The book is semi-autobiographical, and recreates aspects of Colette's life on the stage. I am fascinated by her portrayal of the music hall, and the people she met there, and her bringing to life of the streets and locale of Montmartre and Paris. Mostly for her use of language, her words like a gift, with their warmth, grace, ease and clarity. With its poetic, vivid and direct style of writing, this is a voice which feels alive and never dated. Intoxicated, I am under its spell.
The sense of unreality that comes from walking within an invented form, a tangle of signs and symbols, and all the time knowing that it isn’t real. The labyrinth is part of the circle of time, of finding myself back at the place I started, of living within an illusion, a figure of the imagination. The streets are not really a labyrinth, and at the same time when I look at a map, they appear circular, so that walking around and the names of the streets create a sense of repetition, like being caught in a recurring dream.
The road to Skyllberg is the turning we take off the main road on the last day of our trip. Not just a location on the map, but a symbol, found somewhere between the past and present. Each recall of memory is like a draft worked over and over. Each time I want to recreate the moment when we turn the corner and find the lake hidden behind trees.
Now I follow the Rue de Rome towards the old port. Everywhere the buildings with shutters, white and pastel, as if the sun has drained and turned everything a faded white. The harbour lined with boats, their sails blue and white; in lines they point upwards, their forms definite and leaving shadow. The reflections in the water are gentle ripples which turn them back to trees, they are branches bending gently with the movement of water. There is a big wheel circling slowly and up into the blue. I take photographs into the sun to see how they are drenched by light, as though the sun has pulled all the colours out and left only reflected lights.
From her balcony in the Hotel de l’Univers, Marya’s view is elevated. She can look over the rooftops and down to the Place Blanche and beyond, across the rooftops of the city. She can watch the lights coming out and the movement of the streets below. The hill of Montmartre provides a vantage point. This perspective reflects the sense of Montmartre as distinct, set apart from Paris, its history and status.
It is at this time of day that the city begins to reveal itself. When street lamps are lit, exposing walls and the narrow passageways between buildings. The lights illuminate brightly so that the wall seems cast in yellow stone, and the shadows of overlooked corners steal away to find new hiding places.
Jean Rhys’s work portrays a series of rooms, a life composed of rooms occupied; the movement from room to room. Often in her work there is a sense of the uncanny, the unhomely, where the unfamiliar masquerades as familiar and vice versa. When I lived in London, I used to fixate on a few cheap looking hotels near Finsbury Park. They represented a kind of disengagement for me, an escape from real life. Reading Rhys, I found myself wanting to put into words, that sense of departure and of estrangement.
‘My own words were not enough, only another’s could transform misery into inspiration.’ This encounter with another’s words and its capacity to change, to alter or steer one a certain way – the all important journey of the mind – is what I’m reaching for in my own work. And although I feel temporarily silenced by my admiration for Patti Smith’s essay, for its clarity and precision, by my wish to craft my own writing in a similar way, I know at least the flow of ideas begins by breaking the silence. Reading other’s words starts off the trail, the invisible connecting lines and the flow of thoughts; like walking.
My title, And The Street Walks In, is from a passage in Good Morning, Midnight, one that comes to mind on my visit to Paris. It is one of the most arresting moments in the book. The street walking in, a striking image. As though the street were coming to summon her back, to reclaim her.
Tracing a route through the books and touching sometimes on the journeys Rhys herself took, I am mapping them through place and through a series of journeys, starting from London in Voyage in the Dark, to Paris in Quartet, the Paris and London of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and returning to Paris in Good Morning, Midnight.
A cheap hotel in Paris. Hotel rooms often figure in Jean Rhys books, and this particular hotel is situated in an impasse, that most evocative of French place names. They can be found everywhere in Paris, and often they are named. Threaded through the book are some possibilities that might help me to pinpoint its location, and from the map I can identify a few lines which lead to nowhere, dead ends.
The city streets themselves are often figured as rivers, full of reflections of light and water that suggest a fluidity, a crossing of boundaries. The great dark river is the other of the streets. At night the river becomes like the streets, a living presence, as suggested in the idea of the street walking in which forms the overarching image for my project.
The Palais de Justice is located on the Quai des Orfèvres on the Île de la Cité by the river Seine. Stretching out along the river bank, it dominates the scenery, grand and forbidding. It is one of the oldest official buildings in Paris, a site of great historic events, and revolution; the palace of justice, a monument to justice and injustice, looking out across Paris.
This is the first of Rhys's Paris hotels and I have chosen my location well. I am staying on Rue Constance, on the next street along from Rue Cauchois; both streets are just off Rue Lepic. The streets join together and I can walk around the corner into Rue Cauchois.The hotel of the universe is inhabited by people of many different nationalities, reflecting the area's status as a place of arrival. It was a part of the city Rhys explored when she first lived in Paris, and she is able to draw on this area in writing Quartet.
My project is concerned with how Rhys uses place and the topography of her streets and rooms to address and reflect the interior feeling and state of mind of her protagonists. When Stephan is arrested suddenly, the landscape of Paris reflects Marya’s lost and uncertain status. The city streets appear labyrinthine, the mist, rain and reflections of light and dark, play into her sense of finding herself alone in the city, unsure of where to turn. The city streets become a place where it might be possible to vanish without a trace, to fade into the background along with the invisible and unknown. This accords with the status of refugees as invisible, often falling outside historical accounts of nation-states, and the stateless as undocumented, anonymous and absent from history.
I have been dreaming I am in New York. Looking out across the harbour to where the bridge begins and ends. With a paperback of poems to carry as I walk, walk across thee. Waiting for the sun to set, I follow the steps upwards to the bridge where time spans like birds in flight.