“I fell,” I said. “I fell for a hell of a long time then.”
I’ve read this beautiful, bruised, fizzling, dreamy novel four times. I’ve studied it and I’ve written on it for university. I’ve stared hard at the pages and tried to figure out just what about it is so special to me. Why I like it so much better than the other Rhys novels (this surely isn’t solely because it was my first.) Why something just about the words on the page looks beautiful to me, even when I cut out the meaning. The lyricism of the prose, the dreaminess of it, the shifting strangeness of it, and yet, its pared-down sparseness. It’s wistful but it is never flowery. It’s lean, but it is not cold, it is not bare. It isn’t lacking. There’s meat on those bones.
Anna. If you want to read the novels (excluding Wide Sargasso Sea) as a sequence—and acknowledging the autobiographical elements, the ages of the protagonists, the settings, it can be hard not to—then Anna kicks it off. Nineteen, at a loose end, displaced in almost every sense imaginable. Anna rides the tide, and when we join her she is at a low ebb. Sharing a boarding-house with her friend and fellow chorus-girl Maudie, she feels the contrast of the grey, labyrinthine streets of London with the abundant colours, flavours, scents of her childhood in the Caribbean intensely. The difference between hot and cold and colour and colourlessness is a motif that runs through the novel like a thread. Finding—not comfort exactly, but at least a place, in memory, in the past, Anna’s narrative is a jumbled-up soup of past and present, the witnessed and the remembered, and the half-imagined.
“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy.”
Anna, I found when I was fifteen. I still remember that night. I remember walking halfway down the staircase to where my parents’ bookcase is fastened to the wall, and leaning over the bannister to survey the cracked paperbacks that gather dust there. Something made me choose Voyage in the Dark. Probably it was the slimness of it. I remember is sitting there on a step and flicking through the yellowed pages, finding my eyes gluing to the words, the slinky words that seemed to move on the page. Anna was sat on the sofa in that boarding-house in Southsea, and she was reading Nana. It was her voice that hooked me, and it has me hooked since.
So as Anna reads ‘a book about a tart’, we get to witness Anna’s ‘fall’, as she becomes what society would deem one, herself. Rhys rights those ‘lies’ Maudie is convinced a male author will write about a promiscuous female. In what faintly resembles a bildungsroman, we follow Anna’s progress: the loss of her virginity; her initiation into romantic relationships as transactional; a lifestyle of hotel rooms and other people’s husbands and taxis back to rented rooms; of money deposited into handbags and under pillows. It surprises Anna how quickly she adapts to this lifestyle; in particular, accepting money from her first lover, Walter, after sex.
“I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.” (p.24)
Anna is not a prostitute, but as an unmarried woman in 1914, she is treading a fine line. Not even a mistress, she is advised by her female friends to get from Walter whatever she can. Maudie recommends securing a piece of real estate or, failing that, a fur coat. Anna faces another kind of displacement: the loss of her, already tenuous, reputation. As in each of the four modernist Rhys novels, landladies are forever on hand to disapprove, glowering from doorways, throwing out accusations. By the time Anna finds herself with the American Carl, she has entered what Kristin Czarnecki calls ‘pseudo-prostitution’. She isn’t quite fallen yet, but she is falling, and it’s a steady, headlong fall.
I love the experimentalism of Voyage in the Dark. Not only does Anna remember the past in flashback form, as well as embedded in the past-tense narrative, she is able to fully submerge herself in the past. Explorations of childhood—the suffocation, the confusion, the great injustices a child perceives—are tapped into with this potency, this realness, which leaves me in awe. The racial tensions and colonial guilt that afflict Anna as a child and as a young adult remembering being a child, sit snug in the present day depiction of England. The reader follows Anna as she walks down a London street and soon afterwards is plunged into the Caribbean. The confusion, of that contrast, is very effective. The reader feels it as Anna does. Anna, who can never get warm because the warmth she remembers from her past is more than the actual.
The experimentalism in Voyage in the Dark is syntactical, too. In traumatic moments, such as a meeting with her stepmother Hester, or the final section of the book (I won’t reveal what it contains, because that would be too huge a spoiler), there is a loss of punctuation. In these scenes, the words run along and hit into each other like beads on a string. We see Hester’s blinding, festering rage, her racism, her jealousy, her contempt for Anna, as Anna perceives it: one big block of words, a wall of words, a full-on rant. In the final section of the book, Anna’s emotional state is matched by the barely-there language, commas and full-stops forgotten, a stream-of-consciousness narrative which slips, confusedly, into memory and then surfaces again.
It isn’t just the exploration of gender roles or colonialism in the novel which interests me, it’s the Jean in this novel, because I know there’s a lot of Jean in Anna, just like there is in Marya (Quartet), Julia (After Leaving Mr Mackenzie) and Sasha (Good Morning, Midnight). It’s senseless to deny the Jean in these novels (after all, writing, for her, was more than anything a kind of ‘therapy’), but to mistake these novels for absolute autobiography is also blinkered. Some people did—assigning life events to Rhys that only happened to her fictional counterparts. It was this, in part, that made her pen her autobiography. But there are autobiographical elements to each of the novels, cut and paste straight from Rhys’ life. And I like to see Anna as the one who sparks it off. She’s dark, she’s dismal at times. She’s young, she’s barely even started yet, but she already feels it’s too late for her. Yet, Anna doesn’t have the utter hopelessness, the despairing attitudes of the older heroines. She has some of youth’s ability of shrug off all the shit and start again. She is more trusting (though this allows her to be manipulated, pushed and prodded around), less closed off than the others. She is probably the most likable. And I feel that it is with Anna that we see the fullest journey, even if her journey is a fall. She does a lot of mooching around in bed and conquering insomnia with wine, like the others, but that’s not it for her. There’s more shape to her narrative. And because you see her go from innocence to experience, from virginity to sexualisation, from childhood to adulthood and back again, from good time to bad, from boarding-house to hotel room t0 boarding-house again, you are able to feel—or I at least feel—a greater connection to her. It’s impossible not to transform with her as she grows; to feel, second-hand, the knocks that life gives her.
The Day After, Edvard Munch, 1894-5