From rum to gay - Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys’s gift was singular, fugitive, volatile – as was she, which made for a fitful literary career. But it was a long and productive one, too. There are fifty-one stories here, bringing together three collections – The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976) – with five uncollected tales. This volume first appeared in the United States in 1987, but this is the first time it has been published in the UK.

Though Rhys (1890–1979) had written since her teens, she was thirty-seven before her first book, The Left Bank, appeared. It came with a preface from her editor (and lover), Ford Madox Ford. Introducing his new author, he seemed as disquieted as he was impressed by her techniques and her commitment; so much so that his puffing-up strays into fantasy: “with cold deliberation”, he writes, “she eliminated even such two or three words of descriptive matter as had crept in her work”. Well! “Brrrrr!”, as Rhys writes in one story, of an especially stark prospect.

The stories in The Left Bank are often very short, but are hardly denuded. Here are glimpses, curiosities, street scenes. In these spates of impressions and perceptions, Rhys combines sensitivity and dash to bring us the ethnography of a nightclub (“Tout Montparnasse and a lady”) and a jazz café (“In a Café”) and a department store staff canteen (“Mannequin”), each as crowded as a sketchbook page. “In the Luxembourg Gardens” illustrates a pick-up, and would not look out of place in a seaside postcard-rack, while the narrator of “Illusion” is a demi-monde Miss Marple, keenly investigating a “gentlemanly” female friend’s proclivity for hoarding frocks. Each character comes fully accoutred, with pipe or dirty waistcoat, spectacles, or monocle, green hat or yellow wig, string bag, silver rings – and ready to peer cautiously through atelier doors, or rush into a café, or burst into song.

Their situations run from “rum” to “gay”, though with a marked tendency to the former. Montparnasse is described as “full of tragedy – all sorts – blatant, hidden, silent, voluble, quick, slow”. The voice that tells all this is sometimes abject, but more often downright larky, if savagely so. It can declare: “Poor Sara . . . also a Romantic!” Or “Poor André! Let us hope he had some compensation for forgetting for once that ‘eat or be eaten’ is the inexorable law of life”. It can lament, damn and dispense. It isn’t cruel, though. How could it, why would it, out-cruel such a cruel world? In fact it can conjure pure pity. Of an exhausted drunk, Rhys writes, “She sighed heavily, instinctively, as a dog sighs”.

Rhys was herself a drunk. And in “Mixing Cocktails” it seems we see her commit herself to the bottle, or reveal the reasons why a person might do so. This is one of a suite of stories that hang on memories of Rhys’s native Dominica. In it, the narrator’s afternoon is ruined, because, we are told, baldly, “all the rest were there”. It is here, in this story, and this book, that the knots of temper start to flare and the tone tightens into Rhys’s characteristically unsparing vehemence:
So soon does one learn the bitter lesson that humanity is never content just to differ from you and let it go at that. Never . . . .
 I long to be like Other People! The extraordinary, ungetatable, oddly cruel Other People, with their way of wantonly hurting and then accusing you of being thin-skinned, sulky, vindictive, or ridiculous.
“Ungetatable”: that feels like the key, and this got-at person gives it to her tormentors by taking vengeance on – herself! She has, she says, “an uncanny intuition as to how strong I must make each separate drink. Here then is something I can do . . . . Action they say is more worthy than dreaming”.

So many of the characters in The Left Bank long to take action – and never of the constructive kind. Anna has a strong urge to run away from that department store. “Anywhere! . . . away from the raking eyes of customers and the pinching fingers of Irene.” “I won’t be able to stick it”, she says to herself, and has, “an absurd wish to gasp for air”. Out on the street, she is happier, in a “beautifully cut tailor-made and beret”. Nice clothes, at least, are a help, a pacifier, in Rhys-land. As are sleep and dreams. And drink.

Told in the third and first persons, the stories in The Left Bank are nonetheless ordered to suggest one drifting mind, its accesses of attention and interest. There is a sense of sorting through, of turning over, but a concurrent liability to start scrabbling, or to lose hope or patience. These narrators are often happy to snatch back what has been laid out, or to dismiss the reader curtly. “Hunger” ends: “I cannot amuse you any longer”. We are “Other People”, too, at those times.

The last story, “Vienne”, harnesses these tendencies in all their roiling glory. We meet a couple on the run – from Vienna to Budapest, to Prague, to London. Frances is looking back: to the summer of 1921 when Pierre made money “on the ’change”. She enjoyed that. “Spending and spending. And there was always more.” Until there wasn’t. Recalling her past humiliation, her unconcern slides into a stream of consciousness that writhes with panic, clearly host to a trauma. Here is a blasted sensibility, horrified at where it finds itself and in a state of frightening neurasthenic alert: a sofa is “disapproving”, a man’s back is “revengeful – catastrophic”. It is a relief for the reader when the voice drifts into dreaminess, shuffling the words into anastrophe, or dropping them altogether: “Nice to have lots of money – nice, nice. Goody to have a car”.

Was Rhys aware of the currents in modernist fiction? Of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922); or Virginia Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday (1921)? Perhaps not, for all of Ford’s mentoring. In 1964 she wrote to Francis Wyndham, bemoaning the fact that she had “never read a long novel about a mad mind or an unusual mind or anybody’s mind at all. Yet it is the only thing that matters”. It is no denigration to say her prose lacks the psychological depth of these coevals. It is more immediate, reactive: caught and fraught. She wrote elsewhere of her pleasure in making her fiction take “shape”. She also spoke of the “relief” this brought her.

In Smile, Please (1979) the autobiography Rhys began to dictate in the last months of her life – she was eighty-nine when she died that same year – she describes her first surge of writing. She was twenty, heartbroken, and had bought notebooks, pen and ink only to adorn a “bare and very ugly” table in her room in Fulham. And then: “it happened. My fingers tingled, and the palms of my hands”. She wrote through the night, “what he’d said, what I’d felt”. When her landlady rattled up with her breakfast tray, she said, “the gentleman in the room below has complained about you . . . . He thought he heard you crying and laughing”. Rhys pushed the woman back out of her room and “slammed the door in her face”.

Elsewhere in that book, Rhys says, “as always when I am desperate, I am able to fight”. And at first, even when she was desperate – as she mostly was; hers was a hair-raising, rackety life – she was able to write. Rhys published four novels in eleven years: Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). The long gap that followed is largely explained by the war, during which she dodged from bolthole to bolthole, testing the patience of her various hosts with her drinking and rages. Her daughter was incommunicado in occupied Holland, and the worry told on Rhys. She had divorced her first husband in 1933, her second husband died in 1945, and she married again. She was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and spent time in Holloway prison for attacking a neighbour. She wrote, or began, short stories, though none was to see the light of day for years. For a long time she was thought dead by her publishers, and in Beckenham, where she lived, she was accused of being a deluded impersonator of herself. In 1945 she claimed to have “a novel half finished” but it was 1957 before she signed a contract for Wide Sargasso Sea, and 1966 before it was finally ready to be published.

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