Quartet by Jean Rhys
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The special misery of being alone, obscure and impecunious in a foreign city hangs thick over Jean Rhys’s early fiction. Her protagonists are young or not-so-young women on the margins of Bohemia in Paris or London, drifting from one dim bar to the next, a demimonde inhabited by ‘the Freaks who would never do anything’ and ‘the Freaks who just possibly might’.
Rhys’ first novel Quartet employs a simpler, more naive style than the staccato modernese she developed through the 1930s, culminating in the Parisian dissolution of Good Morning, Midnight.
Likewise set in Paris, Quartet presents in tight compaction the concerns that justify Rhys’s place on the outsider fiction bookshelf: cynical sexual transaction; dejection and dependency amid smoky cafés and seedy hotels frequented by ‘internationalists who invariably got into trouble sooner or later’.
Marya Zelli finds herself at the mercy of strangers when the Polish husband with whom she moved from London to Paris is imprisoned for theft. Dissipating what’s left of her innocence, she is taken in by the Heidlers, a faintly sinister couple who are prominent in the expatriate art scene. Everybody fucks everybody else around, and everybody gets hurt.
Even through Marya’s bleary eyes, Paris retains its seductive promise: ‘From the balcony Marya could see one side of the Place Blanche, the Rue Lepic mounted upwards to the rustic heights of Montmartre. It was astonishing how significant, coherent and understandable it all became after a glass of wine on an empty stomach.’
Yes, Rhys is a choice novelist for that perennial category of reader: the vicarious drinker. If you were to play the Withnail & I game of having a drink every time the characters do, you’d be sloshed after ten pages. Her books’ cover designs often boast variations on a simple theme: glass of booze on a wooden table.
Rhys herself had a considerable talent for unhappiness (and for drinking). Quartet initiates a journey into previously uncharted territories of female desperation, where the line blurs between exploiter and exploited, and there’s never enough love to go around.