Street Walking

The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.

Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

I confess a weakness for a particular type of book. Uncertain what to read next, and wandering around the public library as a teenager, I came across Camus and Sartre. Reading The Outsider, Nausea, and books like Crime and Punishment, and Hunger by Knut Hamson. Later on, books by Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot. The encounter with these books is the beginning of a search for a particular kind of aesthetic, the loose cannon wandering the streets, singular. The unmoored figure wresting across the literature of Europe’s cities; and my long-held interest in the stranger, the estranged. The discovery of Jean Rhys and especially Good Morning, Midnight, absolutely changed my life.

Walking is everywhere in Rhys’s city novels, and is something I will be returning to through the course of my writing. Here, I just want to say a few words about walking as lending a structure to my work. I want to take the motion of walking and use it to frame my writing, the walk as a literary construct. It is a form which seems appropriate to Rhys’s urban novels with their fragmented, non-linear and often circular structures.

Rhys uses place and location to map the journeys of her heroines across the city, their inner topography. These walks repeat or enact the past, they explore connections between certain locations and memory, and record encounters with others. Sometimes they are walking to leave something behind, to escape feeling, and to enter a state of indifference. Often they are aimless and without direction; they are journeys that don’t advance the plot and don’t get anywhere. Static kinds of movement leading to dead ends.

As Helen Carr writes, these books wander across and between London and Paris, through memories and journeys that ‘are fragmented, weave backwards and forwards, follow associations, circle back again and again, certain events and certain phrases.’

What is there to be found in retracing one’s steps, over and over?

Perhaps the idea of one continuous journey is misleading and life is really just a series of repetitive movements.

As a literary structure, the recounted walk encourages digression and association, in contrast to the stricter form of a discourse or the chronological progression of a biographical or historical narrative. […]
This kind of structured, associative thinking is the kind most often connected to walking, and it suggests walking as not an analytical but an impressionistic act.

Rebecca Solnitt, Wanderlust.

I want to retain an open and impressionistic approach, and a structure that is open to digression. Enacting a passage through the books, I want to leave their magic intact. As Anna in Voyage in the Dark thinks, ‘Something in the darkness of the streets has a meaning.’

This is also something to do with motion; movement and inspiration are very much connected for me and I find that all my best ideas, all my writing happens on the move. In seeking to capture what is passing, what is fleeting, I want to write in a way that doesn’t close down the books. By walking, I am attempting to lift the books off the page in some sense.

It is also partly a quest to discover why I keep returning to Jean Rhys and these books, what it is about them that leads me to constantly retrace my steps through certain images and words. It is about how these books have become a part of my own narrative, of how I relate to the world: how the books we read can set us on our walking paths.

On the day I left Paris I took one more walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse as snow was falling. Walking along and looking upwards it is possible to get a sense of some of these places as they were when Rhys was writing. I knew then that the streets had already started to seep under my skin. It is something to do with motion, and the repeated retracing of steps. In the same way I keep returning to Rhys, and to the way she has infiltrated into my own experience.

This is what I want to encounter as I write about place in her work, crossing between cities, walking a path through the novels.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete – for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

Rebecca Solnitt, Wanderlust.

Maps

Old Paris leaves its clues everywhere, like the way the old street names remain in some places, only crossed out.

Looking up I see the sign for the Avenue d’Orléans, missing from my street plan, erased from the map, renamed after the liberation of Paris. There is something intriguing about this that suggests to me that somehow mapping the places, drawing a line from point A to B, even visualising them in space isn’t enough. I want to go there.

Literature is full of journeys and movements through space, and there is a growing interest in the geography of fiction and in spatial representations; in mapping fictional places and the routes and paths of fictional characters. This connects real and imaginary places, understanding them as made up of geographical layers and layers of stories.

There is also something unmappable about literature, too many blank spaces, too much that is uncertain. In my project, I am thinking about changing urban spaces and places that have vanished from the map. The idea of mapping the uncertain appeals to me. The places I am seeking are both the real locations and a subjective experience of them; they are a starting point for a fugitive kind of thinking and a blurring of the real and imagined. Rhys’s heroines walk the line between reality and fantasy.

Maps are about orientation, but I also want to think about disorientation and the disappearances and divergences that come about through walking, when walking becomes about wandering without direction, rather than travelling from point A to B. Rhys’s books and the journeys they enact are non-linear. Often they are stuck in dead ends or repeated, static and circular movements. I find that adding places and street names to the map and connecting lines between them, is illuminating only to a point. It doesn’t account for the movement between.

Seeking the atmosphere Rhys portrays in her novels, I need to locate the streets as they were. With no prospect of time travel available, I experience an epiphany. I will find old maps to use for my research. Maps which date to the time the books were written. Maps of the streets as Rhys would have known them and as walked by Rhys heroines in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The maps open something up, a passage through: they are like a leap of imagination. I am remembering going to see the Jean Rhys archive collection at the British Library, and how profoundly moving it was to see those papers and manuscripts, her handwriting. It is something to do with touch, with holding the map in my hands and walking the streets; the measure of my footsteps.

Place, travel and exploration have always been amongst the most fundamental elements of literature. Our poetry, our fiction, our drama is itself a mapping of the world, wide-ranging, highlighted in some parts, dark in others, always changing in space and time. A very large part of our writing is a story of its roots in a place: a landscape, region, village, city, nation or continent.

Much more of it is an odyssey of travels: of adventure, discovery, exploration, pilgrimage, journeys to new worlds. What’s more, places themselves are changed by what is written of them, and take some of their meaning and mythic character from literature.

Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Introduction’, The Atlas of Literature.

The Street Walks In, Or, Paris is Porous

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.

In this passage, Sasha, the main protagonist, is wandering about the narrow streets near the Panthéon. When it starts to rain she goes into a Tabac for a drink. A scene, like many in the book, about thinking too much, and feeling out of place. Trying to maintain an illusion of respectability, yet identified for what she is. A woman of a certain age, alone at a bar, who wants a drink. Or several.

Sometimes somebody comes in for stamps, or a man for a drink. Then you can see outside into the street. And the street walks in. It is one of those streets – dark, powerful, magical. …

‘Oh, there you are,’ it says, walking in at the door, there you are. Where have you been all this time?’

Nobody else knows me but the street knows me.

The street walking in, a striking image. As though the street were coming to summon her back, to reclaim her.

Like other great writers, it is for the beauty of her prose I admire Rhys the most. For its singular quality and elegance; for its closeness to experience and an often discomforting directness. Sometimes there are these moments in her prose where the boundaries between the inside and outside begin to break down. Often this is about the spaces she writes, the hotel rooms, cafés, and streets. These are the passages that can open up what can feel like a very close, claustrophobic text, and where boundaries shift between inside and outside.

Paris is porous: ‘Now a landscape, now a room.’ (Walter Benjamin)

Parisians inhabit their public gardens and streets as though they were salons and corridors, and their cafés face the street and overflow into it as though the theater of passersby were too interesting to neglect even for the duration of a drink […] Streets turn into courtyards […] Everything – houses, churches, bridges, walls – is the same sandy grey so that the city seems like a single construction of inconceivable complexity, a sort of coral reef of high culture. All this makes Paris seem porous, as though private thought and public acts were not so separate here as elsewhere, with walkers flowing in and out of reveries and revolutions. More than any other city, it has entered the paintings and novels of those under its sway, so that representation and reality reflect each other like a pair of facing mirrors.

Rebecca Solnitt, ‘Paris, Or Botanizing the Asphalt’, Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

 

Tracing a route

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A note on the books I am writing about. Quartet was Jean Rhys’s first novel (published in 1928 under the title Postures) followed by After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939).

Jean Rhys is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, the book that brought her the most success and recognition. Rhys also published some collections of short stories, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976), as well as Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography published in 1979 shortly after her death. The recent publication of The Collected Short Stories by Penguin Books in 2017 is testimony to the enduring appeal and importance of her writing.

The significant gap between publication of her early and later work is telling, and from her letters as well as biographical accounts, it is clear that Rhys struggled throughout her life, facing many personal difficulties and financial insecurity. After the publication of Good Morning, Midnight Rhys vanished into obscurity and many presumed she had died. As the story goes, an advert was placed in The New Statesman seeking information on the whereabouts of the author Jean Rhys, by Selma Vaz Dias, an actress and writer who was writing an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys herself answered the advert, and following this, the publisher Francis Wyndham began a correspondence with her in which she told him she was writing another book – eventually published as Wide Sargasso Sea.

Many writers and critics have commented on the overlaps between the books and Rhys’s own life, sometimes regarding them as though portraying a single protagonist at different stages of her life. I’m not sure how useful that is as a way of thinking about these novels, although I am choosing to start with the youngest of these protagonists in Voyage in the Dark rather than following the books by order of publication. Much of the material for this book was written much earlier and so in some ways is symbolic of Rhys’s beginnings as a writer.

What Jean Rhys used to say about the relationship between her life and her novels only confirms what is understood by most writers and students of writing, but perhaps it is worth recalling here. All her writing, she used to say, started out from something that had happened, and her first concern was to get it down as accurately as possible. But ‘I like shape very much’ – and again, ‘a novel has to have a shape, and life doesn’t have any’. If the novel was going to work, then it would start to have its own shape (her feeling seemed to be that the novel had it, rather than she imposed it). Then she would be compelled to leave things out that had happened, or to put things in; to increase this or diminish that – all this to suit the shape and nature of the work of art which was forming out of the original experience.

Diana Athill, ‘Jean Rhys and her Autobigography’, Foreward to Smile Please, May 1979.

I also think that the way Rhys is understood and interpreted is so entangled with her biography that it can be difficult to separate them. Her books have been used to write about her life events, and her life to elucidate the books, over and again, so that it is almost impossible not to correlate them in some way. However, I don’t want to make any assumptions or claim to know what Rhys thought or intended, and so my focus here is on the books themselves. I would like to take them on their own terms and read them without judgement or reservation, as fiction, as art.

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.

Books collected

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

My hero: Jean Rhys by Linda Grant‘, The Guardian, 22 February 2013.

What they call an impasse

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I am in Paris, playing literary detective. Specifically, I am looking for the hotel that features in Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Not the exact hotel perhaps, but the location of it.

It is a cold morning in early February, and I am out early before it gets light. I walk towards the Luxembourg Gardens, following the street which runs alongside it, close and shadowed, ‘empty, silent and enchanted in the darkness.’ I follow the road around to the Boulevard Saint-Michel, crossing towards the Panthéon. The colours are vivid, the lights changing from red to green, green to red at the crossings, with barely a soul in sight.

I have with me a street map of Paris, a camera, and a list of places that feature in her books. The books themselves are full of walking, often aimless drifting around the city streets, or walks which conjure a mode of static repetition, without direction.

From my walks around London, I observe that there are certain places which never fail to bring Rhys to mind. It is by walking in certain streets and areas that I find myself slipping into thinking about Rhys, the recurrence of a particular quotation or image.

I am intrigued as well, thinking about the way Rhys makes such specific references to particular streets or addresses, and to cafés, bars and hotels.

Sometimes the act of reading itself is like detective work. Images and symbols repeat themselves and are threaded through like clues waiting to be identified. Reading the clues, joining points together, moments of revelation.

The original social content of the detective story was the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd.

Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, The Paris of the Second Empire.

Pantheon lights

I would like to find the impasse that locates the hotel in Good Morning, Midnight where Sasha is staying in during her visit to Paris. I am trying to locate this on real terrain, on solid ground, and because inspiration for me usually happens in motion. Rhys writes: ‘The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.’

A cheap hotel in Paris. Hotel rooms often figure somewhere in her 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.

I am really starting to enjoy myself, exploring the streets around the Panthéon, the experience of being up and about as the city is waking, the winter blue of the dawn and the vivid colours of street lights as they blur and reflect through my camera. I find the Rue Victor Cousin. Rhys places the hotel ‘just around the corner’ from here, with a room overlooking a courtyard, a typical feature of Paris architecture. In the book, there are two cafes at the end of the street.

I walk from Rue Victor Cousin to look for one of the places I have seen on the map. When I get there I see it is called Impasse Royer-Collard but it doesn’t match the description in the book – a cobbled street ending in a flight of steps. Detective work is full of dead ends too. Perhaps the impasse is misleading, and is really a symbol, a figurative impasse rather than an actual site. The hotel not a real hotel but a representative of all hotels, all rooms.

I recall that just around the corner, near the Rue Saint-Jacques, I have walked past a street fitting this description but which isn’t an impasse. It is possible that Rhys merged these places and used ‘impasse’ to signify the dead end with which she begins the book, and the real description of a street nearby.

Returning to the other street, the Rue Malebranche, I walk back up the steps and see what I hadn’t noticed before, a hotel. Could it be? Paris is a changing city, but also one which retains traces of what has passed. There may have been a hotel on this site before, it may have been less salubrious in its time. Just down the street, the Rue Soufflot has two cafes situated opposite one another. By this point I am buzzing with the thrill of literary detection and see that the Italian cafe is called ‘Il Gigolo’. Il Gigolo! The coincidence is almost too much. In the book, Sasha meets a young man, a gigolo. The gigolo a distant echo of herself, of dubious identity, lacking solidity or traceable origins.

Rhys’s city is full of such encounters, seemingly without direction or purpose. All the little clues fall into place, if only for this conceivable space, if only for me, and in this moment.

As he sketched out his own mental map of Paris in the 1930’s, Walter Benjamin insisted that it is in the shifting movement of everyday Paris that we can glimpse what it is that makes history. Benjamin’s contention was that everyday experience – aimlessly strolling the streets, drinking coffee or alcohol, picking up someone of the opposite or same sex – always contains a larger, more complex meaning. Seen in this way, the life of the city is revealed as an endless series of moments, always ephemeral and sometimes baffling, that are also its real history.

Andrew Hussey, Paris: The Secret History.

Later on, I realise I have been so fixated on finding the impasse that I have missed another clue in the book: that Rimbaud stayed at the hotel for a time. Sasha overhears some tourists remarking on this, a kind of literary tourism. Rhys is writing at the fringes of Paris and London, the cities crossed by writers such as Rimbaud. These two cities have formed the site of diverse wanderings, a whole history of writing about the city. Might there be a legion of hotels in Paris with such a claim?

Unable to resist I look this up. The internet makes it almost maddeningly easy and I find the Hôtel Cluny, on Rue Victor-Cousin. If I had walked further along the street I would have seen the sign outside which mentions that Rimbaud stayed at the hotel in June 1872. Furthermore their website explains that Rimbaud and Verlaine met around the corner in one of the cafes in the Place de la Sorbonne, and that he mentions ‘a pretty room (room 62) on a bottomless court.’

Victor-Cousin

Literary detection, like the board game we used to play at home, Scotland Yard, in which detectives trail the fugitive criminal across the city. Every five moves in the game, the criminal must surface and reveal their position.

I envisage each of the places mentioned in the novels, the street names, hotel rooms, cafés, and so on, as points of surfacing. My idea is to visit each one, to locate each place on foot with the books in mind; to find a way to approach Rhys’s work in this way. It is a quest, an angle; research by psychogeography.

I am making a kind of pilgrimage, following my hunch that walking and mapping a route through the novels, might open up these texts as a map does for a walker through the city. That going to the places might summon up those feelings and their ghosts, traces of the urban encounters Rhys writes about.

The city is coming to life and the streets near the Luxembourg Gardens are starting to fill with the flow of traffic and of footsteps crossing the Boulevard Saint-Michel. While I have been looking, the blue dawn has given way to a lighter, hazy winter cloud. I am no longer alone with the street. I cross back to the Luxembourg Gardens, to spend some time looking at the trees, the tangle of their branches that creep up to the sky with delicate and brittle patterns, the ones Rhys writes about so beautifully.