“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.

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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:

“When you’re a Jet/You’re a Jet all the way /From your first cigarette /To your last dyin’ day.” (West Side Story)

This is a loooong post – strap in people, and bring Kendal mint cake.

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These days I don’t generally socialise as part of a group (unless it’s a work do, an experience that Dante forgot to include in his descriptions of the circles of hell) but in the last week I’ve been out with two sets of friends, which was a lovely change. For this reason, in this post I thought I’d look  at writers who have famously been part of a group.

Firstly, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which was published after his death and recalls his time as a young man in Paris during the interwar period, part of une generation perdue, or lost generation:

“’’That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,’ Miss Stein said. ‘All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.’

‘Really?’ I said.

‘You are,’ she insisted. ‘You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death…’”

Miss Stein is of course Gertrude Stein, and her literary salon attracts some of the greatest writers of the generation: F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford (a less than flattering portrait), Hilaire Belloc, James Joyce… it really is astonishing that these minds were all in the same place at the same time.

Montmartre in 1925

Montmartre in 1925

Image from here.

I can’t tell you how much I want to dislike Hemingway. He was macho, into bloodsports, treated women appallingly… but his writing just takes my breath away.  A Moveable Feast gives some insight into his craft; his drive to write what is true and to distil his writing into the sparse style he became so famous for:

“Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

He is filled with the arrogance and uncertainty of youth, completely committed to his craft:

“I’ve seen you beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

 “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’”

Ernest_Hemingway_Writing_at_Campsite_in_Kenya_-_NARA_-_192655

While he is sitting in cafes trying to write one true sentence, the young Hemingway comes into contact with various writers also trying to perfect their craft, including one of my favourite poets, Ezra Pound:

“Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamoured of his errors, and so kind to people, that I always thought of him as a sort of saint. He was also irascible, but so perhaps have been many saints.”

I just don’t understand how a person unfailingly described by all who knew him as being so generous, supportive and kind could also be such a massive fascist. It does make me feel a bit better about liking his poetry though. He also provides many of the episodes of comic relief in A Moveable Feast:

“I had heard complaining all my life. I found I could go on writing and that it was no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.”

Hemingway and his first wife were poverty-stricken in this period, and one of the places that offers succour is the now-famous English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company under the auspices of Sylvia Beach:

“On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter , tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”

From within this perfect bookshop, Sylvia lends Hemingway and Hadley money and books, and helps create the man who would write this about F Scott Fitzgerald:

F_Scott_Fitzgerald_and_wife_Zelda_September_1921

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and he could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

If that passage doesn’t want to make you weep at the tragic beauty of it all, then I don’t know if we can be friends.  Damn you Hemingway, you’ve made me love you just like all those other women who should have kept well away.  Thank goodness we didn’t meet when you looked like this:

ernest-hemingway1

Or things could have got messy. (Seriously, who looks like that in a passport photo? I look like I’m out on day-release in mine).

Woody Allen explored the attraction of this group of writers in Midnight in Paris. I liked the film, but even a friend who loathed it admitted Corey Stoll did a great job as Hemingway:

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Secondly, The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf, who was part of the Bloomsbury group, and in his second (final) novel portrays his wife, Virginia.  He is also in the privileged position of being one of the few male authors published by Persephone Books, and their lovely edition of this novel includes an endpaper print by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Image from here

Harry Davis moves with his family into the stultifying suburban society of Richstead (Richmond/Hampstead) where he is introduced to the Garlands and their four daughters, who do nothing all day because that is all they are expected to do:

 “Harry felt the dull sense of depression creeping over him again. ‘It’s so bad,’ he said, ‘to be comfortable. That’s why you want to go on forever in the same place.’

‘But I like being comfortable,’ said Ethel decisively. ‘I don’t think it’s bad at all.’

Harry remained silent; he couldn’t think of anything more to say. Gwen watched his rather heavy face. She could not make him out; she was not sure whether she liked him or hated him at first sight. He seemed to be exceedingly ill-mannered, she thought.”

Harry is an artist, and wants so much more.  He meets the intellectual, free-thinking Camilla (seen as representing Virginia) and falls in love.  While I think reading the novel for biographical ‘clues’ misses the point and would prevent enjoying the novel fully, it’s not difficult to imagine Virginia agreeing with some of Camilla’s sentiments:

“’There’s so much from marriage from which I recoil. It seems to shut women up and out. I won’t be tied by the pettiness and the conventionalities of life. There must be some way out. One must live one’s own life’”

The difficulty is, most of the characters are too vacuous, lazy and pretentious to tread their own path. They’re not terrible people, but the Bloomsbury set seem to sit around all day trying to be clever, while the suburban set obsess over flowers. Apparently some found Camilla-as-Virginia offensive, but if that was what Woolf was doing, Leonard-as-Harry fares little better, too weak to ever seize the life he imagines, lacking the courage of his own convictions:

“He turned over, and lay flat, burying his face in the grass. Harry felt as if he himself were turning into stone. He just managed to say:

‘You think her absolutely cold?’

‘She’s a woman and a virgin: isn’t that enough?…What they want is to be desired – that’s all. And when they get that from some poor devil with a straight back and a clean face, they think they are in love with him, and he marries, to be disappointed.”

If all this sounds terribly tedious, it isn’t.  Woolf satirises early twentieth-century society and shows how it denies sexuality and oppresses men and women, but especially women.  It could be a bleak novel – none of the characters really know what they want or how to break free – but I think we’re not meant to take them as seriously as they take themselves. While it’s not a broad comedic novel, The Wise Virgins has plenty of humour in it:

“This gentleman was undoubtedly a clergyman; his red nose and the causes of it had made it difficult for him to be a minister of Christ for any long time in one place…his life had its advantages, he used to affirm in his more secular moments, because he never had to write a new sermon; one congregation after another listened to the same four which had escaped the wear and tear of wandering with their author up and down England.”

The Wise Virgins is about a denial of desires both individual and collective, and how damaging it can be. The Bloomsbury group in real-life were much more sexually liberated, and while I’m not sure the result was damage-limitation, it did result in some beautiful art:

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

Image from here

You made it to the end of this post! Thanks for reading, and here is your reward: