DOMINICA, AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
“The kitten had an inferiority complex and persecution mania and nostalgie de la boue and all the rest. You could see it in her eyes, her terrible eyes, that knew her fate.“
Jean Rhys died at the age of 88 in 1979, although her death had first been announced in 1956 (“I feel rather tactless at being alive” she reportedly said, once this information eventually reached her). The quality of her writing was not recognised for decades, despite the boost provided by her earlier entanglement with influential modernist Ford Maddox Ford.
Rhys published no work between 1939 and 1966, when her magnum opus Wide Sargasso Sea, which was apparently pieced together from a manuscript kept in carrier bags under the bed, won the Royal Society of Literature Award. “It has come too late,” she said.
Although Rhys spent much of her life in the UK, she felt that her Creole colonial background in Dominica and her Caribbean accent had marked her out as an outsider in England as soon as she arrived at boarding school in Cambridge in her late teens. She subsequently had momentous struggles with alcohol her whole life.
The first-person narrator of her novella Good Morning, Midnight (which I devoured as part of Novellas in November month) is Sophia Jansen, who has restyled herself as Sasha. She has been drawn back to Paris, specifically Montparnasse, from London, where she has been living in grim lodgings on the Gray’s Inn Road following an unhappy, brief first marriage.
A legacy brings in a regular, though far from extravagant, income. But the arrival of some form of financial stability has not necessarily been a wholly positive event:
“Well, that was the end of me, the real end .. It was then that I had the bright idea of drinking myself to death.”
We sense past tragedy, which is revealed as the novel progresses, while Sasha has been consistently let down by her forays into both love and work. Around her, male characters repeatedly weave in and out of her consciousness, fading out before reappearing unexpectedly. Her closest neighbour in her seedy hotel (who appears to wear only dressing gowns) is compared overtly to a spectre, while her new (supposedly) Russian acquaintances, her errant husband Enno and her tergiversating drinking companion René, known mainly as ‘the gigolo’, seem to manifest themselves intermittently and then disappear.
Nicholas Delmar, one of the “Russians”, espouses an attractive philosophy: “that’s what I say to myself all the time: ‘You didn’t ask to be born, you didn’t make the world as it is, you didn’t make yourself as you are. Why torment yourself? Why not take life just as it comes?’ … you have the right to take life just as it comes and to be as happy as you can.”
However, Delamar doesn’t necessarily seem able to stick to this recipe for life, while Sasha’s narrative voice is predominantly deadpan and melancholic, with elements of fatalistic humour. The fragmented prose reflects the refracted and splintered nature of Sasha’s existence, which has become defined by alcohol.
“I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus … ‘ Drink, drink, drink … As soon as I sober up I start again.”
From a modern perspective the slippery prose also reflects that churning, infinite looping repetitiveness of thought that characterises the thought processes of survivors of trauma: inchoate ruminations on her brief ruinous marriage, her immeasurable loss and the way that time concertinas as we gain the perspective of age.
“I don’t believe things change much really; you only think they do. It seems to me that things repeat themselves over and over again.”
The wheeling repetition of themes and phrases gives the book a poetic feel, while the prose is marked by dashes and ellipses, which express the lack of coherence in Sasha’s thought processes, but also, of course, a pervasive sense of omission. Irmgard Keun’s Berlin-set The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), another book that feels very much ahead of its time, similarly makes liberal use of the ellipsis, expressing the dizzy-natured antics of protagonist Doris. She is another misused heroine, but that book has a much lighter-hearted feel.
Despite Sophia/Sasha’s state of brain fog and cognitive dissonance, the structure of Good Morning, Midnight is nothing if not tight. The prose weaves its way to its carefully carved out conclusion, in a narrative that gives a voice to the dispossessed.