Like many others, I “met” the novelist Jean Rhys when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, her most well-known work and a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel turned out to be an unsettling but fascinating read. Both psychologically dark and stylistically complex, it tells the story of Rochester’s first wife – from her childhood to her complicated romance with Rochester all the way to her descent into madness. The novel also attempts (with a greater degree of courage, I might add) to offer an exploration of Rochester’s side of the story and his enchantment with the young Dominican woman, his fear of the untamed Caribbean countryside and his ultimate rejection of this first woman. When I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, I was eager to find more of Rhys’s work.
From what I understand, Wide Sargasso Sea, along with the rest of Rhys’s novels, all represent her own life and experience in some way or another. I had wondered about this while reading Good Morning, Midnight because something about the emotional structure of the novel led me to believe it was her story in more ways than one. I don’t usually ever assume a first person narrative equals a form of autobiography but in this case it did. And it didn’t detract from the novel at all; in fact, that rawness lent an edge to the story that a more conventional narrative might not have been able to achieve.
Good Morning, Midnight is like a swan song – desperate and beautiful and bleak and disturbing. The narrator Sasha is just fumbling along toward the end of herself, groping for some shred of experience or memory that might offer a little comfort. She isn’t trying to buy time, she’s biding her time. Until “midnight”. She’s starkly realistic about her situation – poor, ageing, charmless. Mostly, she’s defeated. By men, the loss of her child, her youthful optimism, by her addictions to attention and alcohol.
There is a telling scene where Sasha walks around town trying to buy a hat. First, she encounters another woman on the same errand:
I look at the window of the first shop. There is a customer inside. Her hair, half-dyed, half-grey, is very disheveled. As I watch she puts on a hat, makes a face at herself in the glass, and take it off very quickly. She tries another – then another. Her expression is terrible – hungry, despairing, hopeful, quite crazy. At any moment you expect her to start laughing the laugh of the mad.
But just after, Sasha enters another shop and begins the same feverish ritual. At one point she recognizes that other woman’s demented expression on her own face in the mirror. It terrifies her and she almost charges out but instead, she manipulates the moment into a relationship and dependence on the shop girl which was both frightening and touching. She’s actually gone beyond reacting to the horror of her situation, she’s willing to embrace it.
The present tense action of Sasha’s account focuses on a man she meets – a gigolo. He wants to seduce her. She wants very much to be seduced. They wine and dine each other around Paris, both arguing and consoling each other for unmentioned past hurts. Within every conversation is an element of misunderstanding and discord. Sasha is petrified. The man seems false. They are both pathetic and unlikeable.
In the last few pages of the book the somewhat disorganized story line converges into an intense scene between Sasha and the gigolo. It’s a detailed and unforgiving portrait of Sasha’s battered psyche and the scene results in a resolution which is difficult to interpret.
Rhys has four other novels, all of them purportedly autobiographical in nature. I think it would be interesting to read them all. I found Wide Sargasso Sea and Good Morning, Midnight to be stylistically quite different and I love an author who can pull that off.
In my searching around this morning about Rhys, I also found a reference to this book: Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, Germaine Greer. It’s written by the American novelist David Plante, who spent years cultivating friendships with all three women.
The New York Times reviewed Plante’s book in 1983 and here is a small excerpt of that article citing a portion of the memoir dedicated to Jean Rhys:
Rhys is sitting drunk in her chair with Mr. Plante beside her: ”She seemed suddenly to rouse herself internally, and she shouted ‘Oh David, I’m unhappy. You be happy. I’m so unhappy, all my life I’ve been so unhappy. It’s unfair. I’m dying. I want to die. It’s unfair. I’m dying, my body’s dying, and inside I think: it’s unfair, I’ve never lived, I’ve never lived.’ ”
Within a few minutes of this dismaying outburst Rhys says: ”Listen to me. I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”
Despite yesterday’s promise not to buy any new books, I ordered this memoir straight away.