The great river of words

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.

Jean Rhys

Rivers and recurrent images of water are very present in Jean Rhys’s fiction and I have been thinking about rivers as the other of the city, as a wildness flowing through. They speak to loss and immersion in the great dark river, a metaphor for death, for what can’t be explained or measured. There is a moment in Quartet when Marya stands and contemplates the river form the Quai des Orfèvres in Paris.

She stayed there for a long time watching the trembling reflections of the lights on the Seine. Yellow lights like jewels, like eyes that winked at her. Red lights like splashes of blood on the stealthy water. Necklaces of light over the dark, slowly moving water.

In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, the river has a presence, and Julia watches it from her hotel:

When she looked at the river she shivered. She felt certain that the water made her room much colder. It was only at night that she loved it. Then it seemed mysteriously to increase in width and the current to flow more strongly.

Later in the book, Rhys echoes the passage in Quartet, making it stronger and more explicit. Julia walks to the river and stands watching for a long time, until a policeman comes to see what she is doing. Shadows are often figured as representing the ghostly other running through the narrative, just at the edge of the conscious world. In this passage, the shadows create a ghostly, uncanny presence.

Shadows of smoke in the water. She leaned against the wall, and watched the shadows as they danced, but without joy. They danced, they twisted, they thrust out long, curved, snake-like arms and beckoned. […] The shadows seemed not to be on the surface, but to be struggling, wriggling upwards from the depths of the water.

Rhys is drawing on the motif of the figure of the drowned woman, a pervasive trope in the nineteenth century. Within visual and literary culture the image of female suicide by drowning was portrayed as the fate of the fallen woman, a symbol of moral transgression and redemption, so that drowning is often seen as gendered. The symbol of the archetypal drowned woman shifted during the Victorian era so that the river itself becomes complicit in the act of drowning, often luring the body into the water, as an active and living entity.

Rhys writes powerfully of an emotional death symbolised by drowning. In Voyage in the Dark, Anna’s overwhelming fear is expressed as ‘letting go and falling back into water.’ In Good Morning Midnight, Sasha is: ‘Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep dark river.’ Rhys writes, ‘Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning.’

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.

In Rhys’s short story, ‘The Sound of the River’, she returns to these ideas. An awareness of the presence of the river, foreboding, uncanny and eerie threads through the story.

As they walked back he’d kept his head turned towards the water. ‘Curiously metallic it looks by this light. Not like water at all.’

‘It looks smooth as if it were frozen. And much wider.’

‘Frozen – no. Very much alive in an uncanny way. Streaming hair,’ he said as if he were talking to himself.

So he’d felt it too. She lay remembering how the brown broken-surfaced, fast-running river had changed by moonlight. Things are more powerful than people. I’ve always believed that.

The sound of the river is the inadequacy of language to say the things we feel, and yet the need to keep on trying to say them, to add to the river of words.

If I could put it into words it might go, she was thinking. Sometimes you can put it into words – almost – and so get rid of it – almost. […] But there aren’t any words for this fear. The words haven’t been invented.

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