I’m delighted to welcome back Andy Miller (AM) for the second part of our discussion on the work of Jean Rhys. If you missed the first part, please do take a look as it contains some fascinating insights into Rhys’s appeal, in particular the settings for her books, her unique voice and some of the central themes in her work. You’ll also find a brief account of how Andy came to Rhys’s work in the first place.
Just to give you some background on Andy, he 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.
JW: How do you feel about the characters in Rhys’s work and their relationship with men, this sense of reliance on men – often ex-lovers – for money, dinners and other sustenance too? In many ways, these men are cast as providers of things in these women’s lives.
AM: Let me ask you a question first. What do you think Jean Rhys’s characters want from men?
JW: I have asked myself this a number of times; I wonder if deep down they are searching for some warmth and affection…
AM: Yes, they want to be loved. They don’t want to be outsiders. She articulates the voice of the outsider brilliantly, whilst simultaneously none of those women really want to be that person. I think in their relationships with men, that’s frequently what they want. We know they are scared of men, but they are aware that they need the patronage of men in a way they would prefer not to. There’s that brilliant line from Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS): “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.” That for me is one of the emblematic quotes both of the Rhys heroine and of Rhys’s writing. And the same dichotomy applies in her approach to the reader: the desire to pull the reader in and push them away at the same time. She reels you in; she wants you to understand her, but not too much, and on her terms not your terms. And in a sense that’s also true of her female characters’ relationships with the male characters. What do you think? Do you find the male characters two-dimensional?
JW: I wouldn’t necessarily say they are two-dimensional, but I would describe them as flaky. So they want things from these women, but they don’t really want the responsibility that goes with it. I get the impression that all of these men are momentarily fascinated by the Jean Rhys heroine; but then they tire of these women quite quickly and want to distance themselves as soon as possible.
AM: Yes, that’s also very true of Voyage in the Dark (VITD), that awful seemingly endless dance between the main character, Anna, and a series of men. Anna is basically seduced and rebuffed by 3 or 4 male characters in the course of that book with increasingly disastrous results, each encounter building on the previous one. VITD is such a fantastic book.
JW: Yes, that novel really blew me away. I loved After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) when I read it, but I wasn’t prepared for how powerful VITD would be – it just knocked me sideways.
AM: For me it’s Good Morning, Midnight (GMM), that’s my favourite of Jean Rhys’s books. Actually it’s become one of my favourite novels by anyone. It seems to me like the culmination of the sequence, of the character’s unhappy destiny. And you can open it at almost any page and find something astonishing and beautiful. There’s a famous phrase at the beginning of GMM: “I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink after dinner. I have arranged my little life.” The weariness of it. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that’s all any room is.”
JW: Yes, this overwhelming tiredness with life is very striking. It’s in much of her work from the short stories to the early novels.
AM: Yes, and one of the other things I like about Rhys, as a writer, there’s an insolence to her work, which I find very appealing. That kind of insolent, almost provocative sense of ‘Reader, I care very deeply but at the same time I don’t give a damn; because to give a damn would be to let you in. Keep your distance.’ Wonderful!
JW: You mentioned earlier that Tigers Are Better-Looking (Tigers) was the one that really made you sit up and take notice of her work. What was it about those stories that made you feel that way? Can you remember what in particular struck you about them?
AM: Partly it’s like when you listen to a record 3 or 4 times and it takes a while for it to grow on you. By the time I got to Tigers, as I said, I had some experience of Rhys’s writing. I remember specifically reading the third story in Tigers, Let Them Call It Jazz (LTCIJ), and having one of those once-in-a-decade moments of thinking ‘I’ve never read anything as good as this.’ LTCIJ is a story she didn’t like very much, incidentally. And then the story Tigers itself is very good as well – sorry Jean! And that’s followed by Outside the Machine, which is set inside a psychiatric clinic, I think I’m right in saying. And that’s shockingly bleak and brave, that story, it’s extraordinary.
Also, as a writer, you can see when someone has worked and reworked and reworked, which Jean Rhys certainly did. She would write draft after draft, because what she’s aiming for is almost a kind of musical cadence, I think, in the prose. An economy of style that is almost epigrammatic.
JW: There isn’t a word out of place, is there? Nothing superfluous in her writing.
AM: Yes, there’s something about the musical and lyrical nature of the phrasemaking which means you can pick almost any sentence and it will have some internal rhythm that allows it to work out of context too. But we haven’t really talked about how experimental these books are, have we? They are genuinely pioneering in their use of inner voice and fragmented narrative. They’re quite challenging to read now in some ways, so the mind boggles at what it was like picking one of these up in the 1930s.
JW: Yes, at the time they must have been hugely groundbreaking.
AM: Well, they’re groundbreaking, but not noisily so, in the way that we might think of other modernist work from this era, e.g. Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Rhys’s books are quieter, but they are deliberately quieter; and yet as they go on, there’s an experimentalism with chronology and narrative voice, which must have been really challenging, I think, to a reader in the 1930s.
I’ve got a real soft spot for the humorous grump, from Eeyore to Philip Larkin to Morrissey, and I think Jean Rhys is one of those. If someone were to say about her writing: ‘Oh, it’s so miserable,’ with the best will in the world they don’t get it – because it can be miserable, but it’s all these other things as well; not just funny and brave but also formally ambitious and experimental.
JW: We’ve talked about the past, and how the books were received at the time. How relevant do you consider these novels to be in today’s day and age? In other words, what do they have to say to the modern reader?
AM: There’s that famous definition of a classic by Italo Calvino: ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. So on one level, I think Rhys is a ‘great writer’ in the classic sense, and therefore everything she wrote is art and art that has something to say to us now, as I would say about any literary artist, Thackeray or Jane Austen or William Burroughs. In Rhys’s case, there is also something about the solitary urban existence that she paints in those ‘30s novels that probably does have something specific to say to people right now. This is something Lauren Elkin talks about in her new book, Flâneuse, about Rhys, and likewise Olivia Laing in her most recent book The Lonely City. So I think Rhys has quite a lot to tell people about that existence, which we perhaps think of as being a uniquely 21st century state of affairs; but I think you can see in that sort of aimless wandering from bar to rented room to never being sure of your position with either men or other women, a kind of loneliness. As Olivia Laing says, loneliness and solitude not being the same thing! But I think Rhys probably has something to say about both.
The fact that she is finding new, enthusiastic readers all the time and you and Eric are running #ReadingRhys is testament to her popularity with modern readers. I wonder what she would make of it all. You know what she said when she won the WH Smith Award for Wide Sargasso Sea, don’t you? “It has come too late.” [LAUGHS] Very Jean Rhys.
JW: Andy, thank you so much for such an fascinating insight into Rhys’s enduring appeal. It’s been a real pleasure to have your involvement in the Jean Rhys Reading Week.
We hope you found our discussion of interest – do let us know in the comments below.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my final post for the week, a review of The Left Bank stories.