For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 1

Today I’m delighted to welcome Andy Miller to discuss his passion for the work of Jean Rhys. Andy describes himself as a reader, author and editor of books – his most recent book, The Year of Reading Dangerously, is an account of a year-long expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between. Alongside his role as co-host of Backlisted, a series of podcasts designed to give new life to old books, Andy is also the reader in residence at this year’s Durham Literary Festival.

andy-miller-in-deal-hi-rez-2

Andy is a huge fan of Jean Rhys’s work. In fact, the Backlisted team – ably assisted by the author Linda Grant – covered Rhys’s 1939 novel ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ at the end of last year. There’s a link here — do listen as it’s an excellent discussion of the book. So I was thrilled when Andy kindly agreed to speak to me for #ReadingRhysThis is the first of two posts running over consecutive days, so I’ll hand you over to Andy (AM) for part one of our discussion.

~~~~~~~~~~

AM: Jean Rhys is probably my greatest literary enthusiasm of the last 10 years, or since I finished working on The Year of Reading Dangerously, or both. She is unique. It’s an article of faith for me that when you’re in your late forties you can still find books which make you feel the way you did when you were a teenager, which excite you and make you view the world differently. It’s harder to do as you get older – you have to look under more rocks [LAUGHS]. But not only am I a huge admirer of Rhys’s work, and her 1930s novels in particular, I also feel as though Jean Rhys has opened the door for me to other women writers such as Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor or Sylvia Townsend Warner, all of whom I love and all of whom, to some extent, share a similar sensibility. So, very significant.

JW: How did you come to Jean Rhys in the first place? What in particular prompted your interest in reading her? 

AM: Having never read anything by her, I tried Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) during The Year of Reading Dangerously, as a good partner for Jane Eyre as much as anything. I thought WSS was a very good book and that it was accomplished and multi-layered – it’s not just about the characters’ relationships, it’s also about colonialism and the subjugation of women and how ‘classic’ literature had tended to represent those subjects, and so on. It was self-evidently ‘a classic’ itself but if I’m being honest it didn’t really grab me at that time – I mean, I thought it was really good but I wasn’t passionate about it. And then about five years later, I was talking to somebody about WSS, and they asked if I had ever read any of Jean Rhys’s 1930s novels, which I hadn’t at the time. They recommended After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) as something I might enjoy. I read ALMM, and thought Oh I really like this. This is the sort of shabby, 1930s London scenery of Graham Greene or George Orwell or Patrick Hamilton. But the prose is more experimental than any of those writers’ prose – and, hmm, the author is a woman.’ That seemed really unusual for that era. Then I read her short-story collection, Tigers are Better-Looking (Tigers) – and that was the moment, the one where I thought ‘Oh wow, this is my new favourite author!’ It knocked my socks off. And I think it’s true of some writers; if they have a particularly distinctive voice, it can take the reader a little while to tune into it. WSS is not perhaps the best introduction to her voice; it’s a brilliant novel in its own right, but the things I like about her writing, and which I think are unique and remarkable about it, are perhaps found elsewhere.

JW: Let’s develop that theme a little further. What in particular struck you about the voice in those early novels and stories? In other words, what are the things that speak to you? 

AM: At first, as I said, it wasn’t  the voice but the setting of these books, that kind of demi-monde London or Paris, the very seedy (for want of a better word) world of lodgings and bars and never being warm enough, that appealed. That’s the landscape of the early Graham Greenes like England Made Me or The Ministry of Fear. Or it’s Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square or Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky, or George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying or Coming Up for Air. I love that setting. But then Rhys does something very different with it.

Anyway, the voice. First of all, she writes with an incredible precision, the sense that sentences follow on from one another – she is not a very descriptive or flowery writer – they seem to have been composed primarily around that sense of rhythm. I really like that. Secondly I like the fact that she is recklessly unafraid to present, as Carol Angier says in her biography of Rhys, ‘the voice inside her head’. She is recklessly unafraid to present that voice to the reader, constantly challenging the reader by saying ‘you pass judgement on me if you want. I don’t care – my job is to tell the truth.’ I find that very attractive, actually. I mean, these are fictional heroines but I think most of us would agree, certainly in those early 1930s novels, they’re all a version of Rhys herself. Certainly the plots of those books are closely related to events in her life. So she is expressing herself through those characters. She’s very good at creating character, but the Jean Rhys character is, as I say, someone who has devoted herself to strip-mining and then setting forth every inner torment to an almost foolhardy extent. And the third thing I like about her is that I find her very funny, which is never commented on very much. There’s a combination of the willingness to be honest, and the rhythm – because comic writing is all about the rhythm, always, regardless of who the writer is – which produces this unique voice, self-pitying yet self-aware, and, as a result, a sometimes comical way of presenting things that are often not funny at all. Clearly things happen in those novels which are tragic in the true sense. And yet at the same time, the self-knowledge and poise in the transition from the event to the page is enough to inject a kind of gallows humour into her work. There’s a little bit here from GMM, quite near the beginning, in terms of what I was just talking about, that weird mixture of self-persecuting self-awareness:

“I tell him I will let him have the passport in the afternoon, and he gives my hat a gloomy disapproving look. I don’t blame him. It shouts Anglais, my hat, and my dress extinguishes me. And then this damned old fur coat slung on top of everything else. The last idiocy, the last incongruence.” 

I’m not saying that’s laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s a kind of brutal, brittle wit being directed at herself. It’s defiant isn’t it? And I think you see that a lot in her early books; you don’t see it so much in WSS, fascinatingly. I think maybe that voice had outlived its purpose by that time, and perhaps one of the problems that she had in writing WSS, which took twenty years or something, was feeling her way towards a new and more solemn way of expressing what she wanted to express. 

JW: A number of things strike me about Rhys’s early novels, running themes if you like. These include the sense of being the outsider, someone who is not accepted by society, the feeling of being marginalised, particularly by other women. I was wondering if you’ve noticed these things as well, and if so, perhaps you could say a little about these aspects of her work.

AM: I absolutely agree with that. In fact, I think that is the central theme of her work. To me, hers is the voice of the true outsider. There are several reasons for that, but I think one of them is that she is female. If you look at the existential writers of the 20th century, the majority of the celebrated ones are men. I’ve just been reading Journey to the End of the Night by Céline, and he’s terribly pleased with himself and his iconoclasm and the fact that nobody quite sees the world as he does, and I think that’s a very male trait in that era, a kind of forceful imposition of a particular worldview on the reader. Angry, didactic, expressionist – well, that’s not Jean Rhys. Instead there’s a sort of weary resignation. Her characters’ relationship with men in those books is never happy as far as I can see. And she’s not a sister, as Linda Grant says on the GMM podcast. Linda said, going back to reading her now, you want to give her a shake and say ‘I love you but stop whinging, get a job.’ And yet, as she also says, if you take that away, you don’t have Jean Rhys. So it’s that mixture of resignation and defiance, the bravery of it and that sense of always being the outsider, those are the things I find incredibly seductive (and that is the word.)

JW: Even so, I feel a huge amount of sympathy for the woman in these books who are, as we have said, the various versions of Jean Rhys herself. But there is this sense of the women in her books feeling very suspicious of other woman, that there is this marginalisation by other women and a sense that ‘respectable society’ is frowning on them and judging them on a constant basis. 

AM: She has no home, the Jean Rhys character, that’s a literal truth for her. She is an outsider; she is an exile. She’s in exile from the place of her birth, we know that, but she’s also in exile from society in all sorts of ways: the single woman growing older who has been forced at times to turn to prostitution; the alcoholic, which we know she was. And she’s always dispossessed and has little or no money. So she has this incredible empathy for people who don’t fit, and in a sense that’s why I think she would recoil from the idea of herself as a spokesperson for women. I don’t think that’s where she’s coming from; as Linda says, she’s not a sister! And yet at the same time I can see why one could read her books and find them profoundly feminist because they articulate a female experience in an era when few other writers were articulating that experience.

JW: I think you’ve nailed it when you express it in those terms. It’s not a traditional feminist mantra… 

AM: No. I’ve been reading quite a lot of Anita Brookner recently. I had read a few over the years, but I read Latecomers after she died – an extraordinary book. That sent me back to the beginning, and I just read her third novel, Look at Me, about a month ago, and it is also the most incredible book. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Jean Rhys in certain respects, that book, the mixture of humour and gentility and self-loathing, all those things mingled together, and exquisitely well written word for word. In her Paris Review interview Brookner says this marvellous thing about Rhys. She admires her work but also says, ‘she [Rhys] is too limited by her pathology’ – which is a valid criticism but of course is also just the sort of thing certain critics used to say about Anita Brookner [LAUGHS].

JW: Fascinating comparison with Brookner, Andy. Funnily enough, I’m just in the process of reading one of her early novels, Providence. Let’s leave it there for the moment and return to Rhys tomorrow.

We hope to see you again tomorrow when we’ll be discussing other elements of Rhys’s work including her prose style and the relevance of these books in today’s world.

JeanRhysReadingWeek banner

34 thoughts on “For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 1

  1. Poppy Peacock

    Brilliant post! Such astute observations & thoughts on Rhys and her writing with great links to further articles for those like me who have become immersed in all things Rhys… especially Quartet her first novel that certainly is indicative of the traits & themes you’ve highlighted.

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      Thanks Poppy. It was such a pleasure just to talk through the things I like about Rhys’s writing with Jacqui. Also, reading this through this morning, I can see I’m talking about things I like in many of the authors whose work I love: that sense of giving a damn/not giving a damn. Ha ha.

      Reply
  2. hastanton

    Such a fascinating post Jacqui….great to have Andy’s thoughts ( in more than 140 characs!)

    I completely agree about the humour which is often not mentioned at all . What I have found so incredibly clever about this is the way she uses humour to lull the reader into a false sense of security …..a fatal body blow is normally delivered pretty soon thereafter . I think this is particularly so in GMM which I think is an extremely accomplished piece of work ….v near perfect !

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      If @MsJeanRhys can express herself pithily in 140 characters, so can I Helen. :)

      Re: humour. This is a thing you and I agree on re: certain other authors. And yes, I agree that GM, M is the most lyrical example, constantly switching between despair and humour. That said, I would (try to) understand if someone said they didn’t find her funny at all!

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    Fascinating discussion – I love this reading of Rhys – the mixture of resignation and defiance. It’s a ‘weapons of the weak’ type of defiance (like the sabotage of factory workers who dare not rebel openly against their masters), and in this case it’s very often self-sabotage, isn’t it? Yes, Anita Brookner is a good comparison, although I hadn’t though of it at the time.

    Reply
  4. Lady Fancifull

    Thank you, Jacqui and Andy. It’s of course fabulous to find some of one’s own responses, expressed more clearly and coherently, and other completely new ideas, which strike aha! moments like the Brookner connection. A very thought-provoking and exciting post – it will rattle around fizzing in my head whilst I wait for my thoughts on WSS to mould themselves into sentences with a progression enough to form a review.

    And, you know what, Jacqui, your wonderful week, the brilliant posts popping up all over the blogosphere, and now this post, has made me determined to ‘re-read the other 3 Rhys’ on my shelves in due course. When I read her first in late 70s and early 80s starting, as I’ve done again this time with WSS I absolutely wanted to read more of her – its going to go the same way on ‘re-read.

    Thanks. I look forward to part 2. A great discussion really reminding me of the power of how an author’s voice can connect with a reader, almost like an intravenous shot into the bloodstream

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Lady F! We’ve been delighted with the response, and it’s great to hear that all the various pieces have whetted your appetite for more re-reads. #ReadingRhys, not just for September 2016!

      (Also, just to let you know that Andy has responded too – see the comment below.)

      Reply
  5. Andy Miller

    Thank you very much. I think #ReadingRhys has been such a brilliant initiative by Jacqui and Eric and I am very pleased to have been asked to contribute in a small way. Roll on #ReadingBrookner…

    Reply
  6. Nargis Walker

    Thanks both. I loved this exchange and looking forward to the second part.
    I think Rhys is a magnificent spokesperson for the perpetual outsider. I read all her books in the early 1970s and although my own circumstances were different, there was a recognisable kinship. And God, did I recognise all those damp, peeling walled bedsits, the sense of being stared at for being different. A prevailing censoriousness.

    I disagree though that she’s not a ‘sister’. I very much want to claim kinship because although she does things differently, a different time, a different standard for single women, a different set of prejudices for a woman with a singular intellect,it leaves one thinking – there but for my own great good fortune go I and lots of other women.

    Thank you for this brilliant initiative on reading Rhys. it’s sent me scurrying to find and reread all my old copies of Rhys. It’s great news that there’s a new imprint of her short stories coming out. I really hope she finds a new generation of readers.

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      Thanks Nargis, that’s very kind of you.

      I agree with your definition of ‘sisterhood’ here in terms of how we receive Rhys’s work now. All I would add is I’m not sure Rhys was seeking to be a spokesperson for anyone but herself. In those early novels she is an inherently solipsistic writer, something I’m sure irritates some readers, but I admire the way in which having set out on that path, she stuck to it until it/she could go no further. After which, nearly thirty years of silence and then Wide Sargasso Sea.

      Reply
  7. Donald Whiteway

    This was truly amazing. Looking forward to reading more (as well as waiting on the delivery of a copy of Good Morning Midnight) of this conversation! I’ve been sort of immersed in the 1930’s on my reading list having recently finished Greene’s Orient Express as well as Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin). I also read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy earlire this year and am anxious to read Rhys as Ford was an influence (both good and bad I think).

    Thank you so much for this Rhys week. I love the fact of adding to my reading list!

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      Thanks Donald. The whole #ReadingRhys week has been very exciting to watch and I am delighted to have contributed something to it. I hope you enjoy Good Morning, Midnight. (I love Stamboul Train btw which I think is the ‘Orient Express’ Greene you are referring to?)

      Reply
      1. Donald

        You are welcome. Just read the second portion of your conversation and it was equally enjoyable.

        For some reason there are some US editions of Stambol Train that have the title Orient Express. Not sure if it is to tie it n with Christie’s murder mystery or not. This Penguin Classics edition was published as a Graham Greene centennial with a nice introduction by Christopher Hitchens…..anyway, thank you for your contribution to #ReadingRhys!

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Donald – I’m so glad you’re enjoying the week. Like you, I’ve been looking to the 1930s (alongside the ’40s and ’50s) for much of my reading this year. Loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, in fact it might be in with a chance of making my list of highlights at the end of the year. What a character he turned out to be!

      Reply
  8. lauratfrey

    That episode of Backlisted is one of my favourites – not just of Backlisted, but of book-related podcasts, period. It certainly made me seek out GMM and I’m so glad I found it. I loved the discussion about how the book changes depending when you read it – I mean all books do that to some extent – but the podcast;s guest spoke of reading GMM in her early twenties, during the the height of second wave feminism, and I was so jealous that I couldn’t do the same. I must settle for a 1st reading in my mid-30s in 2016 :) Better late than never, though.

    I’m also glad I started here, rather that WSS, which I will get to in due course…

    Thanks for hosting Jacqui, I finally got my post up and am now working my way through everyone else’s.

    And thanks Andy for that podcast and this interview. I so relate to what you said about having to look under more rocks these days!

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      Thanks Laura and thank you for your kind words about Backlisted. It is such fun to do and genuinely great when someone tells us they’ve found a book they love via the podcast. Obviously I am evangelical about Jean Rhys’s work, part of which is the thrill having found her relatively recently. The lesson being, keep turning over those rocks!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 2 | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. BookerTalk

    I haven’t got to the Backlisted episode on ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ yet….What I’m enjoying about all the posts relating to J Rhys is the discovery that there is a lot more to her than WSS which I thought was tremendously inventive even if most of the time I didnt really know what was going on

    Reply
    1. Andy Miller

      Interesting. I think WSS is exceptional in both senses. To my mind it’s both the culmination of her work and also a (brilliant) post-script to it. Carole Angier is very interesting on this in her biography of Rhys, should you want to find out more.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Pingback: A Round Up of Reviews and Comments on Good Morning, Midnight – New Edition

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. It was great to speak to Andy about Jean Rhys as he’s such a passionate advocate of her work. His Backlisted podcast on Good Morning, Midnight is well worth a listen if you can get hold of it.

      Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s