We first meet Marya coming out of the Café Lavenue ‘a dignified and comparatively expensive establishment, on the Boulevard Montparnasse.’ The start of the novel frames Marya as carefree, embracing Parisian café life, drinking coffee and reading Candide, a weekly newspaper dating from 1924 onwards, one of the main literary and political periodicals of the interwar period.
Quartet is Jean Rhys’s first published novel, dating from 1928, and written following her affair with Ford Maddox Ford and the break-up of her first marriage to Jean Lenglet. It is a fictional account of these events and mirrors aspects of her life after leaving England and so in some sense continues on from Voyage in the Dark. Ford was a great influence on Rhys’s development as a writer and played a significant role in promoting her early work, suggesting publishers as well as introducing her to the literary scene in Paris during the 1920’s, of which Rhys remained firmly on the fringes.
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.
In Quartet, Marya walks often along the Boulevard Montparnasse which marks the boundary to the 14th arrondissement, an area frequented by Marya and other Rhys heroines. Some of the famous cafés of the time can still be found there – Le Dôme, La Rotonde, Le Select, La Coupole are all close by. I walk along the Boulevard Montparnasse, following it all the way along, partly to orient myself and to get a feel for the street. It is one of those streets on which it is possible to slip into imagining how it once was, by looking up at the buildings and tuning out from the noise of the traffic. The cafés too are like slivers of the past and especially their interiors, the wooden counters and mirrors, the glass bottles lined up behind the bar.
I am heading for the Rue de Rennes, as in the book Marya crosses the road and turns into this street. As I approach, I look up and there is Lavenue, the old sign on the outside of part of the building that remains preserved. It is now a restaurant called Hippopotamus and looks very different inside and out. There is the sign, looking up a trace of the city’s history, a clue, a remnant of the old still present within the new.
Looking at the photo again I see the angle from which it was taken, looking down the Boulevard Montparnasse from the square – the square then called the Place de Rennes, now called Place de 18 Juin 1940.
I spend time walking in Montparnasse, beginning to familiarize myself with its reaches. Sometimes following the paths mapped out by Rhys, and sometimes following my own divergences.
Like Marya, I walk and walk, covering distance and enjoying my role of literary detective. Pausing in cafés out of the rain, for a café Americano or a small, strong sweet espresso always black, I lay my Jean Rhys paperback on the table and read from the relevant passage. It is fun to follow a route through the book and to begin to get a sense of Paris through my maps, old and new, which I study looking for clues and recording the places I have walked, to seal them in memory.