The Left Bank

Paris in July-16 b

Bonjour mes amis! It’s Paris in July again,  thanks to Tamara at Thyme for Tea, who has been running her annual glorification of all things French for seven years, and I’m always amazed at how many different books, films, foods and songs people come up with. I love to see their contributions and, since there is no chance of me making it across the Channel for a holiday, I tend to view this as a kind of ‘virtual trip’ that is not as good as the real thing (obviously) but is, nevertheless, interesting and enjoyable.

I had stuff all planned out, and was going to a post a week but, once again, life has got in the way so I’m late to the party, but I’ve time to get some reviews done before the end of the month.. Originally I aimed to write about The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, because I’d read reviews which made it sound sound delightful and charming. Books and Paris. What’s not to like, I thought. Quite a lot as it turned out. However, since this is supposed to be a celebration of Paris, all I will say is that it was like drowning in marshmallow. Initially I gave up at around chapter 15, but I did go back and struggle through the rest of it, and wished I hadn’t.

Jean Rhys (2)
Jean Rhys.

I needed an antidote, so I turned to Jean Rhys who, thank goodness, is neither charming, nor delightful, and exactly suited my mood at that point (I’m a contrary creature, and much as I love her work there are times when I require cheerfulness, and on those occasions she simply will not do). Anyway, if you’re looking for happy endings you won’t find them here. In fact you won’t find happy anything in her work – it is unremittingly bleak. But no-one portrays seedy, Bohemian  Paris quite like Rhys, and seedy, Bohemian Paris is exactly what you get in a selection of short stories from The Left Bank (subtitled Sketches and Studies of present-day Bohemian Paris). Her first published work, it was issued in 1927, with 22 short stories, of which nine appear in Tigers are Better-Looking, a later collection which also includes a selection of her other short stories.


DSCN1799 (2)
Tigers are Better-Looking: Short stories about Bohemian Paris.

I’ve concentrated on some of the tales from The Left Bank which appear in my 1982 Penguin edition of Tigers are Better-Looking. The book also has part of the original preface by Ford Maddox Ford – who gave Rhys her nom de plume (she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams), launched her literary career, and had a corrosively torturous affair with her (which they both wrote about). Describing her work as ‘very good’, he says her business is with ‘passion, hardship, emotions’  and explains that ‘these sketches begin exactly where they should and end exactly when their job is done’.

I think that’s spot on, especially the last comment. These slender stories are almost snapshots, where events have coalesced at a particular point in time, and Rhys’s pared down writing means there is never a word too many. Come to that there is never a word too few either. There is no back story, and no future – just the grim present, with barely enough information to form a picture of what is happening. And Rhys never judges: she offers neither praise nor censure. Her characters are as they are, and you must accept them that way, however uneasy it may make you feel.

She writes mostly (but not always) about women. They are outsiders, not quite accepted by society, down on their luck, living in cheap hotels or the equivalent of boarding or lodging houses. They are blown hither and thither by the winds of fate, desperately searching for love. Mostly they have no inner resources or strength, no will of their own – they can’t take positive action to change their life, they need a man who who will look after them, tell them what to do, make them feel loved, cared for, needed. Yet the men they meet are no good. They are rotters, on the make, equally adrift in a world they cannot understand. We know know it, and so do the women. Despite everything, on the whole Rhys’ women are survivors, even when they hit rock bottom. In an odd way they are curiously naive, never quite losing hope that something will turn up, while at the same time being honest and clear-sighted enough to know it won’t. And there are odd glimpses of beauty, and you get the feeling that tough though things may be, these women have lived life to the full, and would not have things any different. Like Edith Piaf, they have no regrets.

A handful of the tales are set elsewhere, but they are still peopled with Bohemian drifters, and have that unmistakable ‘left-bank’ feel. Like the women of Paris, alcohol gets these women through their days, and Veronal gets them through the nights. (Veronal was a widely available barbiturate sleeping powder).

Jean Rhys.

One of the few women who makes her own way in life is Miss Bruce, who we meet in Illusion. Tall, thin, and quite old, with large hands, bones and feet and a ‘gentlemanly’ manner, she’s an Englishwoman living and working as an artist in Montparnasse (with limited success). She always wears a neat serge dress in summer, and a neat tweed suit in winter, both outfits completed with low-heeled brown shoes and cotton stockings. And for special occasions she has a black gown of crepe de chine, ‘just well enough cut’.

But her hidden secret is revealed when she is rushed to hospital and the narrator goes with concierge to collect a nightgown, comb and other necessities for the sick woman. They open the door of the plain, sturdy, utilitarian wardrobe and the drab room gives way to  ‘a glow of colour, a riot of soft silks… everything that one did not expect. There are cosmetics, perfumes and the most beautiful clothes imaginable – but Miss Bruce has never been seen wearing any of them. Your heart goes out to this plain, sensible, elderly woman who craved a little beauty in her life.

In the middle, hanging in the place of honour, was an evening dress of a very beautiful shade of old gold; near it another of flame colour; of two black dresses the one was touched with silver, the other with a jaunty embroidery of emerald and blue. There were a black and white check with a jaunty belt, a flowered crepe de chine – positively flowered! – then a carnival costume complete with mask, then a huddle, a positive huddle of all colours, of all stuffs.”

Soeurs, Callot, Abendkleid, gestickt, Seidensamt (gelbgrün) & Goldlamé & Perle, Paris, um 1927 (Köln, Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln, P 814.  (Foto: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Wagner, Anna C., rba_c017305)
Could Miss Bruce’s gold evening dress have looked like this one, made by Soeurs Callot in 1927.

There are more clothes in Mannequin we meet Anna on her first day working as a model for fashion house, where she is to wear the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. At the moment she is wearing the black cotton, chemise-like garment  of the mannequin off duty, and she wouldn’t be out of place as a modern super-model:

“… the garment that she wore was very short, sleeveless, displaying her rose-coloured stockings to the knees. Her hair was flamingly and honestly red; her eyes, which were very gentle in expression, brown and heavily shadowed with kohl; her face small and pale under its professional rouge. She was fragile, like a delicate child, her arms pathetically thin. It was to her legs that she owed this dazzling, this incredible opportunity.”

The salon where buyers view the clothes (and the girls who wear them) is sumptuous in white and gold, but elsewhere is dingy. And the glamorous ‘goddess-like’models, with their ‘sensual, blatant charms, and their painted faces’ are envied by the the saleswomen, the dresser, and the sewing girls. But, like the decorated public salon, it’s all artifice. Anna spends an hour putting her make-up on, an hour being draped in a dress. One of the saleswomen pinches her, and she and the other mannequins seem perpetually bored, though they complain they are tired and the work is hard.

Anna tells herself she can’t stick it, but we know she can and she will. She will do this until she loses her figure and her looks, and faces an uncertain future. But, for the moment, she is happy, and walks into the ‘great, maddening city’ clad in a beautifully cut tailor-made and beret. I am not sure what a ‘tailor-made’ is – a suit, or a coat perhaps? Obviously something stylish though.

Berets were very fashionable throughout the 1920s, and were worn pulled down like this. (Pic found at

Actually, looking at what I’ve written so far, this post has changed direction again, because it’s much more about clothes than it should be! This was a re-read, and I’d never noticed before how important clothes in Jean Rhys’ work, and it’s sent me scuttling off to look at some of her other books again. Personally I blame Moira at Clothes in Books, which is one of my favourite blogs, for making me obsessive about clothes.

I’ll just mention one more tale, La Grosse Fifi, and yes, I am going to mention clothes again – Paris is famed for its fashion industry, after all. Here we’re in the Riviera. Roseau has no money, no man, no close friends. She’s bruised by life, tired and depressed. She’s befriend by Fifi, a wealthy older woman with a toy boy in tow. This Fifi.

“… she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with with a rakish, sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast… 

“Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled , patent leather shoes.”

Sheer nighties of silk, chiffon and similar materials were very fashionable, and were often trimmed with coloured laces and decorated with embroidery. This one, which looks similar, is from Boue Soeurs in 1927, in the Metropolitan Museum New York.

Her night attire is just as outrageous. “She was wonderfully garbed in a transparent nightgown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace.” But the effect is spoiled by a dirty dressing gown, with the sleeves tied around her neck. Can’t you just visualise her? She sounds grotesque, but she has a heart of gold, and is as needy for love as anyone else – but there is a cruel fate in store for her.


Short Story Sunday: French Connections…

OK folks, I’m getting back on track here. Having a laptop that works properly makes all the difference. This is Brand New (but does not, thank goodness, involve touch screen – the charming young man in the shop agreed that would be a step too far, given my limited technical abilities). But I can save things, and write things, and look at things, which is all I want to do really, and I am sure it will prove most satisfactory when it comes to ordering books – except, of course, I keep promising there will be No More Books, so forget I mentioned it!
Anyway, it’s Sunday, and it must be time for a Short Story so, since I am catching up, here is a selection of short stories from my trusty copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This week I have two: Dimanche, by Irène Némirovsky, and The Photograph, by Phyllis Bentley.
Irene Nemirovsky

I daresay most of you know that Némirovsky escaped the Russian Revolution and fled to Paris, only to die in  Auschwitz, leaving behind a body of work which included the unfinished Suite Française (which is sitting on my TBR stack). I must admit, I didn’t realise that in addition to her novels she wrote short stories, but apparently she produced more than 40 of them, including this one, which focuses on a mother and daughter who, on the surface, appear very different (they certainly think so). But when it comes to love Agnès and 2o-year-old Nadine are not so dissimilar after all, for both are victims of men who do not care – or do not care enough.

Over the years Agnès has become resigned to the point of indifference, and no longer waits in despair for her charming but errant husband to return from his latest affair. Seemingly calm, serene, and self-contained, she finds pleasure in the quiet beauty of everyday life. But as she contemplates the past, and remembers her hopes and fears, Nadine is playing out the same kind of scene, suffering as she waits for a man who doesn’t turn up.
Némirovsky has a light touch when it comes to writing about feelings and emotions, and her descriptions of Paris at lunchtime on a hot spring day conjure up the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Things may have changed since this was written in 1934 – for example, Parisians no longer head for the country on Sundays, they head for the banks of the Seine to take some exercise). But the smell of fresh baked bread still wafts through the air; above the noise of the traffic you can still hear church bells and birds, and the chestnuts still flower in the Luxembourg Gardens. I liked the way  Dimanche is written, and its quiet restraint with all that hidden emotion seething away beneath the two women’s placid exteriors.
There’s also a French connection in Bentley’s The Photograph. Miss Timperley is

Phyllis Bentley.

an ageing, down-on-her-luck, out-of-work governess who considers trying to pass herself off as a younger woman in a bid to secure a job in the south of France. She is admirably suited for the role, but feels her age may be against her.

Well! She would say she was twenty-nine, and she would have a new, modern, young, almost coquettish – Miss Timperley smiled and bridled at the word – photograph taken. She could not afford it of course; but it had to be done. She put on her clothes with quite a rakish air, and betook herself to an expensive West End photographer.
The account of her trip to this establishment is very funny, but the outcome is not as she hoped, although her landlady tells her:
They’re as like as life. Just your pleasant look, they have. They’re right down good.
Poor Miss Timperley (who reminds me a lot of Miss Pettigrew), sends the picture off with her letter of application for, at the end of the day, she cannot tell a lie, and cannot obtain a post be deception. She decides it is better to starve than to cheat, and that she will go down with her flag flying. She even informs her prospective employers of her real age – 58. Then she weeps, ‘pressing her thin fingers against her anguished face’. A week later there is a response from France.
Miss Timperley winced. There was no hope from France, she knew. She opened it wretchedly, and unfolded the sheet with spiritless fingers…
Really, I shouldn’t reveal the ending, and I shouldn’t tell you whether the new photo worked its magic, but you all know how much I love a happy ending, and I loved this little tale, so draw your own conclusions! This was a lovely story, full of humour and warmth, that left me wanting to know more about Miss Timperley, and more about Bentley’s work.

An Un-Childlike Child!

Penguin number 1211, published in
in 1957 – don’t you wish paperbacks
were still two shillings and sixpence?

It’s wartime London (Second World War that is) and Grace, who who is engaged to Hughie, falls in love with a charming Frenchman. A month later they are married and after a two-week honeymoon he returns to his unit. Their son is seven when Charles-Edouard de Valhubert reappears and whisks her off to France, where he has a country estate in Provence and a luxurious home in Paris, both packed with assorted relatives, antiques and paintings.

Initially all seems well as Grace, who is beautiful but dim, slowly becomes accustomed to marriage and French life. However Charles-Edouard is not so enthusiastic about being tied down, and continues his liaisons with at least two other women. When he is eventually discovered ‘in flagrante’ Grace returns to England, and the couple’s young son realises he can manipulate the situation to his own advantage – but only if he keeps his parents apart…

Now this may regarded as sacrilege by her many fans, but personally I think The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford, is the chick-lit of its day. Set in the aristocratic world she knew so well, it’s written in sparkling, witty prose, and is  very light-hearted, very frothy, and rather stylised – for some strange reason I kept viewing it as a stage comedy with a few near-farcical moments. However, the story is slight, there are no great insights into the human condition (not that this is a requirement for novels), and the characters have no depth – they are stereotypical portraits rather than fully rounded characters, and I wonder how credible they would have seemed when the novel was published in 1951. 

Charles-Edouard never really comes to life – he’s a wealthy, aristocratic Frenchman, with a passion for women, and sees nothing wrong with his lifestyle. His friends and family agree that this is the French way, and his wife must accept the situation.

Grace is remarkably passive on the whole, and is required to do nothing more than look beautiful, which is just as well really, because she has no hobbies, doesn’t read, takes no interest in current affairs, and plays no part in running Charles-Edouard’s homes. She’s really rather boring, and doesn’t even spend much time with her son, preferring to leave him with Nanny.

The son, Sigismond (Sigi for short), is the ‘Blessing’ of the title and is a monstrously precocious little brat who doesn’t really speak or behave like a small boy. He is, I think, the most un-childlike child I have ever encountered in the realms of fiction or reality.

However, obnoxious Sigi is, I can’t blame him for his machinations when his parents separate, because after being ignored he suddenly finds himself the centre of attention as they each spend time and money on him. And their suitors also produce lavish (and sometimes inappropriate ) gifts, so Sigi is not keen for Grace and Charles-Edouard to get together with each other, or with anyone else. He richly deserves the box on the ears he finally receives when his parents’ eyes are opened, and all ends as happily as it should. 

A host of other characters flit in and out of the story. There is Nanny, of course, who hates all things French, but misses them when she is back in England, and Albertine Marel-Desboulles, Charles-Edouard’s intelligent and cultured older mistress, who I thought was a much more intesting charcter than Grace, and her young rival Juliette Novembre de la Ferte. And then thre is Grace’s old schoolfriend Carolyn, married to clever, opinionated American Hector Dexter: the couple move in the highest diplomatic and political circles – but they are not quite what they seem.

It may not sound like it, but I did enjoy reading this, although it didn’t stay in my mind afterwards, and I’m not sure I would read it again – unlike Mitford’s ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, which are both old favourites which I’ve read and re-read over the years.

Nancy Mitford.