Tag Archives: #ReadingRhys

#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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Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys

As I’m sure you know by now, it’s all about #ReadingRhys this week, an event dedicated to celebrating the work of the renowned writer Jean Rhys! You can read more about it here, together with a schedule of posts we have planned for the next few days.

Today I’m reviewing Tigers Are Better-Looking, a striking collection of Rhys’ short stories originally published in 1968. My 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers also includes nine pieces from Rhys’ first book, The Left Bank, a collection of early vignettes and sketches published in 1927. In this post, I’m going to concentrate on the eight stories from the first section of Tigers, dealing as they do with the disenfranchisement of women, capturing the melancholia and fragility of lives lived on the edge. (A second post, focusing on the nine early pieces from The Left Bank will follow later in the week.)

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Viewed in its entirety, Tigers is a truly remarkable collection of stories: devastatingly honest, emotionally truthful, searing in its depiction of the loneliness of the outsider.

The book is currently out of print, but fear not as I have some very exciting news for Rhys fans. I’m absolutely delighted to say that 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). And if that wasn’t enough, here’s sneak preview of the cover, a world exclusive courtesy of the lovely team at Penguin.

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Isn’t that a great cover? I for one cannot wait to see these stories back in print with Penguin!

Returning to Tigers, many of Rhys’ stories were inspired by elements of her own life. Some of her women are eking out a living as chorus girls or artists’ models; others are confined to tawdry rooms, seeking refuge in drink and sleeping tablets. Several are hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads.

Petronella, the protagonist of Till September Petronella, has hit a bad patch in life. Feeling depressed following the departure of her friend to Paris, she takes a trip to the country to see a young man, an artist by the name of Marston. If little else it will make a change from her dark and dingy room in the city, a chance to experience some country air for a couple of weeks. However, on her arrival at the cottage, Petronella is made to feel very uncomfortable indeed. Marston’s friends, Julian and Frankie, are unkind to her, treating her with contempt and disrespect. In the end, Petronella decides to leave, even though the thought of returning to her Bloomsbury bedsit is utterly dispiriting.

‘[…] Cheer up,’ he said. ‘The world is big. There’s hope.’

‘Of course.’ But suddenly I saw the women’s long, scowling faces over their lupins and their poppies, and my room in Torrington Square and the iron bars of my bedstead, and I thought, ‘Not for me.’ (p. 28)

This story illustrates a number of themes associated with the vulnerable female protagonists in Rhys’ fiction: the utter absence of hope in their lives; their marginalisation from conventional society (note the mention of the women’s long, scowling faces in the passage above, a sure sign of disapproval from ‘respectable’ people, especially other women); and finally, their attractiveness to the opposite sex. As she is travelling back to London, Petronella attracts the attention of two men: the first is a kindly farmer, a chap who imagines Petronella as someone he could see in the city ‘and have a good time with’; the second is a man she meets at the taxi rank at Paddington Station. When the latter takes Petronella to dinner, a familiar scenario plays out.

And everything was exactly as I had expected. The knowing waiters, the touch of the ice-cold wine glass, the red plush chairs, the food you don’t notice, the gold-framed mirror, the bed in the room beyond that always looks as if its ostentatious whiteness hides dinginess. (p. 33)

The story ends on a poignant note, the memory of a time when Petronella felt utterly exposed. It’s a haunting image.

Outside the Machine is another highlight. In this story, set in a clinic near Versailles, Inez is waiting for an operation as her ‘inside’ has gone ‘kaput’. As she lies in bed, Inez feels so out of place compared with some of the other patients in the ward, the ‘clean and aggressively respectable’ women who stare at her. When one woman gives Inez a ‘sharp, sly and inquisitive’ look, here’s what it communicates, albeit silently:

‘An English person? English, what sort of English? To which of the seven divisions, sixty-nine subdivisions, and thousand-and-three subsubdivisions do you belong? (But only one sauce, damn you.) My world is a stable, decent world. If you withhold information, or if you confuse me by jumping from one category to another, I can be extremely disagreeable, and I am not without subtlety and inventive powers when I want to be disagreeable. Don’t underrate me. I have set the machine in motion and crushed many like you. Many like you…’ (p. 81)

In some ways, the clinic itself is a metaphor for the wider world. Everything seems to run so fluently here, almost like clockwork. The other women in the ward are part of this environment; they fit within this world, functioning smoothly and efficiently.

The women in the beds bobbed up and down and in and out. They too were parts of a machine. They had a strength, a certainty, because all their lives they had belonged to the machine and worked smoothly, in and out, just as they were told. (p. 82)  

Inez, on the other hand, feels frightened and marginalised. Her exclusion from the ‘machine’ mirrors her relationship with life itself. She is an outsider; unfit for purpose, unfit for life itself.

She lay very still, so that nobody should know she was afraid. Because she was outside the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs and pick her up and put her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot. ‘Useless, this one,’ they would say; and throw her away before she could explain, ‘It isn’t like you think it is, not at all […]’ (p. 82)

Once again, this story ends on a poignant note. It’s a piece that will stay with me for a long time.

In several of these stories, the world is painted as a cruel, unforgiving place. Rhys’ protagonists feel they are treated with scorn and contempt (especially from other women). Sometimes these feelings are covert, taking the form of derogatory looks and surreptitious slights. In some ways, it is almost a relief to encounter an instance of open hostility.

His open hatred and contempt were a relief from the secret hatreds that hissed from between the lines of newspapers or the covers of books, or peeped from sly smiling eyes. (p. 112)

Rhys’ heroines tend to be suspicious of other women, often viewing them as dangerous, spiteful creatures capable of inflicting significant harm and damage. We see this in Petronella and Outside the Machine. It’s also there in The Lotus, a story of a lonely woman living in a shabby basement flat near Portobello Road; her surroundings are in stark contrast to those of her upstairs neighbours, Mr and Mrs Miles.

Men, on the other hand, serve a necessary if somewhat transient purpose in these women’s lives. They provide Rhys’ protagonists with money, meals and if they’re very lucky a little warmth and affection. Nevertheless, there is something rather empty and shallow about them, as illustrated by this description of Julian, Marston’s uncaring friend in Till September Petronella.

His beautiful eyes were little, mean pits and you looked down them into nothingness. (p. 22)

There is a sense that these men see Rhys heroines as playthings, a form of mild amusement for relatively brief periods of time, only to be sidelined once their allure has faded and they have served their main purpose.

Rhys draws on a variety of styles and techniques in these stories. There are snatches of stream of consciousness here and there, especially in the titular tale which closes with a rush of tormenting thoughts and phrases. Somewhat unusually for a Rhys story, it features a male protagonist, a Mr Severn, whose dear friend Hans has just left him. By contrast, Let Them Call It Jazz is written in short, simple sentences, a prose style which reflects the narrator’s inner voice. In this story, Selina, an immigrant from the Caribbean, encounters mistrust and prejudice wherever she goes.

Don’t talk to me about London. Plenty people there have heart like stone. Any complaint – the answer is ‘prove it’. But if nobody see and bear witness for me, how to prove anything? (p. 44)

This is a powerful, haunting story, another one that ends on a melancholy note. Like many of Rhys’ women, Selina doesn’t belong anywhere; she lacks the resources, monetary or otherwise, to buy her way to belonging. In short, she is tired of life. When I think of these stories, it is this tiredness I remember. Life for these women is debilitating – both wearying and frightening. I’ll finish with a passage on this feeling of anxiety.

If I could put it into words it might go, she was thinking. Sometimes you can put it into words – almost – and so get rid of it – almost. Sometimes you can tell yourself I’ll admit I was afraid today. I was afraid of the sleek smooth faces, the rat faces, the way they laughed in the cinema. I’m afraid of escalators and doll’s eyes. But there aren’t any words for this fear. The words haven’t been invented. (p. 129-130)

Jean Rhys found those words.

Welcome to Jean Rhys Reading Week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie revisited

Welcome to #ReadingRhys, a week centred on reading and discussing the work of Jean Rhys, now considered one the greatest writers of the 20th century. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this week Eric (of the Lonesome Reader blog) and I have teamed up to coordinate discussions about Jean Rhys’ writing and life. As a latecomer to Rhys’ work, I’m still working my way through her books which are distinct for their unique style and brutal honesty. Eric, Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens), Margaret Reardon (a long-standing Rhys fan) and I will be posting about all of Jean Rhys’ major books over the course of the week. During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There’s a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

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How to join in

Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write your own review or article about the book
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a Jean Rhys Reading Week Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book and her life
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week (see the below schedule)

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you. Plus, we’ll be happy to continue to discuss all things Rhys in the weeks that follow the event, particularly if you run short of time over the next few days.

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What we’ll post about this week

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week. These are the books we’ll be taking a lead on.

I’ll be focusing on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (coming up later in this post) and Rhys’ stories, plus I have a very exciting interview lined up for later in the week – all will be revealed in due course!

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Wednesday 14th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Thursday 15th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week. Please feel free to add a link to your post(s) in the comments below. In the meantime, if you have any particular thoughts or plans for the week, just let us know. You can also get in touch with us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

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Win a special Jean Rhys Prize Bundle!

As luck would have it, Penguin have recently reissued Rhys’ novel Good Morning, Midnight as part of their brightly-coloured Pocket Penguins series. You can read the first chapter of this brilliant novel here. As a special incentive to join in #ReadingRhys week, Eric and I will select one lucky person who makes a significant contribution to our discussions over the week to win a special Jean Rhys Package (courtesy of Penguin)!

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Revisiting ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’

In preparation for the event, I went back to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, a novella I reviewed last year – you can read my initial post here.

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Revisiting this book again, I was struck by a few additional things – firstly the author’s use of imagery to convey the harshness of the environment in which Julia, the central character, finds herself. Here’s a short quote from the Paris section of the story.

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice. (p. 16)

Similarly, London is portrayed as a cold and terrifying place offering little comfort to Julia, in her hours of greatest need.

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere. (p. 62)

There are lots of references to animals too. One gets the sense that the Rhys protagonist considers animals to be rather more dignified than many of the people she is forced to deal with. What you see is what you get, so to speak – with these creatures there is no pretence.

Julia said: ‘Animals are better than we are, aren’t they? They’re not all the time pretending and lying and sneering, like loathsome human beings.’ (p. 97)

Once again, the cruelty of society at the time comes through loud and clear. In effect, Julia is considered an outsider. Marginalised by her former lovers and family members alike, she is virtually forced into begging for assistance, an experience she knows will almost certainly end in utter humiliation.

Her face was red. She went on talking in an angry voice: ‘They force you to ask – and then they refuse you. And then they tell you all about why they refuse you. I suppose they get a subtle pleasure out of it, or something.’

Mr Horsfield said: ‘Subtle pleasure? Not at all. A very simple and primitive pleasure.’

‘It’s so easy to make a person who hasn’t got anything seem wrong.’ (pp. 64-65)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what really struck me was the precision of Rhys’ prose style. There are no superfluous words or descriptions here; everything is pared back to the bone to focus on the characters’ emotions. The use of descriptive passages is limited to those instances where the provision of some element of context is deemed vital to the story. As a consequence, the full effect is incredibly striking.

The members of my book group read this novel with me. As I had expected, opinions were fairly mixed with around half of the group feeling very little empathy or sympathy for Julia while others felt more understanding of the vulnerability of her position. This post is already on the long side, so I can say a little more about the various responses in the comments if people are interested. Everyone found something different in the book, especially in relation to Julia, which is an interesting finding in itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel if you’ve read it.

I hope to see you here again on Wednesday when I’ll be covering an excellent collection of Rhys’ stories, Tigers are Better-Looking. In the meantime, enjoy the week!