Tag Archives: Jean Rhys

Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

When we hear the word ‘flâneur’, we probably think of some well-to-do chap nonchalantly wandering the streets of 19th-century Paris, idling away his time in cafés and bars, casually watching the inhabitants of the city at work and play. Irrespective of the specific figure we have in mind, the flâneur is almost certainly a man – a well-dressed dandy, possibly like the central pen-and-ink sketch on the cover of this Vintage edition of Flâneuse. The flâneur is a consummate observer, looking without participating, preferring to remain somewhat distanced from the action in his leisurely pursuits.

In this fascinating book, the critically-acclaimed writer and translator Lauren Elkin shows us another side of flâneusing, highlighting the existence of the female equivalent, the eponymous flâneuse. While the male flâneur has been well documented over time, much less has been written about his female counterpart, possibly due to the social restrictions placed on women’s movements around the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as Elkin eloquently argues, women walkers have often been present in cities; they just haven’t been identified or mythologised as flâneuses.  

To suggest that they couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. We can talk about social mores and restrictions but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.

If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street. (p. 11)

Through a captivating combination of memoir, social history and cultural studies/criticism, Elkin walks us through several examples of notable flâneuses down the years, demonstrating that the joy of traversing the city has been shared by men and women alike.

Each chapter highlights a different female walker in touch with her city. So, we have Virginia Woolf walking through London’s Bloomsbury, an experience vividly portrayed in the writer’s evocative essay Street Haunting; George Sand, who has to dress like a man to roam freely in 19th-century Paris; and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and travel writer who captures the Civil War through a series of remarkable reports, straight from the front line in late ‘30s Madrid.

Elkin also explores leading cultural figures that fit the bill, most notably the acclaimed writer Jean Rhys and the legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda – two of my favourite artists in their respective creative fields.

Many of Rhys’ early novellas and stories feature desolate women marginalised from society through poverty, abandonment, banishment and ageing. They drift around the Left Bank of Paris, frequently shuttling from one down-at-heel boarding house to another, totally reliant on men for clothes, meals and drink. It’s a solitary and painful existence, brilliantly conveyed through Rhys’ laconic, incisive prose.

Varda, on the other hand, shows us how a woman in the city – essentially a flâneuse – can move from being the object of someone’s gaze to the one doing the looking. In one of her most famous films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (shot in 1962), the camera follows a young woman as she moves around Paris, nervously awaiting the results of a biopsy, naturally fearing the worst. Elkin posits that the film challenges the view that a woman could not traverse the streets of Paris the way a man does – i.e. anonymously, observing without being seen. However, by shifting Cleo’s status from object to subject – i.e. the one doing the looking as opposed to being watched – Varda is portraying a new sense of liberation for women in the city.

As Cléo stops thinking of herself purely in terms of how others see her, the camera stops watching Cléo only from the exterior, and begins to represent the world from her point of view. The film specifically challenges the idea that a woman could not walk the streets the way a man does, anonymously, taking in the spectacle; a woman is the spectacle, goes this argument. Looking, not simply appearing, signals the beginning of women’s freedom in the city. (p. 220)

Interspersed with these portraits from cultural history are Elkin’s own thoughtful reflections on her explorations of various cities around the world. Flâneusing is Elkin’s preferred method of getting to know a city, exploring its geography on foot, crossing through different areas and neighbourhoods, and ultimately connecting them together to build a mental picture or map. It’s her way of feeling more at home in a new territory, grounding herself in its physical spaces, urban geography and, importantly, the attendant social culture.

Having grown up in the Long Island suburbs – an environment she found somewhat stifling and restrictive – Elkin moved to New York as a student, revelling in the freedom and diversity this metropolis represented. Over the past twenty years, she has spent time in Paris – the city she now considers her home – Venice and Tokyo, the latter proving particularly challenging to the habitual flâneuse.

I had been trying to find the city on street level, but that’s not where it was. To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris. (p. 180)

The move to Tokyo is dictated by external influences when a change of role for Elkin’s boyfriend, a successful banker, prompts a transfer to Japan. Sadly, it’s a step too far for Elkin, ultimately exposing the fault lines in the couple’s relationship, culminating in a permanent split and Elkin’s return to Paris.

By writing Flâneuse, Elkin has given us an elegant meditation on women traversing the urban landscape on foot, exploring the geography, boundaries and cultural ‘feel’ of various cities through the wanderings of the flâneuse. As she remarks towards the beginning of the book, once you start looking, it’s possible to spot the flâneuse pretty much anywhere, typically in a state of ‘in-betweenness’, coming or going from one place to another.

She [the flâneuse] gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind facades, penetrating into secret courtyards. I found her using cities as performance spaces, or as hiding places; as places to seek fame and fortune or anonymity; as places to liberate herself from oppression or to help those who are oppressed; as places to declare her independence; as places to change the world or be changed by it. (p. 22)

Elkin is a marvellous companion – articulate and informative without being didactic, likely to inspire readers to embark on a bit of flâneusing of their own. This is such a thoughtful, erudite, fascinating book, written in a style that I found thoroughly engaging – probably my favourite non-fiction read so far this year.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 1 – Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay and more.

Much as I love novels, there are occasions when I’d rather read a complete story in one sitting, particularly if time is short or my attention span is brief. Recently reissued by Virago, Wave Me Goodbye has proved to be a godsend in this respect. It’s is a fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end).

Viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. 

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail – there are twenty-eight of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection alone. (This is the first of two pieces about this anthology, with the second to follow later this week.)

I’ve already written about two of my favourite stories included here. In Elizabeth Taylor’s Gravement Endommagé a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside of France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. This excellent story appears in Taylor’s collection Hester Lilly, which I can highly recommend.

Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter-Downes is another familiar piece. Here, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, only for the clock to be a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety. You can find this and more of MPD’s excellent stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven – another stellar collection of fiction from WW2.

In Rose Macaulay’s Miss Anstruther’s Letters, we are plunged straight into the titular character’s pain as she must come to terms with the loss of her most treasured possession – a collection of letters from her lover of more than twenty years, the papers now charred and turned to ashes following a bombing raid in the Blitz.

Miss Ansthruther, whose life had been cut in two on the night of the 10 May 1941, so that she now felt herself a ghost, without attachments or habitation, neither of which she any longer desired, sat alone in the bed-sitting-room she had taken, a small room, littered with the grimy, broken and useless objects which she had salvaged from the burnt-out ruin round the corner. It was one of the many burnt-out ruins of that wild night when high explosives and incendiaries had rained on London and the water had run short; it was now a gaunt and roofless tomb, a pile of ashes and rubble and burnt, smashed beams. Where the floors of twelve flats had been, there was empty space. (p. 50)

In the days following the bombing, Miss Anstruther embarks on a search for any remaining traces of the letters, desperately scrabbling around among the ashes and rubble, but to very little available. Other, less precious items have been salvaged, but not the missives she so badly desires. As this heartbreaking story unfolds, we realise the depth of her loss – not just for the letters themselves, but for the life they once encapsulated.

Jean Rhys’s I Spy a Stranger is another standout, a story that highlights the damaging effects of suspicion, prejudices and small-town gossip, issues that remain all too relevant today. In this brilliantly-executed story, Laura has returned to England to stay with her cousin, Mrs Hudson, Laura’s former life in Europe having been decimated by the war. Partly as a consequence of her ‘foreignness’, and partly because she is emotionally damaged, Laura is viewed as a threat by the locals, someone to be feared and despised. Suspicion is rife – slurs are cast, arguments erupt, and poison-pen letters are pushed through the door. There comes a point when the townsfolk cannot take any more, especially when there are residents’ reputations to consider.

[Mrs Hudson:] “…Somebody has started a lot of nasty talk. They’ve found out that you [Laura] lived abroad a long time and that when you had to leave – Central Europe, you went to France. They say you only came home when you were forced to, and they’re suspicious. Considering everything, you can’t blame them, can you?” “No,” she [Laura] said, it’s one of the horrible games they’re allowed to play to take their minds off the real horror.” That’s the sort of thing she used to come out with. (pp. 110-111)

This is a powerful, distressing story of the hidden trauma of war. As ever with Rhys, the technique is masterful. The tale is relayed by Mrs Hudson to her sister following the outcome of events, with a gradual reveal of the full tragedy of Laura’s history and subsequent situation.

The return home on leave is a recurring theme in a number of the stories here. Dorothy Parker’s The Lovely Leave is a great example of this, as a young wife battles with her conflicting emotions during her husband’s lightning visit. On the one hand, the woman knows she must try to make the most of their brief time together, while on the other, she is jealous of the companionship and camaraderie her husband is experiencing among the air corps. In truth, these feelings are born out of a sense of fear or insecurity, a natural consequence of a disrupted marriage.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Poor Mary, the traditional marital roles are reversed as a conscientious objector husband (now working on the land) awaits the return of his wife from her role in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It is four years since these two individuals have seen one another, a gap that has magnified their differences rather than diminishing them in any way. 

Three hours earlier the bed had not seemed his own, now his living-room was not his either, but some sort of institutional waiting-room where two people had made an inordinate mess of a meal. (p. 236)

That’s it for today, but I hope this post has whetted your appetite for this wide-ranging collection of women’s fiction from WW2. Join me again later this week when I’ll be covering some of the other stories in the collection, including pieces from Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Bowen. I can promise you flashes of dry, darkly comic humour in some of these stories, particularly those by Bainbridge and Pym. 

A Personal Anthology – a selection of my favourite short stories

Something a little different from me today. Towards the end of last year, the writer and critic Jonathan Gibbs very kindly invited me to contribute to his ongoing literary project, A Personal Anthology. In essence, each of Jonathan’s guest editors is asked to curate a selection of twelve short stories they wish to share with other readers. The stories can be personal favourites or linked to a particular theme; it’s down to each curator to decide. The idea is to bring interesting stories and writers to a broader audience, and to discover which authors have most influenced some of today’s writers and critics.

Every Friday a new personal anthology is sent out to subscribers as a TinyLetter, and today it’s my turn in the guest editor’s chair! To view my selection, just click on the link here:

A Personal Anthology by JacquiWine.

If you like what you see, please do consider subscribing to the anthologies – you can sign up to receive the weekly TinyLetters here. All the short story selections are archived and available to view at this website: A Personal Anthology. Should you wish, you can view the various choices by the guest curators or the featured writers.

So that’s it from me. I hope you find something of interest in my selection of stories and the broader project in general. Enjoy!

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

I have long wanted to read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of Keun’s novels, The Artificial Silk Girl, and when I read her post, I knew this was the one for me – well, as a starting point at the very least. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin.

First published in 1932, Silk Girl is narrated by Doris, a striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start. It reflects her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Doris longs for the finer things in life, fashionable clothes and accessories, the bright lights and the big city. She dreams of becoming a successful actress in the movies. Instead, she’s stuck in a provincial town, in a dead-end office job she’s barely qualified for, trading on her charms and good looks to keep on the right side of the boss. Moreover, Doris is forced to pass the majority of her wages to her lazy father who promptly uses the money to get drunk. What little is left over goes on a treat, in this case a new hat – well, a girl’s got to keep up appearances, especially if she wants to get ahead.

But I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green – that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is just so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself – tailored with a fox collar – a present from Käsemann, who absolutely almost wanted to marry me. But I didn’t. Because in the long run, I’m too good for the short and stocky type, particularly if they’re called Käsemann. But now my outfit is complete, which is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition. (p. 5)

Shortly after getting the push from her job by knocking back the advances of an amorous attorney, Doris lands a small break as an ‘extra’ with the theatre company in her hometown. Once there, she uses all her womanly wiles and a few white lies to move forward, securing a walk-on part with a spoken line in the process. However, it’s not long before Doris is found out, leaving her no other option but to hightail it to Berlin with little more than a stolen fur coat for company. On her arrival, she is dazzled by the new environment, the sights and sounds of this glamorous city.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated. (p. 77)

All too soon the harsh realities of life kick in and Doris finds herself moving from one temporary room to another, her fortunes ebbing and flowing according to the generosity (or not) of the people she encounters along the way. With the police possibly on her tail and no official papers to hand, Doris knows it would be difficult for her to find a short-term job – in any case, she doesn’t particularly want one, not if her previous experiences of conventional work are anything to go by. There are various encounters with men – some kind and charming, others less so – but the most promising ones always seem to have a wife or another woman tucked away somewhere. Doris is smart enough to know her own value, so she uses her looks and personality to blag herself some decent clothes and a few drinks every now and again. Even though life in the city can be tough and lonely, Doris is determined to follow her own path in an effort to get on. The conventions of marriage and domesticity are not for her, something she learned a while ago by observing the lives of those other girls back home.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead. I learned that from Lorchen Grünlich, who married the accountant at Grobwind Brothers and is happy with him and her shabby tweed coat and one bedroom apartment and flower pots with cuttings and Gugelhupf on Sundays and stamped paper which is all the accountant allows her to use, just to sleep with him at night and have a ring. (p. 69)

Rather cleverly, the story is conveyed through a series of reflections, ostensibly presented as a set of journal entries that capture Doris’ thoughts as she strives to survive. In some respects, Doris is like a camera, recording and portraying the highs and lows of life in Berlin. There are some dazzling passages here, presented in a compelling stream-of-consciousness style, particularly the impressionistic sections in which Doris relays the vibrancy of Berlin to her blind neighbour, Herr Brenner, complete with all its characteristic lights and colours. The journal entries also reveal elements of Doris’ backstory – in particular, her impoverished and less-than-happy childhood – along with her sharp observations on the social order of the day, especially the situation for women. The last quote is a great example of this critique of society’s views and expectations.

While the narrative begins in a very breezy, upbeat manner, the tone darkens significantly as the story progresses. The initial surface glamour of life in Berlin soon falls away, leaving Doris hungry for a little food, warmth and affection – things she knows she may have to rely on a man to provide.

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds. (p. 118)

Keun’s heroine has been likened to Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel Goodbye to Berlin. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters, particularly in terms of their attitudes and the Weimar-era setting in which they find themselves, the women I was most reminded of while reading Silk Girl were those from the works of Jean Rhys. In this scene, Doris is so desperate that she allows herself to be picked up by a man, a stranger who stops her in the street, probably in the belief that she is a prostitute. It could have come straight out of one of Rhys’ early stories.

And we talked to each other at a restaurant and I was supposed to order wine and I would much rather have had something to eat. But that’s just like them – they don’t mind paying large sums for something to drink, but as soon as they have to pay just a small amount for something to eat they feel taken advantage of, because food is a necessity, but having a drink is superfluous and therefore elegant. (pp. 125-126)

All in all, The Artificial Silk Girl is a very impressive novel, an evocative insight into a city on the cusp of political change – in this respect, it would make a great companion piece to the Isherwood I mentioned a little earlier. Doris is such a wonderful creation, an instinctive woman who turns out to be more sensitive and fragile than she appears at first sight. (In fact, the book itself is also much deeper than its initial breeziness suggests – more thoughtful and considered in many respects.) It can be so hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but Keun nails it here, giving us a very convincing portrait of this feisty yet vulnerable girl about town.

I read this novel for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which is running throughout November – there’s some info about it here. If you’re interested in learning more about Irmgard Keun, you might want to take a look at Max’s review of Volker Wiedermann’s book, Summer Before the Dark, which includes passages covering Keun’s relationship with the writer Joseph Roth, whom she met in Ostend 1936. It’s a very poignant story, all the more so because we know what was looming on the horizon for the years that followed.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published by Other Press; personal copy.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

books-of-the-year

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

#ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts

Well, what a busy week it’s been for #ReadingRhys! When I canvassed interest in the concept of a Jean Rhys Reading Week earlier this year, I had no idea that it would gather quite so much momentum in such a short space of time. It’s been truly wonderful to see the level of interest in reading Rhys’ work both amongst new readers and those already familiar with her unique style.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Eric at Lonesome Reader for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable co-host for the week – his insights into Jean Rhys and her work have been truly enlightening. Thanks also to Poppy at poppy peacock pens and Margaret at New Edition for taking a lead in reviewing and contributing to the discussions on a few of Rhys’ books as part of the week. Do visit their blogs if you haven’t done so already as they’re definitely worth a look. Thanks to Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously and co-host of the Backlisted podcast) for kindly speaking to me about Rhys – I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic advocate of her work. Finally, and most importantly, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has participated in the Reading Week, either by posting a review, sharing thoughts via Twitter, contributing to the discussions on blogs, GoodReads or social media, or simply by reading one of her books – the level of engagement has been terrific. Just for a bit of fun, I’ve collated together a selection of tweets from the week, mainly pictures, quotes and responses from various readers – you can view them here via Storify.

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By way of a wrap-up, here’s a list of all the new reviews/articles posted as part of the JR Reading Week – if I’ve missed any posts, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add a link. Plenty to explore here, so do take a look if you’re interested. (I haven’t collated links to the various archive reviews as I fear this would take me until Christmas!)

The Left Bank and Other Stories – 1927

Quartet (originally published as Postures) – 1928

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie 1930

Voyage in the Dark – 1934

Good Morning, Midnight – 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea – 1966

Tigers Are Better-Looking – 1968 

Sleep It Off, Lady – 1976

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography – 1979

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66 – 1984

Other posts

A number of things struck me during the week, especially in relation to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the short stories, my main areas of focus for the event. Firstly, Rhys’ wonderful use of imagery as a way of creating mood and emotion. Several people commented on this during the week, and it was interesting to see the following passage cropping up more than once in reviews of Mr Mackenzie:

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.

Secondly, there is Rhys’ ability to create and convey character. Much has been said about Julia Martin, a figure who elicited mixed opinions among the various readers of this book. While some people saw her as vulnerable women with limited options in life, others viewed her as rather feckless and self-centred – a woman with a strong sense of entitlement for want of a better phrase. To me she seems like a woman deserving of our understanding and compassion, another of Rhys’ women trapped by circumstances and the cruelty of life. I particularly liked Grant’s comments on Julia. Here’s a brief passage from his review.

Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost. (Grant on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie)

While it is natural to view Rhys’ fiction as bleak and melancholy, a number of people picked up on the undercurrent of wry humour in her work, not just in the novels, but in the stories too. Staying with Rhys’ short fiction, other readers highlighted some of the parallels between these pieces and certain elements of the writer’s own life. In some ways, her stories read like little vignettes, dealing as they do with the marginalisation of women and the perpetual fragility of lives lived on the edge. As Marina put it, where Rhys succeeds so brilliantly is in her ability to take a certain experience from her own world and heighten it, “polishing it until it catches the light of universality.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why her work remains so relevant today; the emotions are timeless. All the elements of Rhys’ fiction are here in miniature: the feeling of being the perpetual outsider; the fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; the near constant dependence on men. There are many more.

Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning a few of the descriptions of Rhys’ work which stayed with me throughout the week. A couple of people quite rightly described Rhys as a poet, someone who gave a voice to the sole woman, the lonely outsider whose very existence hangs by a thread. All three succeeded in capturing something of the essence of this unique writer.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. (Marina on Smile Please & Sleep It Off, Lady)

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. (Max on Voyage in the Dark)

Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. (Ali on Good Morning Midnight)

Eric, Poppy and Margaret have also posted few closing thoughts on Rhys’ other works as part of their wrap-ups for the week, so please do take a look at their blogs. (Note: Poppy’s summary to follow.)

All that remains is for us to reveal the winner of our prize for making a significant contribution to the week. We’re delighted to announce that the winner is Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for his brilliant post on Teaching Rhys. Congratulations Dorian – a special bundle of Rhys’ books will be on its way to you shortly. Many thanks to Penguin for their generosity and support of the reading week – it is very much appreciated.

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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For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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