When I read Rhys, I find the ring of truth and something I recognise - about what real experience feels like and the difficulties of communicating, that not everyone has the capacity to change things or to shape the world around them; that not everyone has the voice or the words.
The canal was always there in my memory. Sometimes a lonely desolate place, sometimes the sunny light feeling of walking along by the water. You could walk for miles of changing landscape, along its edges and lost waterways, crossing countryside and the hidden parts of the town. From the windows of a train travelling across the valley to Manchester. From the window of my school bus, as it wound its way through the outskirts of the town. Where the chimneys remain, when the clouds hang across the Colne Valley, the canal looks back at me.
Petronella can be described as the archetypal Jean Rhys heroine. She navigates a position of uncertainty, living in a bedsit in Bloomsbury and working in shifting or temporary occupations, the artist's model, the chorus girl. She spends her days in aimless wandering and her nights in after hours bars and nightclubs. She fluctuates between the highs and lows of this transient lifestyle, and the financial insecurity and the tenuous identity of her status as a solitary female in the city: 'What's going to become of you, Miss Petronella Gray, living in a bed sitting room in Torrington Square, with no money, no background and no nous?'
There is something powerful and haunting about listening to this song, and it has a dark and mournful melody, particularly in the earliest versions. Lyrically poetic, it also contains a sense of its time, of the dread and uncertainty that shadowed the 1930s. The legends that have attached to the song, may also be present in each listen, and it is interesting to think about how popular songs might travel and adapt over time. Even without its notoriety, there is an atmosphere of sadness evoked by the song, and something compelling, something that is hard to shake.
The landscape leaves its marks, draws its way through my veins, like the road running through tree-lined stretches, where trees tunnel over us. This is how I remember it, etched in, and layered with buildings. The dark river, which is high at this time of year, winds through Hebden Bridge. The town is lit by lights, winter blue. In my hand a shard of ice.
After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is such a great title for a book and I am a great admirer of its first line and the exactitude in which it is framed. The first location of this book is the Quai des Grands Augustine, and the hotel in which Julia goes to stay at the end of her relationship with Mr Mackenzie. There are no hotels existing now on this part of the quay, but in her biography of Jean Rhys, Carole Angier places her in the Hotel Henri IV during 1928 when she was writing Mackenzie, located on the Rue Saint Jacques in the streets behind the left bank of the Seine.
Looking back through my points of surfacing in Quartet, a book filled with references to sites across Montmartre and Montparnasse, some of which I have visited and explored here - through streets, hotels, cafés - the different views of the city. Through these locations I have crossed into some of the imagery and ideas in the book: the bars and nightlife, the concealed and invisible populations of migrants and stateless people, the elegant façade of the grand buildings and sites of justice and respectability, the life of the back streets, their poverty and hidden places, the dark river flowing through, the city as labyrinth.
On my visit, I entered the church and found myself alone. I wasn't expecting to feel the depth of emotion I felt on closing the door and standing in the interior of the church. Once inside I felt a surge of what I might describe as reverence, that made me pause and stand still. The atmosphere was dark, quiet, hushed, the sense of time standing by. Something hard to describe, a moment of breathlessness that I wanted to hold onto.
The motif of wandering, the feeling of restlessness is there in the Rodinksy book - it circles around the myth of the room and is always starting out. In the book, I like the aura of the photographs, the suppressed and concealed histories that buildings contain. It helps me to think about what is hidden and hopeless, what seems lost about my own project. How it changes and disappears before my eyes. Sinclair writes about Rachel Lichtenstein and her quest, how she is drawn to an empty space that is at once charged with energy, about what is paralyzing about her obsession, how she must 'find some resolution or lose herself forever in the attempt.'
By the water’s edge, the monument to the immigrant, looking back at the city, looking out across the wide and muddy river. Situated at the point of arrival, the old port of New Orleans, marking the point of embarkation, the journey’s end and the start of crossings and travels, hopes and dreams. A two-sided statue, a decorated figure, like those carved on a ship’s prow looks out to the water; an immigrant family look towards the city. The crescent city lies at a bend in the Mississippi River. A city haunted by its migrants, by their comings and goings, the history of these streets and those who walked them.
Finding herself with little money and no plan after Stephan's arrest, Marya accepts an invitation to stay with the Heidlers in their studio on the Avenue de l’Observatoire. In the book we are told that the Heidlers 'lived on the second floor of a high building half-way up the street'. The studio is situated near the Luxembourg Gardens, and at night they walk together through the ‘lovely, crooked silent streets’. I find the tall, elegant houses of the Avenue de l'Observatoire, leading away from the gardens, and walk along trying to decide in which building the studio might have been located.
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 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.
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.
From the window, glimpses, snapshots, fleeting: time passing like something remembered you can touch. Travel makes you a stranger everywhere continually seeking for and casting off the sense of home. From the window impossibly long trails of freight cars. I picture the track that runs behind us, spooling away endlessly, lost into distance. The forlorn sound of the train, the sound for which the word was made, stretching outwards for-lorn.
My starting point is to try and locate Café Lavenue. I have found a photograph, by chance, which suggests that it lay on a corner, an intersection somewhere along the Boulevard Montparnasse. The photograph shows where the street meets or is crossed by another street, and that there is a metro station in front. Lavenue looks to occupy the building, in typically grand Parisian style. I have a hunch that I may be able to locate the intersection and that the building itself may be unchanged.
I am following through connections on the books Rhys reads and admires, and this has led me to Escapade, which seems to be one of the few books by Evelyn Scott I have been able to track down. Rhys also mentions the book in her letters. In reading Escapade, I’ve been thinking about Evelyn Scott and her relation to Rhys. They were contemporaries, and admirers of each other’s work. They share a clarity of expression and perception that makes their writing feel modern and ahead of its time. This is about an experimental style but in both I detect also the expression of a state of mind, of a certain experience of life or philosophy, and a tendency to radical acts and ideas.
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.
I am thinking of a photograph on a beach somewhere on that trip to Wales. Dark clouds and grey sea. There is synchronicity in the image; our faces are together, touching in the half light. When photographs were still like slips of chance on the paper. Thinking about being outside as night fell in the mountains, sharing a bottle of wine; jubilant in the almost total darkness, with no lights to guide us home.
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.
Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.
The back seat is the site of stories and of daydreams, the ones which come without being summoned, like a ritual to trace over the back of your hand. The speed and the motion allowing glimpses, partial and unformed, always passing and never fully realized. From the back seat I am always looking for places that will tell me stories.
The figure of the flower seller, crossing international boundaries, finds echoes in Rhys's story 'Outside the Machine' in which she writes about identity and inner division, and the sense of not belonging, with having no place. It is about a sense of precarity, and homelessness, of being outside. When asked why she is living in Paris, the character Inez says, 'No, I don't feel particularly at home. That's not why I like it.' And later in the story she thinks: 'Why must you always take it for granted that everybody has somewhere to get back to?'
As well as the literal prison Rhys writes about in Quartet, she frequently portrays metaphorical prisons and spaces in her work. Much of her fiction creates this sense of being trapped, a claustrophobic feeling that has much to do with the spaces she encloses her protagonists in, the rooms and streets, or their lives and circumstances. The city surrounds from all sides, walls close in, and sometimes spaces appear to be shrinking, pavements and passages are narrow and enclosing. Rhys chooses these spaces deliberately as she wants to reflect in them the state of mind of her characters, and more than once she takes the image of a band of iron growing tighter, encircling the heart like a tight grip of anxiety that refuses to let go.
Train stations have a peculiar kind of atmosphere which can be an irresistible draw. They are places of waiting, of limbo, witness to the coming and going of commuters and passers-through. I still think of farewells and departures, of chance encounters and missed opportunities; an intense emotion that prevails in the air itself, as if it were still shrouded in the smoke of steam trains, and in strangers hurrying by.