Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels

A treasure chest containing forgotten gems of the stunningly talented Rhys. I was double-barrel shotgunned with the recommendation to read Rhys from two of my recently read authors, Heather O’Neil and Masha Tupitsyn, the latter interspersing quotes from Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight in her story, Proverbial. When I read Good Morning Midnight a week after reading Tupitsyn’s piece, phrases echoed in my head and I frantically searched through the earlier novels to see if Rhys was continuing a theme (blond cendré, prince or prostitute, sheets changed twice on Sunday). Staring out the window of an airplane, I had an a-ha moment and realized Rhys was echoing from my earlier reading of Tupitsyn. Minor mental victory.
What to say about Rhys? Her writing career is presented in this collection as a play in two acts: Act 1- the 1930s Parisian/London novels, Act 2 – her famous Wide Sargasso Sea depicting the Caribbean island she grew up on. The 1930s works are glittering, hard gems, with themes that become familiar repetitions: single girl with no money has sex for money, has either child that dies or an abortion, drinks excessively. Wide Sargasso Sea penned 30 years later is a dreamier landscape of color and madness, “everything is too much.. too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” The roles reversed in this later book, the girl has the money and is married off to a grasping man who encourages her madness.
Of the 1930s works, Good Morning Midnight is the strongest, showcasing her growing skill which inexplicably goes dark for a few decades after its publication in 1939. What price, war?
Devastating blows with single sentences then fantastic description follows. Four perfect paragraphs, all lovely for different reasons, all together on top of each other:

Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armour at home.
Théodore’s is more expensive than most of the restaurants round here and it is not very full. I watch the girl opposite cutting up the meat on her plate. She prongs a bit with her fork and puts it into her companion’s mouth. He eats, registers pleasure as hard as he can, prods round for the best bit on his plate and feeds her with it. At any moment you expect these two to start flapping wings and chirping.
Then there’s a middle-aged couple with their napkins tucked under their chins and a pretty woman accompanied by her husband – husband, I think, not lover.
These people all fling themselves at me. Because I am uneasy and sad they all fling themselves at me larger than life. But I can put my arm up to avoid the impact and they slide gently to the ground. Individualists, completely wrapped up in themselves, thank God. It’s the extrovert, prancing around, dying for a bit of fun – that’s the person you’ve got to be wary of.

Powerful one-liners:

That’s my idea of luxury – to have the sheets changed every day and twice on Sundays.

Shrugging and going with the flow:

Usually, in the interval between my afternoon sleep and my night sleep I went for a walk… I got in the habit of walking with my head down… I was walking along in a dream, a haze, when a man came up and spoke to me.
This is unhoped-for. It’s also quite unwanted. What I really want to do is to go for my usual walk, get a bottle of wine on tick and go back to the hotel to sleep. However, it has happened, and there you are. Life is curious when it is reduced to its essentials.

More apathy:

Well, there you are. It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…

After being told she is stupid:

An extremely funny monologue is going on in my head – or it seems to me extremely funny. I want to stop myself from laughing out loud, so I say, ‘We’re getting very high-toned. What is a cérébrale, anyway? I don’t know, Do you?’
‘A cérébrale,’ he says, seriously, ‘is a woman who doesn’t like men or need them.’
‘Oh, is that it? I’ve often wondered. Well there are quite a lot of those, and the ranks are daily increasing.’
‘Ah, but a cérébrale doesn’t like women either. Oh no. The true cérébrale is a woman who likes nothing and nobody except herself and her own damned brain or what she thinks is her brain.’

Tirade against her employer:

He looks at me with distaste. Plat du jour – boiled eyes, served cold…
Well, let’s argue this out, Mr Blank. You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me 400 francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me 400 francs a month, to lodge me in a small dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word. We can’t all be happy, we can’t all be rich, we can’t all be lucky – and it would be so much less fun if we were. Isn’t it so, Mr Blank? There must be the dark background to show up the bright colours. Some must cry so that the others may be able to laugh more heartily. Sacrifices are necessary… Let’s say that you have this mystical right to cut my legs off. But the right to ridicule me afterwards because I am a cripple – no, that I think you haven’t got. And that’s the right you hold most dearly, isn’t it? You must be able to despise the people you exploit.

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie had some quotable bits as well:

At first the landlady had been suspicious and inclined to be hostile because she disapproved of Julia’s habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes; a bottle, no….
Julia was not altogether unhappy. Locked in her room – especially when she was locked in her room – she felt safe. She read most of the time.