Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Good Morning, Midnight


I stayed there, staring at myself in the glass. What do I want to cry about? … On the contrary, it's when I am quite sane this like this, when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realise how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something. … Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want? … I'm a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely – dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle, the drowning … Mind you, I'm not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.

The cover of my Penguin edition shows
a detail from The Girl with a Tattered Glove
 by William Nicholson, which has just
the right note of sadness.
Well, today I'm still in Paris, but I've abandoned the wealthy, sparkling world of Nancy Mitford for the dark, shabby streets of Jean Rhys. The world she describes in Good Morning, Midnight, couldn't be more different, and her characters scratch a living as best they can. Sasha is as much seduced by the city as Grace, but any dreams of love she ever had have long since been smashed. There's a rawness and intensity here that is lacking in 'The Blessing', and somehow, despite everything that happens to her, Sasha is honest in way that Grace isn't. And the way the novels are written is very different as well.

I can still remember how knocked out I was when I first read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' - it was a whole new way of looking at a novel, and rethinking the way I saw heroes and villains. And I was just as knocked out by 'Good Morning, Midnight'.

It's 1936 and Sasha, as she calls herself, has returned to Paris where she lived for many years. As she wanders the city fragments of her past come to light: her child, a white, silent baby boy, lying dead in the hospital with a ticket tied round his wrist before ever she leaves the nursing home; her husband moving out of her life on a train; the jobs which didn't work out and the men who abandoned her.

Then there are the rooms where she has lived, in Holland, Brussels, Paris and London. The locations may change, but the rooms are always the same: small, riddled with bugs, in cheap buildings, in poor streets. She dreams of a room, a nice room, a nice light room, a beautiful room, a beautiful room with a bath, but it never happens. Lonely and desolate, she is unable to cope with the practicalities of everyday life, and gets by with the aid of drink and sleeping pills. And, like a child avoiding the cracks in the pavement she has an armoury of charms and rituals to protect her from the world – all will be well if she can only avoid certain streets, certain cafes, certain bars.

The Medici Fountain in thJardin du
Luxembourg, where Sasha stands and
watches the fish
.
There are times when a certain jaunty optimism surfaces. She will drink to a Miracle, she will have a new hair-do, buy a new hat, and tomorrow she will be pretty and happy again and everything will be all right, but you know there can be no happy ending here. Sasha appears vulnerable, a perpetual victim, easy prey for the young gigolo, or the young Russian and his painter friend.

However, she has tremendous self-knowledge. She knows exactly who and what she is, and she is a surprisingly good judge of character. Cynical and disillusioned, she can spot a crook or a conman a mile off, but is prepared to let herself be taken in – I think she craves some kind of human contact, however bad the experience and its consequences may be.

From the moment she attaches herself to Enno (who marries and leaves her) because she wants to escape her life in London, she seems to make her own decisions. Circumstances may be against her, and her choices may be limited, but nobody forces her, and she puts herself in situations where the outcome is inevitable. Knowing she cannot change the past, she has an almost fatalistic acceptance of the present. This happened and that happened, she says. And it's a refrain that sounds throughout the novel, with slight variations along the way. Here this happened, here that happened, she tells us, remembering this, remembering that. Above all Sasha, who was once Sophie, who was once Sophia, realises the absurdity of human life, and how droll it can be.

Good Morning, Midnight (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem) ends on a slightly sinister, but is not as depressing or bleak as it sounds. There are moments of joy (though not many admittedly) and touches of humour that can see, almost macabre. And whatever course Sasha's life has taken, she has lived it to the full, unlike her unknown family who follow a clich├ęd existence back in England.

The novel is beautifully written, in a kind of stream of consciousness first tense, where past and present merge and nothing is clear cut. I suspect that when it was first published in 1939 many people must have found it shocking in form and content. Never an easy read, nevertheless, it's livelier and more personal than Viginia Woolf, and it's tempting to see Sasha as a version of Rhys herself for here, as in so much of her work, her own turbulent life and feelings of alienation seem to be reflected. At any rate, in Sasha she has created a flawed woman who is set on a crash course to disaster, while we stand helplessly by and watch.
Jean Rhys,


4 comments:

  1. I read everything by Jean Rhys many years ago and long before blogging even existed. I remember liking her very much but I wonder what I'd think now? I know she's a really good writer but I must say despite your disclaimer this does sound rather depressing, especially as we know Rhys's own life was pretty much like this too. But thanks for the reminder -- maybe I should give her another go one day.

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    1. I didn't think it was as depressing as Third Miss Symons, possibly because however inadequate Sasha is, she has lived and done things, and doesn't blame other people for what happens to her. Having said that, it may be some time before I read another Jean Rhys, as I don't think I could cope with reading her work back to back.

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  2. What a good review.
    I'd say Sasha definitely is 'a version of Rhys herself'. I read Rhys's books years ago and have no desire to re-read them. I confess this is partly because since then I've learned enough about Rhys's life to find her a madly irritating woman. It follows that her characters, reflections of herself, will irritate me too.

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    1. Thank you. I first read Wide Sargasso Sea and Quartet years and years ago, but this was new to me. Jean Rhys always strikes me as being a tortured soul who, for whatever reason, plumbed the depths of despair, but she doesn't sound as if she was a likable person.

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