The Hôtel du Bosphore looked down on Montparnasse station, where all day a succession of shabby trains, each trailing its long scarf of smoke, clanked slowly backwards and forwards.Jean Rhys, Quartet
Train stations have a peculiar kind of atmosphere which can be an irresistible draw. They are places of waiting, of limbo, witness to the coming and going of commuters and passers-through. I still think of farewells and departures, of chance encounters and missed opportunities; an intense emotion that prevails in the air itself, as if it were still shrouded in the smoke of steam trains, and in strangers hurrying by.
Writing about Quartet by Jean Rhys, I have observed that it is as though an atmosphere of departure infuses the whole book, and the Paris she writes about seems alive with movement and with the arrival and departure of trains across Europe. The hotel next to Montparnasse station seems therefore an appropriate place for Marya to end in when she leaves the studio at the Heidlers. A room overlooking the arriving trains, a place crossing into the fringes of the shabby and more disreputable parts of the city. The area around train stations are often known for their run-down qualities, and perhaps the anonymity draws in lost souls from the edges with the possibility of a moment’s chance encounter within the obscure and concealed streets after dark.
In my Paris walks for Quartet, I don’t visit Montparnasse station, partly because the site that Rhys refers to in her book no longer exists, and from the outside it strikes me as uninspiring and as lacking in character and atmosphere in the Sunday morning rain. As I look further into the history of the station, I am starting to wish I had explored it more closely now that the possibility of travelling back there seems unlikely for some time.
The Gare de l’Ouest was built in the 1840s, and the station became famous for a spectacular derailment in 1895 in which a train crossed the station and crashed through the wall. The site of the current Montparnasse station reflects significant changes to the area after the Second World War, when the station was rebuilt and then relocated during the construction of the Montparnasse Tower.
There have been significant changes to this part of Paris which reveals an altered landscape, with the Tour Montparnasse, modern office and housing blocks, a shopping centre, while the station itself now has a museum commemorating the resistance and liberation of Paris, as well as the Jardin Atlantique, a park and garden built above the platforms and train tracks.
Rhys locates the hotel in the Place du Maine, and although the map reflects changes, many of the street names around the station are intact, including the evocatively named Rue de l’Arrivée and the Rue du Depart, names that Rhys referenced in her fiction. These shifting sites and the disappearance of the hotel itself, seems exemplary for the transient hotels Rhys writes about. Crossing into the regions of the city where Marya strays on her long walks through the neighbourhoods of Paris, they reflect a city that is long vanished, but one that I think I detect just for a moment as I walk around the streets near the Avenue du Maine; one that can be glimpsed now and again in a side street or an obscure hotel sign.
Marya walked straight ahead, her face stiff and set, across the boulevard which looked to her as if it were blazing with lights, on fire with lights, across the Place du Maine and up the avenue, passing under the railway bridge…Jean Rhys, Quartet
The room at the Hôtel du Bosphore is significant because like many Rhys rooms, the surroundings tell us something about the state of mind of her protagonist, and for Marya the impact of her affair with Heidler is taking its toll. In the room ‘an atmosphere of departed and ephemeral loves hung about the bedroom like stale scent, for the hotel was one of unlimited hospitality, though quietly, discreetly and not more so than its neighbours.’
It was no good arguing, there she was, the villain of the piece; it hurt, of course. When the lonely night came it started hurting like hell. Then she would drink a couple of Pernods at Boots’s Bar to deaden the hurt …Jean Rhys, Quartet
‘A bedroom in hell might look rather like this one,’ Marya thinks. She lies in bed ‘contemplating the flowers which crawled like spiders over the black walls of her bedroom’. Marya finds herself caught in the grip of her obsessive, destructive affair with Heidler, and the room reflects this. The hotel itself seemingly existing as a meeting place for lovers who have something to conceal. As the room becomes symptomatic of her state of mind, Marya finds herself playing a role she no longer recognizes, the thought that she is becoming the kind of petit femme that waits in hotels like this one. Marya hardly cares anymore as her obsession grips her like ‘an intense and arid thirst’ while everything else around her starts to feel more unreal and dreamlike. ‘Oh, God, what depressing places hotel bedrooms can be,’ Heidler thinks when he comes to visit Marya there.
‘Why don’t you change your hotel?’
‘All these hotels are the same’…Jean Rhys, Quartet
The room seems also to mark the beginnings of the classic Rhys heroine. In her early story, ‘In the Rue de l’Arrivée’, there are recognisable aspects of Marya’s descent into patterns of destructive behaviour and her walks begin to seem more confined, more repetitious. She looks in the mirror often and doesn’t recognise herself. She sees distorted reflections of herself in the figures of the women around her, women alone haunting the cafes and bars of Montparnasse. In the story, Rhys describes stepping ‘out onto the Boulevard into the soft autumn night, and the night put out a gentle, cunning hand to squeeze her heart.’ Walking in these streets behind the station, something of this atmosphere can be traced or imagined. While the area has changed very much since then, I did detect some atmosphere in the streets surrounding it and there are lively bars and cafes when I visit, as I walk back to my own hotel around the corner.
It was her deplorable habit, when she felt very blue indeed, to proceed slowly up the right-hand side of the Boulevard, taking a fine […] There are so many cafes and the desired effect could be obtained without walking very far […]
That she was down on her luck […] That she lacked strength of character and was doomed to the fate of the feeble who have not found a protector.
There she was stony-broke and with a hand that was rapidly losing its cunning, seeking oblivion in a cheap Montparnasse café. A bad stage to have reached, useless to disguise it.Jean Rhys, ‘In the Rue de l’Arrivée’