Jean Rhys, the four novels

Moody listening for a Rhysian night:

It seems to me unfair that Jean Rhys’ first four novels get charged with being samey. There is a sameness to the texts without a doubt, but they each of them are individual (in tone, in voice, in situation and in perspective.) There are differences in character age, in financial situation, in levels of happiness or unhappiness, and in geography. We’re not supposed to read them as a sequence in the life of one person, and we’re certainly not supposed to assume they are Rhys trying on costumes, though we cannot help it to some extent (and to deny autobiography altogether would be senseless, going against what Rhys has said herself.) Ignoring Rhys, the characters are threaded still, though their personalities are not the same (I’m not even sure time/age could account for those differences.) Nonetheless they are threaded together by circumstance, by situation. They, each of them, use their sexuality to their advantage, but are also hindered by it. But their experiences and the situations they find themselves in are not the same. Anna discovers her sexuality, or rather, her sexual value; and Sasha is aware of the loss of hers. Marya cannot ‘play the game’; and Julia knows it is time, once upon, to pick herself up, dust herself off, and try and get on. Because that’s the refrain, right? ‘Get on or get out.’ 

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Review: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

When Under Milk Wood was first performed in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas’ one bit of advice to the cast was to ‘Love the words, love the words’. And reading Under Milk Wood, or better yet hearing it, the truth of his advice reveals itself. Written originally as a radio play, this really is a ‘play for voices’, and you imagine, performed visually, it must lose some of its potency (this is something I would like to find out for myself, one day.) Like a Shakespeare play, it stands alone in its language—its rich, punchy, poetic language; words that rest on your tongue, almost solid, or else are silky, slinky, sexy—and anything else detracts. The villagers’ voices stand apart and yet together, rising above the rooftops of Llareggub in a strange chorus. In the cycle of a day, the dreams, wishes, yearnings, endearing idiosyncrasies of the villagers take the helm one by one, but steered on by the evocative narration of the First Voice, the glue that stops them lifting off into that ‘starless and bible-black’ sky.

In the film The History Boys, teacher Hector says that he ‘would hate to turn out boys who, in later life, would claim to have a love of literature, or speak of the lure of language, and their love of words.’ This sardonic line always stuck with me, and I was inclined to agree. Words are just the paint we apply to the canvas, right? And it is the way we compose the paint, and the reason we chose those particular colours, that matters. But inUnder Milk Wood it really is as much about the words as the meaning behind them, to take you back to Thomas’ words of advice. This is like the baby who tests the new vowels on his tongue, overcome by the novelty of them. Thomas is having funhere. There are points where meaning is compromised for a rich sentence, and more often it’s just overdone—but gloriously so. Recently my tutor was saying that this has much to do with Thomas’ Welshness. That the English language was a new and exciting thing, something to play around with, something to experiment with—but I don’t know: he grew up speaking English, his parents spoke both Welsh and English.

Walford Davies’ introduction to my edition tells me that the origins of Under Milk Wood go back to 1932, ‘when Thomas and his Swansea friend Bert Trick began formulating very loosely a plan to write a Welsh Ulysses.’ Joyce’s influence, at that point, was on ‘the use of a twenty-four hour cycle in the town’s life,’ but by the time the play was actually written, twenty years later, Davies writes that Joyce’s ‘influence survived at a more important level. … Apart from the Joycean puns and verbal inventiveness in general, there is in Under Milk Wood the particular influence of the Circe nighttown episode in Ulysses, itself a kind of “play for voices”.’ (p.xiii) I have never read Joyce (always been afraid to; figure I’ll postpone it until I’m old and wrinkly and hopefully wise,) but I love the idea of this, and I will definitely return to the play once I’ve read Ulysses. For me,Under Milk Wood fits firmly within the modernist mode, or at least its inheritance, and reading it for the first time last summer, I was reminded continually of Mrs Dalloway and, more so, ‘The Waste Land’. The way it skips person to person, apparently without motive, because everybody’s threaded together in some way, and its delight in sounds and sights, was deliciously reminiscent for me. The second section of ‘The Waste Land’—‘A Game of Chess’—in which two women discuss a third in a closing pub (HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,) could fit snugly within Under Milk Wood’s pages.

Playful, ardent, human, sometimes unsettling, pure poetry, that’s Under Milk Wood for me.

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Jean Rhys: Woman in Passage by Helen E. Nebeker

Although this was an interesting approach to Rhys’ texts, and I came away from it with some useful insights, I disagreed with most of what Nebeker argued and found her fixation on Freudian symbols and Jungian archetypes reductionist and -silly. I have to agree with Diana Athill who found Nebeker’s “Jungian interpretations too tidy to be convincing” (p.45). But the thing that riled me really was the unnecessarily verbose, poetic?, way that the study was written. I’ll just leave you with a taster:

This … is the entangling seaweed in which Rhys leaves us floating, bound as inextricably as the eternal plankton holds the helpless sailors in currentless tropical seas. … The psychic journey from west to east, from death to life, from ignorance to understanding, cannot be completed. Those who make the journey must end in madness and death like the unfortunate, innocent Antoinette. The rest of us, sane and alive in the endless cycle, must remain adrift, becalmed. We are engulfed in waters unexpectedly chill in the heat of day. Male and female, we are ensnared, alien and afraid, in the slimy weeds of the Wide Sargasso Sea! (p.200)

Give me strength.

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Review: Half Broken Things by Morag Joss

Lonely people don’t want to be alone. For them, solitude has none of the glamour that those of us with choice perceive. People like Jean, the protagonist and part-narrator of Half Broken Things, who never, for a combination of reasons, married, or had kids, find themselves watching from the outside in. Older now, without parents living, they feel loneliness chipping away, a prodding reminder of what they missed out on. Mostly the days pass with dull routine, and the way it is depicted in Joss’ novel reminds me of a passage in Jane Eyre that always got to me:

Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes–include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun

And that’s just it, for lonely people like Jean. The days are made up of pieces, just as the weeks are made up of days. She makes a living as a housesitter, having nothing permanent of her own—instead, an ever-shifting parade of houses to occupy until the next one. This seems to content her. But then come reminders—like Christmas, that preserve of the loved. Jean spends her Christmases at a boarding-house, surrounded by other older men and women, most of them kinless. Jean, despite being in a situation that is not unique, cannot admit reality. She tells them, year after year of a family. A niece, at first, who sends her gifts. A new item of clothing which Jean is able to flaunt at the boarding-house. But the phantom niece is always mysteriously absent, and never has Jean over for Christmas. The natural conclusion in Jean’s mind is that her niece must have married, and moved away, as far away as Australia. These are only hints at the depths of Jean’s imagination, and her ability to not only delude those around her, but herself.

Imagine, then, that suddenly—when you’re firmly into your autumn years, retirement approaching; when you’ve given up all hope of anything more—opportunity affords itself. A life, not your own, a package-holiday of a life. A home, not yours. Different, this time. A broken teapot and a handful of loose keys. Keys which fit doors that were forbidden you. Furniture, not yours. Clothes, fancy ones, in a wardrobe, not yours. A family, not yours. But maybe, temporarily, yours—if you pretend. If you piece together yourself, gather together a reality of sorts. Find in Walden Manor, your last house, in vulnerable Steph and troubled Michael, and the baby, something you had not dared dream of before. A place, a worth. You realise that, collectively, you are only half broken things.

This book to me has that pull within it that only a handful of my favourite books do. If I return to it, even if only to track down my favourite scenes, I am transported back to when I first read it, about five years ago. It has atmosphere. I would call it gothic, but cleverly it couples its gothic elements with realism. This is modern Britain: the deadening dullness of middle-class suburbia; an urban Britain people get lost in, council estates and shopping centres. These are where we find the family: unhappy—in one case abused—disillusioned people. They emerge from their situations and together find in Waldon Manor, not only a place of fantasy, but of sanctuary. Equally as I read Half Broken Things for the first time, I was able to leave behind my own life and join them in their constructed world. It had that same escapism as reading, again,Jane Eyre, but it was more potent to me because the characters had come from backgrounds that were real to me.

As well as a piercingly accurate depiction of loneliness, of yearning to be loved, and the sweet complacency of finding that love, companionship, and that sense of belonging, Half Broken Thingsis also an incredibly effective thriller. Danger, in the face of cold reality, lurks beneath, an undercurrent. That undercurrent grows stronger, and stronger. Reading, we know, just as Jean knows really, just as Michael and Steph know, that the fantasy cannot last forever. Time and reality are against us. The effect is incredible. Watching Jean react to this—the threat—is fascinating. It’s a truly well-observed psychological study. And the ending, wow the ending.

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The Final Chapter: The Letters of Jean Rhys, 1931-1966

I think I’ve seen every side of you now, Jean. As many as I’m ever going to be able to see, anyway. Firstly your photographs, which captivated me with your eyes looking right into mine, the same posture, almost the same expression, years apart.

Jean, the confessor.

Then your fiction, which cast you in my mind as a desperate figure, unable to ‘get on’. Brittle around other people, beaten down but doing yourself no favours. I assumed that that was all you. I liked the idea that it was but it also frightened me, that someone could always feel that lonely, that displaced, that desperate, that angry.

Afterwards I read your biography which was more forgiving. It showed up how much—at least in Voyage in the Dark and Quartet—was real and how much was fiction. I saw the echoes that would reverberate into Wide Sargasso Sea. You told me your history. Your childhood in Dominica, your family life (kind but emotionally distant father; cold, unforgiving mother) and your growing up in England (drama school—to the stage—chorus girl—first lover—first taste for drink.) Generally you showed me a happier, more rounded portrait of yourself.

And now – now I’m done, because I’ve read your letters. And these really are the final chapter because they pick up from 1931, when you were forty-one, and finish in 1966, the year ofWide Sargasso Sea’s publication and thirteen years before your death.

The concerns of your letters tend to be the writing process—one of rewriting and starting again—and your financial problems. I followed your progress as Wide Sargasso transmuted multiple times into what it would finally become. Your letters deal with changing circumstance—financial, marital, the beginnings of fame—but always with that same voice. Light and anxious, moving from topic to topic impatiently, yet always apologising for yourself—for not being interesting enough, for not having enough to say—revealing an eagerness to please.

The voice in your letters is not the voice in your fiction. It doesn’t suit the face in your photographs either. I thought that beneath your fears you could be quite hard sometimes. Not so in your letters—and I know I have to remind myself it is your social voice speaking. Rarely do people say the things they really want to say in a letter. I think really my problem is that your fiction has become such a part of my life—that strange, quiet voice with its piercing accuracy has become such a part of my life—that it was just strange to hear you like this, your real voice perhaps.

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Jane Eyre was my second home

A book can be a home, can’t it? When you’re sad, beat-up, unhappy; when you’re discontented with what you find around you; when you’re lonely or lost; and when you’re angry too. It can be the best home when you’re happy as well, if you aren’t so distracted that you neglect your reading. Those happy hours you spent reading a book, the loveliness of which matched your mood—those hours might be said to score into your memories better than any other. Just passing by the book years later, in a shop or your own bookshelf or someone else’s, sends a warm feeling to you, right to your belly; and you can stand there, not even needing to open it up, not needing to read the words. Just touching your finger to the book-spine, you remember what it was to you. Just like certain smells are like triggers back to those far-off days of your childhood. Just like certain songs might remind you of certain lovers. That book you read from daylight to darkness, holed up in your bedroom, in the library at school while the other kids played, and later—when reading became less of a secret thing—in the orange glow of the living-room, lying the wrong way across an armchair, legs dangling over the edge—-Of course here I slip into my own experiences. I can’t help it. A book can be a home, has always been a place I can crawl into, and sit, knees drawn up, eyes and ears shut to the outside world. It still is, but not so much these days. I half envy the years of my adolescence I spent utterly absorbed in the written word world. I was closed off, living in fiction, breathing dusty lives that were never lived, and yeah I missed out on a lot, but I was happy, I was content, I had this way of switching off—as soon as I found a nook, and cracked open a book, smoothed down its page-corner, I was somewhere else completely, a place I couldn’t find anywhere else.

It was in this manner that I found Jane Eyre. I say now that is was the book that made me a reader, but of course I read before that, but only really children’s books. I found Jane Eyre when I was twelve, and it was a revelation. After that I couldn’t stop, I consumed the classics—and it was something about the classic, the Victorian classic, that appealed. The lumpy, drawn-out sentences—semi-colons littered like Charlotte Bronte had thrown them up in the air and let them rest on the page wherever they fell. I liked the way they spoke, I liked the way they thought, and the way they acted. I liked the misery and the hopelessness and that that misery and hopelessness could be matched by the colour of the sky and ruggedness of the landscape. That people’s miseries were not like mine, colourful and plastic and content on the surface, but gothic and gaudy and matched by the elements. I liked that Love existed like this physical entity that you would get your hands on eventually; that once Jane met Rochester it was like Rochester said, that they had that thread tying them together, her rib connected to his. I needed to believe in this world that novels like Jane Eyrepromised me, where everything was magnified—every feeling, every action, every speech. And for a long while I would not read anything but Victorian classics. I limited myself like that. I took a pleasure in the distance—time, space, reality—that they afforded me, that they have afforded readers for as long as they have existed.

I return to Jane Eyre now like I might return to a house I once lived in. It isn’t quite as I remembered it—maybe, the décor is slightly different than in my memories, or it’s simpler now, not as sophisticated as I remembered. And I see flaws that other writings have taught me to notice—Bertha is shut away but she is also silenced; Rochester manipulates and lies—but I love it with the nostalgia that you have for any place that was a home. And reading it again I love its vividness, its visual command, the feelings it stokes up in me. I read Jane Eyre and I become reacquainted with Jane, and Rochester, and Mrs Fairfax, and Adele. It’s like being reunited with dear old friends. Their words, they have as much pull as they did eight years ago. I feel it all afresh. The sensations, the feelings, the contentment I found. I stumble across new things too, happy things. For example, that the best thing about Jane and Rochester’s glorious relationship is their banter, which maybe you wouldn’t expect. They’re funny, they get each other just like that. I can imagine them living so happily after the final page ends, without the need for any society but their own, because they have laugher tied in so closely with their love that it’s a knot. Well, I say just their own society—but I guess I’ll be there too, anytime I like, anytime I feel like it, if I just go back.

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Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Do you know what it is to be lonely?

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her hand-writing was the best thing about her. But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, ‘Goodness, you’re a quick reader!’ when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don’t know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground.

Notes on a Scandal is many things. It’s a thriller. It’s about sexual repression. It’s topical, discursive; it asks the questions we shy away from on the topics that the tabloids scream about on a daily basis. Underage sex, student-teacher relationships. Where can we lay the blame, and how much of it? Mob mentality, the hunger of press. I remember when a teacher of mine had an affair with a girl two years above me at school, and the tabloids made more of a deal out of her lesbianism than that her lover had been sixteen. It’s all relevant and it’s all interesting. As much as it’s a social commentary with its finger right on the pulse, Heller’s novel has the feel of a thriller. A thriller with nuance. To me though, more than anything, Notes on a Scandal is a study on loneliness.

It is just as much about the Notes as it is the Scandal. Although in her narration, Barbara invites you in, has you lend her an ear, is shamelessly, unnervingly honest with you, reading her has that same half-exciting, half-distressing quality of reading someone’s diary without them knowing it. You’re waiting to be found out. Barbara is a keeper of secrets, her own and then Sheba’s—at least for a while—and that’s what she is good at. But her narration is utterly unbuttoned. She is direct and honest about everything, except perhaps her sexuality, which is hinted at and referred back to through memory but never explicitly addressed, but only because Barbara, you get the feeling, isn’t quite comfortable with it. She tests the water and recoils back from its touch.

What Barbara knows best is loneliness and it is her loneliness that propels the story she is telling. It is Barbara’s loneliness that has her seek out Sheba as a friend, companion, confidante—the new woman at work, fresh meat. She is tactical with people, shrewd; she has been in her work-place long enough to know that she has no chance at winning over her colleagues, and no desire to anyway. Barbara is adept at looking down her nose at those around her, and I think that’s another of the brilliant aspects of this book. Barbara is lonely, seedily lonely, but you as the reader can see why. She really is an awful person, the kind you would avoid. You can imagine her eyes assessing you over the lenses of her glasses; her smirk, which tells you she has you all figured out. She is vile about everyone around her to some extent. The high standards that arise from those who mostly enjoy only the highest form of company: their own. Even Sheba falls victim to Barbara’s gloriously bitter quips. But nonetheless Barbara sees something in Sheba. Is it a quality she admires? Is it someone she can easily bend and shape to her own preferences? Is it her newness, her novelty, in Barbara’s universe?

In the face of her situation Barbara is a surprisingly good companion, and that’s essential in a first-person narrative. I could see that Barbara was a rather awful person but like her at the same time. It wasn’t even so much that I felt sorry for her or could see that it was a barrier she had put up. It was her perspective on things, or better yet, her way of putting things; her sharp-angled, satirical lens, that she forces the reader to see things through. It is surprisingly easy to see as she does: sarcastically, self-righteously, and delighting in schadenfreude. As someone who forever looks out, she is a keen observer. Perhaps Barbara appeals to that side of us, of what we to small extent are and can be.

There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness – seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realised.

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