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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.”
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.