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!
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.
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.