The most enduring result of my first-semester first-year English course, aside from a healthy disdain for both DH Lawrence and James Joyce, was a love of Jean Rhys. I haven’t read Good Morning, Midnight since I was 17… and a lot more callow than I realised at the time.
Reading at this at 40 was, unsurprisingly, a whole other thing.
The first thing that I have to say is that whoever wrote the blurb for the Penguin edition really didn’t understand it. In the first sentence they very bluntly set out two things that are serious revelations in the book; and then the last sentence of the summary is just wrong. I don’t know whether they read the book and didn’t get it, or whether the summary was written from third-hand information, or what. But what I can say is: don’t read this blurb. It’s also deeply unsympathetic, which made me cranky.
Sasha is in Paris. It’s the late 1930s, and she’s been in a bad way, but she’s better now. Honest. As she walks around Paris, much of the novel is taken up with reminiscing – about being in Paris in the heady post-war days when she was a Bright Young Thing, or living like it anyway. The Sasha doing the remembering is a bit older than I am now. She has lived a lot, experienced joy and tragedy, struggled with identity – all the things you would expect for someone in her late 40s.
There’s little action in this novel – and let’s be honest, that makes it a bit unusual for me. It’s a deeply internal novel, although it never gets to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It’s an emotional novel, although it never tried to make the reader experience wild and tumultuous feelings: it balances the line between clinical – here’s what happened – and drawing the portrait of Sasha’s experiences so finely that honestly, at the end, I felt a bit exhausted. It’s short; I read it in a day. And when I finished I had to go dig out the bottle of Pernod from the back of the cupboard and sit and have a quiet drink. (Sasha drinks a lot of Pernod in her time in Paris.) Rhys writes so… matter-of-factly about life, and the difficulties of life. Her genius is in not making it melodramatic and also not detached.
In an odd way I see a connection between this and The City We Became; Paris is an integral part of the novel. The places Sasha goes, and the influence cafes and faubourgs and parks have on her mood – it reminds us that a place isn’t always only, or just, a place; it’s a trigger for emotions and memory, sometimes even a repository of them. As with The City, I don’t know Paris – I’ve visited once but didn’t invest in the place that deeply. I can only imagine what it would be like reading this as someone who knows the area.
I love this book. It’s not likely to be one I re-read every year; I’m not sure I have the emotional resilience for that. But every few years, now that I’m reminded of it? Absolutely.
Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.
Some years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.
In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.
“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.
“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.
Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.
This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.