Paris: city of refuge

Modern placelessness demonstrates how fragile everybody’s place in the world is.

Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: Writing, Rights and Refugees

In her early novels, Jean Rhys presents Paris as a place of encounter with people of unknown nationality and transient identities. In Quartet the presence of refugee and migrant populations can be traced through the book, just as the homeless and the wandering poor thread their way through the London of Voyage in the Dark. Rhys’s fiction reveals something about this particular historical moment, and she writes from a position which seeks to account for a sense of displacement.

A principle of transience governs Rhys’s writing – her colonial background appears both implicitly and explicitly in her fiction and feelings of belonging are never stable or permanent.

Bridget Chalk, Modernism and Mobility: The Passport and Cosmopolitan Experience

In my first post on Quartet, I describe how we first meet Marya coming out of Café Lavenue. This cosmopolitan image is destabilized early on in the book in the description of Marya’s proximity to the ‘shabby youths’ of unknown nationality who walk the boulevards, and who look to her for recognition. Marya is married to Stephan, ‘a stranger and an alien’, of obscure occupation. They live a ‘vagabond existence’ in a hotel in Montmartre inhabited by a variety of international couples. Although Marya is English their way of life and experience of Paris is very different from the group of expatriate writers and artists she is acquainted with. Rhys’s work thus questions the notion of cosmopolitan exile frequently found in the accounts of prominent modernist figures.

Her life swayed regularly, even monotonously, between two extremes, avoiding the soul-destroying middle. Sometimes they had a good deal of money and immediately spent it. Sometimes they had none at all and then they would skip a meal and drink iced white wine on the balcony instead.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

In the book are echoes of Rhys’s own life. She met Jean Lenglet in 1919, and they left for Europe, living for a time in Paris, Vienna and Budapest. Their marriage and departure for Europe forms the background to some of Rhys’s work, and she portrays the sense of precarity and insecurity, but also the exhilaration of their life together.

Lenglet, under the pen name Edouard de Nève, wrote his own account of the events described in Quartet in his novel Barred translated into English by Jean Rhys. The book is ‘an indictment of the French penal system and a realistic picture of the desperate lack of perspective that marked so many people’s lives in the years preceding the Great Depression.’ The book’s protagonist ‘homeless, stateless, welcome in no country, is a representative of that large group of refugees who in the years following the Great War were sent from one European border to another.’ (Martien Kappers-Den Hollander, ‘Jean Rhys and the Dutch Connection‘)

Lenglet’s fascinating life, and his impact and influence on Rhys during this period can be felt, especially on the themes of her work and its concerns with identity, passports and papers. Both writers inhabit an in-between status and are concerned with the forms of classification as experienced between the two world wars. In my earlier post on passports, I mention Rhys and her meeting with Jean Lenglet in London. As Bridget Chalk writes, ‘the passport did not only dictate where one could travel […] it also determined to an increasing degree, forms of social knowledge and power.’

Characterized by the logic of the passport, Rhys’s work demonstrates that definitions of national identity and classification mediate both interpersonal interactions and self-understanding.

Bridget Chalk, Modernism and Mobility: The Passport and Cosmopolitan Experience

During the interwar years, Paris’s immigrant population grew rapidly. France encouraged immigration due to its massive population loss during the First World War. In his historical survey of refugees in Europe, The Unwanted, Michael Marrus records that ‘some 1.5 million foreign workers flocked to France before 1928, a large proportion of them refugees.’ Paris was regarded as a city of refugees, and in particular as the capital of Russian exile groups. The presence of refugees and political activists from Russia is evident in Quartet, through references to arrests and talk of ‘a Bolshevist plot’. During the early 1920s, Marrus records an estimated 9.5 million refugees in Europe, and around 1 million Russians.

A whole nation of people, although they come from many different nations, wander the world, homeless except for refuges which may at any moment prove to be temporary.

Dorothy Thompson, Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? (1938)

Marrus describes how the character of the refugee movement differed from previous movements of refugees in its significance for the European state system, as well as in sheer numbers, and in the duration of their displacement. They represented ‘a radically new form of homelessness’: finding themselves outside the realm of nation-states that accorded basic rights and status, they were completely removed from society, and ‘sometimes wandered for years through the interstices of the European state system.’ (Michael Marrus, The Unwanted)

Nation-states increasingly policed their borders, and in Paris the presence of immigrant and refugee populations was monitored and tracked. In Barred, ‘the narrator’s experience of a vast biopolitical apparatus taking hold of his identity reflects specific historical conditions.’ (Bridget Chalk)

The huge machine of law, order, against one. Horrible to be certain that one was not strong enough to fight it.

Jean Rhys, ‘Vienne’

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.

It may be that this invisibility reflects a belief […] that refugees emerged only fleetingly on the stage of history before being restored to a more settled existence.

Peter Gattrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee

As I looked for sources of research into Paris as a city of refugees during the interwar period, I came across accounts of the growing number of temporary camps and shelters in Paris today, and their movement to the edges of the city, out of sight of tourists and residents of the city. In my project I have been thinking about shelter and transient people in interwar London and Paris. Refugees and migrants constitute an ever-growing number of homeless people on the streets of European cities, and I am thinking increasingly of how these two categories might intersect.

Lyndsey Stonebridge writes that refugees ‘only constitute a “crisis” if they get too close to home […] in another sense, existential as well as political, refugees have always moved too close to what the more securely domiciled think of as home.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere.

Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight

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