The studio in the Avenue de l’Observatoire

They passed the deserted entrance of the Bal Bullier and the coloured lights of the Closerie des Lilas, and crossed the street into the dimness of the Avenue de l’Observatoire, where the tops of the trees vanished, ghost-like, in the mist

Jean Rhys, Quartet

Quartet is a book rich in the cultural sites and locations of Paris. As well as exploring Montmartre, Marya also frequents areas of the Left Bank, in particular Montparnasse and its outlying areas.

Marya’s travels on the Métro from Place Blanche in Montmartre to Denfert-Rochereau, in the heart of Montparnasse. In my Paris walks for Quartet, I mirror her experience, travelling by Métro, embarking and seeing the great Lion de Belfort standing in the middle of Place Denfert-Rochereau. I find a café and sit wondering if it is in one of the nearby cafés where Marya sits and looks out at the lights, thinking about the labyrinth of streets outside. In one direction is the Porte d’Orléans where Marya catches a tram out to the prison at Fresnes to visit her husband Stephan. In the other direction is the studio where Marya stays for a time with the Heidlers (based on Ford Maddox Ford and Stella Bowen). At the beginning of the book Marya walks slowly through the rain along the Avenue Denfert-Rocheareau, and sees the couple struggling with an umbrella along the street.

Finding herself with little money and no plan after Stephan’s arrest, Marya accepts an invitation to stay with the Heidlers in their studio on the Avenue de l’Observatoire. In the book we are told that the Heidlers ‘lived on the second floor of a high building half-way up the street’. The studio is situated near the Luxembourg Gardens, and at night they walk together through the ‘lovely, crooked silent streets’. I find the tall, elegant houses of the Avenue de l’Observatoire, leading away from the gardens, and walk along trying to decide in which building the studio might have been located.

The studio on the Avenue de l’Observatoire represents a parallel site to Marya’s room in the Hotel de l’Univers in Montmartre; both rooms are high up and overlook the city. There are also parallels in the cultural history of these areas of Paris. My earlier post outlined some aspects of the artistic significance of Montmartre in the cultural history of the city. In the interwar years, Montparnasse was a key site in modernist artistic and literary production, often generated by a transnational experience of exile and displacement. From her balcony in Montmartre, Marya overlooks the lights of the Moulin Rouge and the life of the city continues below, though close at hand, making her feel a part of something. At the studio, Marya spends long afternoons with Lois Heidler while she paints and discusses the network of Montparnasse social life.

Marya spent long, calm afternoons staring through the windows at the tops of the leafless trees and listening to stories about Montparnasse. […] She would often stop painting to talk, and it was evident that she took Montparnasse very seriously indeed. She thought of it as a possible stepping-stone to higher things and she liked explaining, classifying, fitting the inhabitants into their proper places in the scheme of things.

From the Heidler’s studio, Lois categories and classifies the expatriate writers and artists who make up the social circle she surrounds herself with. To Marya, this world seems rather limited, and the Heidlers appear detached and arrogant. They keep themselves at a distance to the city, using their voluntary state of exile to explore their relation to places and people they have never really left behind and will most likely return to; in other words they remain ‘expatriate’. Marya attends their weekly soirees which she finds a somewhat pained experience.

Every Thursday Lois gave a party, and Marya felt strangely at a loss during these gatherings where everyone seemed so efficient, so up and doing, so full of That Important Feeling and everything was an affair of principle and uplift if you were an American, and of proving conclusively that you belonged to the upper classes, but were nevertheless an anarchist, if you were English. The women were long-necked and very intelligent and they would get into corners and say simple, truthful things about each other.

According to Shari Benstock in her book on women writers of the Left Bank, Rhys remains on the fringes of this group. She ‘spent long days of aimless walking through mean and uninteresting quarters’ and ‘discovered a part of the Left Bank unknown to other of its residents.’ To Rhys, they weren’t interested in finding out about the real Paris, they were much more interested in discovering themselves. In Quartet, Rhys gives to Marya this interest in wandering into areas off the beaten track, and into side streets sway from the cafés and artist’s studios of Montparnasse.

In my post on Paris as a city of migrants, of arrivals, I considered the crossover between Rhys’s wandering life with Jean Lenglet. By staying just on the edge of the ‘Montparno’ set and holding onto what remains of her ‘fantastical’ life with Stephan, Marya retains her aloofness, her observer status, making her slightly harder to place. She is resolutely a vagabond and a wanderer; she is not merely slumming it for a time, and is drawn still to the relative anonymity of her life in Montmartre.

Like the women of her fiction, Jean Rhys did not find a place for herself on the literary Left Bank; she was an outsider among outsiders, neither part of the café crowd nor an occasional visitor to Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. Rhys lived outside the bounds of society, outside even the bounds of so loosely constructed and open a society as that of the Left Bank. She discovered there no island havens, no communities of writers, no women friends who might support her talent. Even the relationship with Ford Maddox Ford, who had served as both mentor and publisher to her (printing some of her stories in Transtlantic Review), was destroyed when Ford fell in love with her.

Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank

Montparnasse is also the legendary cafés that line the Boulevard Montparnasse, frequented by artists and writers of the time. As I reflected in my earlier post on Café Lavenue, the interior of the cafés appear as preserved moments of an earlier time, with their lamps and décor, the tables and the bar. In Quartet, Rhys writes about some of these cafés: Café de la Rotonde, Café du Dome, the Closerie des Lilas. These are now expensive and upscale places, and it is hard to imagine a penniless writer sitting for hours on the terrace with a brandy. With the Heidlers, Marya also attends the Bal de Printemps on Rue de Mouffetard, and they spend a night at the music hall – the Théâtre Bobino on Rue de la Gaîté, is one of the famous music halls of Montparnasse.

In the context of interwar culture, Montparnasse represented more than just a few popular cafes frequented by a colourful clientele, including struggling artists from various corners of Europe […] it represented a new aesthetic language and style of interwar modernism […] a dynamic mosaic of voices and perspectives with constantly shifting internal boundaries.

Maria Rubins, Russian Montparnasse: Transnational Writing in Interwar Paris

Marya spends a lot of time walking the streets of Montparnasse and beyond: “she vaguely disliked the Boulevard St Michel with its rows of glaring cafes, and always felt relieved when she turned into the Boulevard Montparnasse, softer, more dimly lit, more kindly. There she could plunge herself into her dream.” Later, the main thoroughfares become places to avoid when rumours start to spread about Marya’s relationship with the Heidlers. She frequently sees the same people and sometimes they blank her. Turning once again to her own solitary wanderings, she begins to frequent streets like the Rue Saint-Jacques where she identifies with the stray cats she finds there.

It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all.

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