A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Fiction shares much with its narrative siblings drama, film, epic, myth and non-fiction, but what makes it unique is that it can let us into someone’s mind, and into more than one person’s at that. If you want to point out that so, too, can memoir, the crossover genre which uses the techniques of fiction to write autobiography, I’d agree, and it would be part of my point. Because one of the things which bedevils anyone who wants to write about Jean Rhys’s fiction is that if ever there was a writer telling stories through the prism of her own consciousness, it’s Rhys. Her succèss fou, Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 after twenty years of silence, is a classic example of a writer finding her perfect subject, but also of the zeitgeist having finally caught up with a writer who had always been ahead of her time. The succès d’estime of her four pre-War novels and short fiction had not been matched by any financial or emotional stability in her life; she married three times and was widowed twice, suffered the death of one of her two children, became an alcoholic and, having been born into the tiny white élite of Dominica, felt an outsider wherever she lived in Europe. According to Diana Athill, her editor at André Deutsch, throughout her life Rhys found the simplest practicalities beyond her. Since Rhys herself said, ‘I have only ever written about myself’, it’s hard not to read the women in her fiction as mere self-portraits, and her spare prose style, with its slip-sliding of times and themes, as simple, or even simplistic.
But to read the novels as disguised memoir, to use them solely as evidence of Rhys’s own life and consciousness, would be to misread them very badly indeed. Good Morning Midnight (1939) is a masterly, terrifying novel in its own brief and perfect right. It is the story of Sasha Jansen, who has come to Paris on borrowed money to recapture the happiness and exorcise the pain of her previous life there. Only it’s not really ‘the story of Sasha’: in re-reading the novel I found myself feeling that it is Sasha:
It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.
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 place to have my drink in after dinner… Wait, I must be careful about that. These things are very important…
This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafés, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully.
She doesn’t tell her story, she lives it as we all live our lives, the past in solution with the present, as Stevie Davies puts it, her only difference from the rest of us that her mind and heart are naked to the reader, though never to the other characters: the mannequin job; the hat-shop; the waiters who know her and the ones who don’t, yet; the family in London who find her an embarrassment; the impulsive, penniless marriage in Brussels; the sage femme who bound her after the birth and leaves her with “not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease”; the husband who left; “the drowing… and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter”; and now “I’m a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely – dry, cold and sane”; and a Europe whose fault-lines are about to crack open.
It should be depressing, and it is, in one sense: one of the ways Rhys’s achievement has finally been recognised is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experience when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. But Rhys is no crude feminist: her women are helpless and sad, not angry or militant. And yet Sasha’s saving grace is her humour, her willingness to see the comedy, even absurdity, in the most bitter memories and humiliating encounters. Perhaps that’s why she can embrace – literally – an end to the novel which is quietly, hopelessly terrifying: she more than anyone else in the novel understands the pointlessness and inevitability of the comédie humaine. Good Morning Midnight is one of those novels which makes the reader smell and feel their own world anew. By admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once helpless and sharp-eyed, so thin-skinned that we too feel the icy wind on the café terrace and the tilt of a head with a new hat and the ashiness of new blond cendré hair, Rhys refigures our own consciousness of our own existence.
ISBN 978-0141183930, 1939, Penguin Modern Classics, 176pp.