Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘modernist literature’

If only he would answer a question simply, and not with a superior air as if he had invented the thing he was telling about. She felt she had a right to all the knowledge there was, without fuss…

It took me a few months to get my hands on a copy of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, but I am delighted to finally have it, and have been enjoying, slowly, the first half of the first novel. My Virago Modern Classics edition contains the first three books of her 13-book project: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb.

Having known absolutely nothing of Richardson before seeing Anthony’s mention of her, it is a treat to discover her writing and her project. To write so directly, so carefully, of a young woman’s consciousness; it was a revolutionary technique when it appeared in 1915. There is no filter – just Miriam and her view of herself vis-à-vis the world as she leaves home and goes to work as a governess at a school in Germany. Richardson was one of—or was—the first to use stream-of-consciousness, and she expresses what I can only call that “thin skin-ness” of someone who is alive to the world, and curious about one’s place within it. There are so many key moments of this: her awareness of her father playacting an English gentleman while on the boat, her fear that she’ll be seen to be a fraud as a governess, that excellent mortifying hair-washing scene in the German school, and one of my absolute favorites, when Miriam is listening to one of the schoolgirls play the piano and remembering a pastoral scene and a mill-wheel from her childhood:

She felt a little tremor in her throat. All at once she knew that if she went on listening to that humming wheel and feeling the freshness of the air, she would cry. She pulled herself together, and for a while saw only a vague radiance in the room and the dim forms grouped about. She could not remember which was which. All seemed good and dear to her.

What Richardson does so well is the interplay between Miriam’s self-awareness and her surroundings – how the people and the furnishings, how everything affects her so keenly. How she guards her outward emotions, as if afraid of them. That’s what I mean by thin skin-ness. When I think of the English writers I associate with this – Kavan, Woolf, Welch – they all came so much later.

I’m going to be a little annoying and mention Ramuz – who was a very close contemporary of Richardson (she was born in 1873, he was born in 1878), and I find he does the same seeing out from under the skin. So does Walser, also a contemporary. I’m not trying to argue the claim that Richardson was the first to employ stream-of-consciousness, I’m just curious how other writers around the same time, but from other literary traditions, were negotiating interiority through stylistic particularities.

And then there is Colette with her Claudine novels – perhaps an even more interesting comparison as she also wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about a woman making her way into the world. Colette’s Claudine novels feel so much lighter than Richardson, but they were published between 1900 – 1904. By the time Colette is writing in the 1920s and 30s, she’s focused on older women, on sexuality and marriage. If anyone knows of a formal Colette/Richardson comparison, I’d be keen to see it.

One of the elements of Pointed Roofs that I find both startling and marvelous is Miriam’s impatience with organized religion. She sees only artifice, and she hates having to pretend herself that she might enjoy going to church. I am so curious to see how this will develop over the 13 novels. And lastly, the various descriptions of men being impatient with women. There is a marvelous passage in which Miriam criticizes the male German schoolmasters who come to work with the pupils in her school, and how condescending they are, even scornful. And Miriam compares this with the men who taught her in England, with her own father as well, and finds her own schoolteachers were kinder, more interesting, took their pupils more seriously. But this leads her to a wonderful questioning and awareness of herself, and how she had learned and what she cared about:

She could only think that somehow she must be ‘different’; that a sprinkling of the girls collected in that school was different, too. The school she decided was new—modern—Ruskin. Most of the girls perhaps had not been affected by it. But some had. She had. That thought stirred her. She had. It was mysterious.

These first stirrings of her intellectual awakening here are exquisitely drawn, and I can’t wait to read on and see how this aspect of Miriam develops across the thirteen novels.

Two passages from Anna Kavan’s story, “Glorious Boys” from her collection I am Lazarus, published in 1945:

What a fiendishly efficient machine war is, she thought, remembering him as he was and the writing, a bit immature but sensitive and with much integrity. Now he would never write the things he might have written when he had learned to write well enough. It destroyed very thoroughly this war machine, this incinerator of individuality and talent and life, forging the sensitive and creative young into the steel fabric of death, turning the out by the million, the murder men, members of Murder Inc., the big firm, the global organization. Suddenly, she felt acutely angry with him.

And later:

Of course it’s lunacy: we’ve all of us gone insane, she said to herself, thinking of the planes streaming out, crossing the incoming enemy stream up there in the freezing sky. Did they signal like passing ships or just ignore one another? The demented human race destroying itself with no god or external sanity intervening. Well, let them get on with it. Let it be over soon. She was very tired of the war-world and only wanted everything to be over. It seemed not to matter anymore what happened. There had been far too much happen already. Queer how tired apprehending a war made you. The war had always been there in the different countries, but it had taken London to bring her the apprehension of war. This can’t go on, she thought sometimes, waking suddenly in the night or moving about a room: this can not go on. But it went on and on and she went on somehow, only feeling always more and more tired.

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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.