut out…….

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