Wednesday, September 9, 2009

louche life : Jean Rhys, The Blue Hour

--- On Wed, 9/9/09, Bill Sherman <> wrote:

In the opening to her riveting impressionistic biography of Jean Rhys, Lillian Pizzichini writes:

"In the summer of 1912 the French parfumier Jacques Guerlin concocted a scent from musk and rose de Bulgarie with a single note of jasmine. He intended his new scent, which he called L'Heure Bleue, to evoke dusk in the city. The blue hour is the time when heliotropes and irises in Parisian window boxes are bathed in a blue light and the well-groomed Parisienne prepares for the evening....Its hints of pastry and almond make L'Heure Bleue a melancholic fragrence, as though in mourning for a time passed by." It was Rhys's favorite scent, a scent of twilight.

V.S. Naipaul, in an article in 1972 in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, was the first great writer, (after Ford, and Hemingway) to appreciate her genius. Ford, always aspiring to be his conception of an English gentleman, was a poseur, saved by his writing abilities, and Pizzichini makes good use of A MOVEABLE FEAST, when Hemingway, under instructions from Pound not to laugh at Ford, sardonically transcribes Ford's chit-chat, letting Ford get himself just about right. Interestingly, Rhys and Ford and Stella Bowen (Ford's main squeeze until Jean appeared on the scene) and Jean Lenglet (Jean's first husband, and father of their daughter, Maryvonne) all wrote of the Paris betrayals, Bowen in a memoir, the others in novels. The entire affair was almost a replay of THE GOOD SOLDIER. QUARTET, her version of events, was Rhys' first published novel.

Pizzichini is at some pains to twice note that Jean was not taken with Hemingway's writing. However, in late-life letters to her daughter, Rhys indicates she is a "fan" and asks Maryvonne to send her a copy of FEAST, which she then says she enjoyed, though she disputed its veracity, preferring to read it as fiction, as Hemingway indicated the reader could. And Pizzichini paints a lovely picture of Jean sitting outside under a garden tree reading FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (the greatest American novel of the 20th century, or was Mailer right when he said it needed editing?). Jean liked Hemingway, his "wolfish solicitude" helping her on with her coat at the close of Ford's bal musettes for Transatlantic Review.

Is she the finest British novelist of the past 80 years? In my opinion, she is. Naipaul's BEND IN THE RIVER, is an acknowledged masterpiece of the past fifty years, but not Graham Greene, Golding, Fowles at his best (THE MAGUS), Lessing, or anyone else in Britain can compare to her use of extreme condensation of language, le mot juste. Rhys is almost a French novelist writing in English (she fretted about how much influence Flaubert had on WIDE SARGASSO SEA). Long before Burroughs, she believed language was a dissembling virus, and the depth of noir in her writings, rivals even David Goodis's. Perhaps only Angela Carter's rococo beneficence in her last novel, WISE CHILDREN, (before she was taken with cancer and died at the height of her powers) and the best of her tales, the hearthwarming THE COURTSHIP OF MR. LYON, for example, can serve as effective literary counterpoint to Rhys' existentially disillusioned pessimism. No one writes more perceptively of the entropy of sexual love between man and woman, and the illusion of love, than Rhys.

Pizzichini beautifully and accurately writes: "The strange, compelling contribution she made to twentieth century literature draws on this wealth of emptiness. She writes about long periods of nothingness with an insight born of bitter experience...of the hallucinations that filled her emptiness. Her sentences use dashes and dots and form streams of words that have lost their bearings. The triumphant poetry of despair."

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT is perhaps the first "postmodern" novel, and despite Charles Olson's supposedly being the first to use that word, to indicate a return to an archaic wholeness now fragmented, Jean-Francois Lyotard's definition still seems best to me: " The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable." The shuddering ending to GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT - a "distortion" Ms. Pizzichini calls it, of Molly Bloom's acquiescence, fulfills both definitions...."Jean did not parade her literary allusions, acquaintances, or associations. They bled into her writing. This makes her writing all the more subversive - an ironic echo, a passive-aggressive swipe at her masters."

Ms. Pizzichini's sometimes expressionistic approach has been summarily dissed in reviews in the U.S., from a rather condescending and insensitive review from the otherwise distinguished professor Lisa Paravisini, to hacks in the N.Y. Times Book Review and other places. However, although anathema to the Academy, this kind of biography, like Tom Clark's of Ed Dorn for example, or Byron Rogers' of R.S. Thomas, enables the reader to enter into the affinity the author has for her subject, and unlocks the imagination. Pizzichini seems to "channel" Jean Rhys almost as Olson did Melville in CALL ME ISHMAEL. It is a Heraclitean rather than a Thucydidean approach.

This is not to say that the biography is not accurate. This is the first biography since Carole Angier's work, and although a future biography in a future generation will be written undoubtedly which will be more "objective" and researched assiduously so we can know, for example, more about the quarrel in New York between Jean and Evelyn Scott, and other personal details Ms. Rhys would I am sure prefer the world not to know, THE BLUE HOUR is heartbreaking enough.

It took a long time for feminists and for women who were academcians, to take to Rhys' writing. Probably this is because, as Pizzichini notes, Jean after 1919 was never without a man. For a time in London she even supported herself by streetwalking. She always lived in genteel and insecure poverty, and more and more the poverty became less and less genteel. Living alone in her sixties, with her third husband in prison, she was arrested several times for drunk and disorderly conduct, and served time briefly in Holloway prison for assault, where she was inspired to write the great short story "Let Them Call It Jazz." After Max Hamer's strokes after his prison release, and then his death, she was tended by the most loyal of her friends: Sonia Orwell, Diana Melly, Francis Wyndham, and a young sculptor in Devon, Jo Batterham, who was with her when she died, age 88. "I do not see self-pity" Pizzichini writes "in Rhys's work or her life. I see an angry woman who had good reason to be angry, and whose vision was bleak....She was born into a world where she was not white enough, where she was made to feel unwelcome from an early age, and where she did not learn the social niceties to overcome such setbacks. Furthermore, whether she frequented the artistic demi-monde or conventional society, her peers were disinclined to indulge the female artistic temperament. Besides this, no one could judge her as harshly as she judged herself."

For those still not familiar with Rhys' writing, her own favorite novel, VOYAGE IN THE DARK, is as good a place to start as any. There is an informative online interview with Lillian Pizzichini by Anne Greenawalt on the web. Well worth reading. (Aug. 17th)

(Note.....In 1964/'65 in London, I was introduced to the work of Jean Rhys by the mother of the English poet, Kate Ruse (see, and I have admired, loved, and respected her writing ever since, and I would like to dedicate this post to the late Evelyn Ruse.)