I was first introduced to Jean Rhys’ writing when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, in college probably. The fact that it was marketed as a prequel to Jane Eyre (a novel I rate highly), greatly piqued my interest. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book now other than the central premise it’s based on. I remember liking it at the time.
I had absolutely no clue then that she had a much stronger body of work published earlier. Those four novels – all stylistically similar – didn’t do well all those years ago, after which she fell into long spell of obscurity before Wide Sargasso Sea was published in her later life.
I don’t really recollect what got me started reading her earlier work a few years ago. It could be that her name always cropped up whenever Patrick Hamilton’s work was discussed. They do have the same type of protagonists – lonely characters seeking companionship in bars and drinks, although the writing styles are as different as chalk and cheese.
I had loved Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square. And seeing that Jean Rhys’ earlier novels were more often than not clubbed with Patrick Hamilton’s work, that was probably the starting point of my foray into her earlier oeuvre.
Anyway, Jean Rhys has been a great find. And Good Morning, Midnight (title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) is a strong piece of work.
This is how the book opens…
‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’
There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. 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 in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.
The narrator Sophia Jansen has come to Paris in what is her second stint in the city.
Sophia spends her days drinking in bars and cafes across the city. But she is afraid that if she drinks too much, will start crying, and that will not do.
She is paranoid about people judging her and talking behind her back. Maybe she is also imagining things?
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.
At the very start of the novel is it apparent that Sophia is suffering from depression, but we don’t know why. One gets the feeling that she is at the end of her tether.
The hotel rooms she stays in are the same, nothing really to differentiate one from the other. And the days are also marked by a debilitating sameness, the tedium of which she tries to break by steadily drinking.
My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.
Gradually, we are offered a glimpse into her past – her first stay in Paris, her marriage to a Dutchman called Enno, her brief return to London, only to visit Paris again.
As the focus shifts to her past, her fear of people, of being judged wrongly is present right from her youth as she flits between various jobs, which include being displayed as a mannequin. There is one extended scene in a clothing store where she is an assistant that is particularly heartbreaking – a conversation that she has with her superior’s boss Mr Blank, and her inability to perform a task given to her.
Mr Blank tells her to hand over an envelope to ‘the kis.’ But she is unable to find this person. She approaches Mr Blank again.
He takes the note from my hand. He looks at me as if I were a dog which had presented him with a very, very old bone, (Say something, say something…)
‘I couldn’t find him.’
‘But how do you mean you couldn’t find him? He must be there.’
‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t know where to find him.’
‘You don’t know where to find the cashier – the counting house?’
‘La caisse,’ Salvatini says – helpfully, but too late.
But if I tell him that it was the way he pronounced it thsat confused him, it will seem rude. Better not say anything…
There are some brief moments of happiness that she does find when she marries Enno, despite their day to day hurdles of eking out a life together in some European cities and eventually Paris.
As soon as I see him I know from his face that he’s got some money.
We go next door to a place called La Napolitaine and eat ravioli. Warming me. Eat slowly, make it last a long time.
I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m alive, eating ravioli and drinking wine. I’ve escaped. A door has opened and let me out into the sun. What more do I want? Anything might happen.
But we also feel the inevitability of this marriage ending. Indeed, it is the break-up of her marriage and another tragedy related to it that nearly push Sophia over the edge.
Meanwhile, in the present, in the hours spent away drinking and harking back to memories, Sophia also seeks out the company of men (a couple of Russians and a gigolo). The men are of a certain type – they look to sidle up to her thinking she is moneyed.
Sophia is not ignorant. She is aware of this reality, of why these men put up with her. And yet she does not put an end to seeking their company.
As is the case with most of the Rhys books I have read, there is no plot. The writing feels very impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, as most of the time we are inside Sophia’s head or in and out of flashbacks.
There is also nothing linear about the narrative, her train of thought or her journeys into the past. The timeline does not play a role here, rather it is Sophia’s emotional state that does.
When describing this novel, I can’t help but draw parallels to any Impressionist painting. The brushstrokes are vivid but the picture as a whole at first is hazy. Until you move back a little, and it all becomes clear. Good Morning, Midnight felt the same way. It started off as a series of impressions of Sophia’s drinking and her fragile state of mind. But as we moved back a little and got a peek into her past, the whole picture started becoming clearer.
Interestingly, while Sophia’s existence is bleak, as a narrator she is not always so. She refuses to be pitied, and there is some sense of detachment when she looks back to her past, as if she is watching her journey to ruin from a distance. There are also some tragically funny passages where she chides herself for not keeping up appearances.
The keeping up of appearances in public is ironic. Earlier in her life, Sophia had already done a stint as a mannequin in a department store. That was just a job, but now she believes she must play that role in real life too. Basically, wear a mask (metaphorically speaking), so people can’t gauge her real emotions.
I watch my face gradually breaking up – cheeks puffing out, eyes getting smaller. Never mind.
Besides, it isn’t my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly ‘You don’t like me, but I don’t like you either.’
How will it all end? Will Sophia’s endurance finally break or will things carry on as before?
Good Morning, Midnight is another strong offering from Jean Rhys’ oeuvre. Here is an excerpt from A.L. Kennedy’s excellent introduction to this novel:
Vivid fragments of sensory information swoop and lunge at the reader, establishing the rhythms of a bad drinking bout: one moment all docile clarity, the next a crush of sickened self-awareness, a lurch into the past, or a dreamscape, or a helpless re-examination of realities too dull and terrible to seem anything other than the products of a sick imagination.
Having now read most of her novels, I still rate Voyage in the Dark as her best, followed by this one. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie would be third. I still have Quartet to read but I don’t see it toppling the first two. Plus, I have an edition of her Collected Stories to get to.
But all of that will be after some time has passed by. Rhys is intense and can only be taken in small doses!