The Hotel of the Universe, Rue Cauchois

Still there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

Quartet is a book full of the atmosphere of departures and escape. Jean Rhys’s experience of leaving England and arriving in Paris is a key one for her and she writes about it at several points in these early novels. This writing in turn, made an impact on me, so that I am thinking constantly about the feeling of exaltation and apprehension that come from travel and new places; of how you can’t have one without the other. Paris is a point of arrival for strangers from many different places, and Marya is the character who has escaped into the sun.

I’ve escaped. A door has opened and let me out into the sun. What more do I want? Anything might happen.

Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

Paris had an impact on Rhys, and it was a place she returned to whenever she could. In a later interview she says: “Paris sort of lifted you up – you know, the light is quite pink, instead of being yellow or blue. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.”

Paris at this time must have felt alive after the repressed and stifling atmosphere of Edwardian England. Even now, arriving in Paris, the city has a buzz with its illuminated streets and pavement cafés. I arrive late on a Saturday afternoon and walk from Gare du Nord and through the 9th arrondissement, to Montmartre. As I walk along Rue Lepic, the terraces of the cafés are full of life and conversation, and I pass slowly through, imagining how different it must have felt to London. In the book there is a sense that Marya has escaped the constraints and limitations of her life in England for a more ‘fantastical’ life, adventurous and uncertain.

At a little after midnight Marya got back to the Hotel de l’Univers, Rue Cauchois. She mounted five flights of steep, uncarpeted stairs, felt her way along an unlighted passage, flung her bedroom door open and embraced her husband violently. […]

The room was large and low-ceilinged, the striped wallpaper faded to inoffensiveness. A huge dark wardrobe faced a huge dark bed. The rest of the furniture shrank away into corners, battered and apologetic. A narrow door on the left led into a small, very dark dressing-room. There was no carpet on the floor.

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. It is the first of a series of hotels and the kinds of temporary accommodation that she writes into her books. The rooms that express a lack of home, in this case experienced as a kind of freedom. The balcony which looks out onto the street below, from which Marya can look out across the rooftops of the city. Looking upwards, trying to decide which building might have contained the ‘Hotel de l’Univers’. There are no hotels on the Rue Cauchois now, but I can see balconies high up, high enough to look down on the lights of the Moulin Rouge.

Marya, longing to assert her point of view, would try to describe the charm of her life with Stephan. The vagabond nights, the fresh mornings, the long sleepy afternoons spent behind drawn curtains.

As well as the ubiquitous iron balcony, Paris is the courtyards the lie just behind the wooden doors of apartment buildings, the proximity to others, to rooftops and stairways and windows. From a courtyard, Marya overhears the music of a concertina, the sound which brings back the streets, and leads her into thinking about solitary walks around Paris: ‘… listening to it gave Marya the same feeling of melancholy pleasure as she had when walking along the shadowed side of one of those narrow streets’. From the Hotel de l’Univers, Marya explores the streets of Paris, drawn across the city to the Left Bank and Montparnasse. She walks through areas seen as out of bounds, less respectable. Marya chooses the winding streets, drawn to side streets and deviations, observing a disappearing Paris, existing along with the great, long straight boulevards.

Montparnasse was full of these streets and they were often inordinately long. You could walk for hours. The Rue Vaugirard, for instance. Marya had never managed to reach the end of the Rue Vaugirard, which was a very respectable thoroughfare on the whole. But if you went far enough towards Grenelle and then turned down side streets…

The landscape of the city, and certain streets fit her aimless wandering without direction. These movements take place in the side streets, in the wandering deviations from the long, straight and respectable boulevards and thoroughfares. The implication is that these streets which wind and bend can still contain hidden secrets, pockets of another city that is fast disappearing, dissident in themselves.

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