The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys

Earlier this week I posted a piece about Tigers Are Better-Looking, a set of short stories by Jean Rhys – the book was first published in 1968 even though many of the pieces were in fact written much earlier (during the 1940s and ‘50s, I believe). Wednesday’s post looked at the eight stories in the first section of the book. My 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers also includes nine pieces from Rhys’ first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, a collection of sketches and vignettes published in 1927. It is now widely considered that these Left Bank pieces (along with her early novels) were significantly ahead of their time in terms of style, tone and theme. The Left Bank itself is currently out of print, but I managed to get hold of a relatively rare copy by way of an inter-library loan. It’s a fascinating book, all the more so because it’s possible to see the origins of some of Rhys’ themes and preoccupations in these early sketches.

As you may know by now, Penguin will be publishing Jean Rhys’ Collected Short Stories in March 2017 – this volume will include all the stories from her three collections, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). A hugely exciting development for fans of Jean Rhys!

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In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the nine ‘Left Bank’ sketches which appear in editions of Tigers – these pieces form the second section of the book.

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In Illusion, one of my favourite stories in this section, the narrator tells us about her friend, Miss Bruce, a portrait painter from Britain who has been living in Paris for the past seven years. To all intents and purposes, Miss Bruce appears untouched by the beauty and indulgences of life in the French capital. Eschewing anything frivolous in favour of a sensible tweed suit and brown shoes, her one concession to Paris is a touch of powder on her nose.

One day, a more surprising side of this lady’s character emerges. When Miss Bruce falls ill and is taken to hospital, her friend thinks she might need some things from her room, a couple of nightgowns and a comb or a brush. But when she opens Miss Bruce’s wardrobe, the narrator is astonished to find an array of beautiful dresses, gowns of every colour, ‘a riot of soft silks’. This discovery reveals a quest both for the perfect dress and for the transformation it might help to furnish. In essence, the contents of this wardrobe represent the search for an illusion.

Then must have begun the search for the dress, the perfect Dress, beautiful, beautifying, possible to be worn. And lastly, the search for illusion – a craving, almost a vice, the stolen waters and the bread eaten in secret of Miss Bruce’s life. (p. 143)

Mannequin features a typical Rhys protagonist. It focuses on Anna – a fragile, delicate girl, her hair ‘flamingly and honestly red’ – who goes for an interview as a mannequin in a Paris salon. Having gained the approval of the vendeuse, Anna is engaged to model the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. Her salary is a pittance, but as a beginner she can scarcely expect anything more. At first, everything seems strange and alien to Anna; the atmosphere is efficient if somewhat hectic.

In the mannequins’ dressing-room she spent a shy hour making up her face – in an extraordinary and distinctive atmosphere of slimness and beauty; white arms and faces vivid with rouge; raucous voices and the smell of cosmetics; silken lingerie. Coldly critical glances were bestowed upon Anna’s reflection in the glass. None of them looked at her directly…A depressing room, taken by itself, bare and cold, a very inadequate conservatory for these human flowers. (p. 150)

In time though, Anna meets the other eleven mannequins; each of the twelve has her own distinct style and individual look.

Despite the coldness of that passage quoted above and a few wobbles for Anna along the way, Mannequin is pretty upbeat for a Rhys story. It finishes on a fairly optimistic note as the young girl feels a sense of connection to the Paris, this ‘great maddening city’ that is her home.

The appropriately titled Hunger features a woman teetering on the edge of a precipice. Breakfast consists of coffee, and if she is lucky, there might be some bread for lunch. It is not uncommon for her to go without food for several days. In this story, the narrator describes how she feels as the days of starvation pass by. It’s tremendously powerful stuff.

On the second day you have a bad headache. You feel pugnacious. You argue all day with an invisible and sceptical listener. (p. 169)

It is like being suspended over a precipice. You cling for dear life with people walking on your fingers. Women do not only walk : they stamp. (p. 170)

A couple of the stories are rooted in the Caribbean. Mixing Cocktails draws on the languid dreams of a young girl, a childhood spent in the heat of the sun. Set in Dominica, Again the Antilles tells of a quarrel between a newspaper editor – a born rebel embittered by the colour of his skin, he is neither black nor white – and a local landowner/producer. Both of these pieces are brief sketches.

The collection ends with two longer pieces, the first of which, La Grosse Fifi, is set in a gloomy hotel on the French Riviera. This story focuses on two women, both of whom are staying there: a somewhat melancholy lady named Roseau and a rather large woman by the name of Fifi.

Fifi was not terrific except metaphorically, but she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass. (p. 173)

One of Roseau’s acquaintances considers Fifi to be a bit of an old tart (this woman certainly stands out from the crowd). He makes fun of Fifi, laughing at her appearance and her gentleman friend, a young gigolo by the name of Pierre Rivière. Roseau, on the other hand, thinks rather fondly of Fifi, especially as the woman comes to her aid one night when she is feeling rather tired and bruised by life. Fifi’s presence is comforting to Roseau; in some ways, it makes her feel protected and strengthened. I don’t want to say too much more about this piece; it might spoil it, I think. What I will say is that it ends with a mix of emotions, a dramatic development adding a touch of poignancy to Fifi’s story.

The final piece, Vienne, is arguably the most ambitious in the collection. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes, snapshots of central Europe in a certain era. Narrated by Francine, a young woman in her twenties, it follows a young couple’s travels from Vienna to Budapest to Prague in the early part of the 20th century (more specifically the 1920s, I think). Having made his fortune on the exchange, Pierre has plenty of money to spend on Francine, at least at first; there are cars, a chauffeur, clothes, and jewellery, everything a woman could want. Nevertheless, in spite of living the high life, Francine has a terrible presentiment of danger ahead; in the knowledge that she will never be able to cope with being poor again, her mind races at the prospect.

Not to be poor again. No and No and No.

So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.

I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.

So-and-So will help me.

How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly – then hysterically.

I can’t go down. I won’t go down. Help me, help me!

Steady – I must be clever. So-and-So will help.

But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.

You get nervous. He doesn’t understand, I’ll make him –

But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead. (p. 202)                   

And so it continues in this vein.

When everything comes crashing down, as it inevitably must, the pair make their escape to Prague. This is a wonderful story packed with little sketches and vivid images of life in Vienna, Budapest, and the journey from Hungary to Czechoslovakia as it was then.

Like some of the later pieces from Tigers, one or two of these early Left Bank stories include snatches of stream of consciousness – you can see it in the passage from Vienne quoted above. In The Left Bank stories, Rhys’ themes are perhaps a little broader than those she mines in Tigers. Alongside the pieces which explore the loneliness of the outsider, the fear and anxiety of lives lived on the margins, there are other topics too – most notably the central European culture of the day depicted in Vienne.

Rather than repeating some of the ground I covered in my first piece on Tigers, I’ll leave it there. Hopefully these posts will have whetted your appetite for Rhys’ Collected Short Stories which Penguin will be publishing next year. In the meantime, do take a look at Max’s review of La Grosse Fifi and three other stories from The Left Bank.

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45 thoughts on “The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys

  1. Poppy Peacock

    Oh, just reading some more biographical stories about Rhys this morning I can certainly identify how she mined her own life & experiences for her writing; it’s all there isn’t it, some aspects louder than others.
    I was also just reading about how she was compared to Katherine Mansfield – not surprising given how much they both command such mordant tones – but hearing about Illusion (love the line ‘her one concession to Paris is a touch of powder on her nose’ ) immediately brings KM Miss Brill to mind.

    Great reflection of the depth & breath of her stories Jacqui- and yes The Collected Stories will be a must buy for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah yes, the comparison with Katherine Mansfield is a very interesting one. I really need to read more of her. I have a huge collection of her stories on the kindle but the ebook format isn’t terribly well suited to browsing or dipping in and out of something. Maybe I need to invest in a physical copy at some point! Miss Brill is one of her best-known stories, isn’t it? I must take a look at my kindle to see if it’s there.

      I think you’ll love the collected shorts, Poppy – something to look forward to next year.

      Reply
      1. Poppy Peacock

        It is… if not on your Kindle I think you probably find a copy on the Internet somewhere… Project Gutenberg maybe? It’s in KM’s Garden Party collection too.
        Yes definitely looking forward to them… I have some but will be nice to have this new edition😊

        Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    She seems original & as you say ahead of her time – but does she lack humour, do you think? Sounds a bit bleak…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She always felt like an outsider over here and her work reflects this. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see touches of wry humour in some of her early Paris/London novels. Andy Miller spoke about this in the first part of our interview on Rhys. He described it as a sort of wry gallows humour, the ability to present the tragedy of her characters’ lives in a slightly comical way, and I can see what he means by that. A few other readers have made similar observations during the week. Simon over at Stuck in Book likened her to Barbara Comyns, a writer I’ve yet to read – one for the future for sure.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Fair enough, Jacqui. i haven’t read all the A Miller posts yet. I’m sure he’s right. Having just read two rather grim Spanish 19C novels I didn’t feel like more gloomy fiction. I suppose on reflection this is ‘wry humour’ even in the extracts you’ve included in your reviews. I discovered B Comyns this year (posted on one, maybe two, can’t remember), have 1 left from my Book People package of 3 at a bargain price (new books, great deal; they do Wharton, Hemingway and others worth looking for, too. Missed out on the E Taylor, no longer there, unfortunately).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah yes, I can understand that! It’s good to have a change in tone/mood if you’ve been reading something downbeat. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is on my Classics Club list, so that’ll be my starting point with Comyns.

          Reply
  3. bookbii

    Great review Jacqui, you’ve really whetted my appetite for Rhys’s short fiction. I am always a bit averse to short stories, I can never quite figure out why because I generally adore them when I read them, but these sound great.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks Belinda. I think you’d really like her stories, particularly as you already have an excellent feel for her style from the novels and Smile Please. The collected shorts will be a good one to dip into every now again. I think you mentioned the need to put some space between her work — which I can quite understand by the way, especially after this week — so the stories might suit as a way of accessing her in small doses whenever you feel in the right frame of mind.

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Sounds wonderful Jacqui, the contrast with Tigers is really interesting. Having really enjoyed Sleep It Off Lady I’m keen to read the 2 volumes of short stories you’ve reviewed this week.

    Thanks so much for Jean Rhys Reading Week, its been fascinating!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Super! Yes, the contrast is really interesting. In some ways, the pieces in Tigers are more complete (or more polished if you like) than these early sketches. Even so, there are some gems here within the Left Bank collection, particularly Illusion, Mannequin and the second half of Vienne. It’s fascinating to see the geneses of some of her favourite themes in these early pieces: the feeling of being an outsider; her fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; memories of her childhood in the Caribbean. It’s all there.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, fair point. There’s a definite sense of Anna being the newbie in the group. It’s one of my favourite stories from her Left Bank period. I loved the image of these mannequins as human flowers…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read the Hamsun, but it’s a great thought – another book that has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while.

      The Caribbean stories are quite similar to some of the vignettes from her unfinished autobiography, Smile Please. Alongside the more nostalgic pieces inspired by her childhood, she is not afraid to tackle other issues too – racial tensions feature in a couple of the stories.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I meant to ask about this. With that title it seems likely it is a reference to Hunger (reviews of that at mine and Emma’s if you’re curious). I suspect it’s a response or comparative take.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be the case. Rhys’ story is fairly short, but it certainly packs a punch. Thanks for letting me know about the reviews of the Hamsun – I’ll make a note to take a look.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s one of my favorites in the collection. I suppose it appeals to my love of stories about the secrets we keep hidden from other people and what happens when that information come to light…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, several of them feature classic Rhys protagonists at different stages of their lives. That said, Miss Bruce is somewhat different to the others as she seems part of ‘accepted society’ in a way that the majority of Rhys’ women are not. An interesting contrast.

      Reply
  5. banff1972

    I really hope Penguin publishes this in the US too. Left Bank is a terrific collection and deserves to be read as such. My favourite of those stories is a little one called “Learning to be a Mother” and it wasn’t included in the Tigers selection.
    You definitely should read Mansfield, though I don’t find her that similar to Rhys. The class differences make all the difference. Even though she was a colonial subject too she seems to have fitted so much more easily in English literary life (didn’t hurt, I expect, that her husband was a well-known, though in retrospect quite terrible, man of letters). I think the only way in which she approaches Rhys is through her illness–that was her outsiderness, if you will. I
    m not that well read in her fiction but two that I really love are “A Cup of Tea” (interesting to read while thinking of Rhys, because there’s a character in there who could be the protagonist of a Rhys story and Mansfield simply can’t (or at least doesn’t want to) inhabit her consciousness) and “The Voyage,” a wonderful modernist Bildungs story in the vein of Dubliners.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll check with Penguin to see if it will be published in other markets too. Like you, I hope this collection gets a broad release as her stories deserve to be read just as widely as the novels.

      I’ll take another look at Learning to be a Mother. Luckily I still have access to Holborn library’s copy of The Left Bank for another week or so. After that, it really ought to go back – mind you, they had to dig it out of their archive for me as it was in storage.

      That’s interesting re Mansfield. I haven’t read very much of her at all, certainly nowhere enough to give an informed view. I’m hoping the two stories you mentioned are in that collection on my Kindle – I’ll take a look once I get home. A Cup of Tea sounds particularly intriguing especially the comparison (and contrasts) with Rhys, Thanks, Dorian – I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve had a chance to read them!

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    That’s the beauty of someone like her – ahead of her time – he work stays fresh. These too, I’d love to reread. All of her work really. But I’m a tiny bit afraid because I loved her so much – back when I read her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed, I wonder what people made of them back in the day. It’s hard to imagine quite how radical they must have seemed at the time. As you say, her work still seems fresh. Even though the context has changed, these emotions (despair, not fitting in, feeling marginalised by society) remain timeless – hence the enduring relevance of her work in today’s world.

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    More marvellous Rhys. I’m delighted to hear about this new Penguin collection and to get the change to read the ones that weren’t in the Penguin shorts book I read (and thanks for the link to my review of that).

    Does the collected works separate the stories out by original collection do you know?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I wasn’t even aware of that mini selection till you mentioned it last week.

      Re: your question, I would imagine so. Let me check that with Penguin to make sure.

      Reply
  8. Bibliosa

    I’m late to the party, (grr stupid school) I really wish I could have taken part in this as Wide Sargossa Sea has been on my list for so long, and now I’ve reading more about this author and she sound incredible. Well, it’s never late, right? And this collection sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely, it’s never too late to start. One of our aims for #ReadingRhys was to inspire people to read her work, not just during the week itself but hopefully in the weeks and months ahead too. I really hope you get a chance to try her at some point. :)

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    So much rich commentary about Jean Rhys is coming through as a result of this reading week. Kudos to all of you taking part for such high quality reviews of her work for those of us who simply didnt have the time to get involved. Now we know what we have been missing

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s been fascinating to hear about the various impressions of Rhys’ work from such a wide variety of readers – both positive and not so positive. I’ve leaned so much about this writer during the week, especially in relation to how she is seen by others.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. I’m not sure I would have recognised Illusion as Jean Rhys story had I read it blind. It seems quite different to some of her other work. In some ways, that’s no bad thing as it indicates a degree of breadth to her work, something that wasn’t fully apparent to me until I read these collections.

      Reply
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  13. ms. arachne

    I like the way you reviewed the two sections from Tigers Are Better-Looking separately. It was a really useful way to compare the two periods in Jean Rhys’ career. Something that struck me is that there is a sense of hope and optimism in some of the stories from The Left Bank that is missing from almost all of the stories in Tigers Are Better-Looking. It’s almost as if we have met the characters a bit earlier in life when they haven’t yet been broken by repeated disappointments. Did you find that as well?

    I agree completely with you about “Illusions.” It was one of my favorites also.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I wondered about that too. It’s particularly true of Mannequin which ends on a relatively optimistic note compared to several of her other stories. There’s a sense of hope and openness about the future, as if the lottery of life might deal these women a better hand next time around. I agree, it’s a feeling that seems to be absent from most of the later stories.

      That’s a very valid point about the crushing nature of the repeated disappointments. On that note, I keep thinking about a particular passage from Voyage in the Dark when Anna (the central protagonist in the story) is at her lowest ebb: ‘But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then?’ It’s pretty heartbreaking when a person’s spirit to continue is extinguished in that way…

      Reply
  14. ms. arachne

    Yes, that’s a good way to put it. The only later story that has that sense of hope is “Let them Call it Jazz” in which Selina rallies after hearing the Holloway Song, gets a new job an a new home and refuses to let them take away her song.

    Agreed. It makes it all the more impressive that Jean Rhys had the courage and talent to write about it with such honesty and empathy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I guess she gave a voice to those on the fringes of society, the marginalised and the downtrodden. Let Them Call It Jazz is a great story; Selina’s voice is so compelling…

      Reply

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