In the Rue Bleue

The hotel, which was called the Hôtel de Havane, was brand new. It smelt of paint and there were ladders and pails of whitewash on the staircase. […] Marya had often wandered about that part of Paris with Stephan when they lived in Montmartre, and she remembered the dingy streets […] Over the whole of the quarter the sinister and rakish atmosphere of the Faubourg Montmartre spread like some perfume.

This will be the last post on Quartet by Jean Rhys, and as I leave Marya in the streets of Paris, this seems like a good time for a writing update. The book ends in a part of the city I have come to know quite well, and that I tend to gravitate towards on my visits to Paris – the 9th arrondissement and the streets around the Rue des Martyrs, a lively and interesting area to wander around in. Walking to the Gare du Nord at the end of my last trip to Paris, I came upon the Hôtel Havane almost by accident, one of the locations in this area that Rhys mentions in her novel.

With events placing further trips to Paris in doubt, I am working on material from memory and from my notes and photographs which should take me through the next book in my series, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, and towards the final book – in my view, perhaps Rhys’s masterpiece – Good Morning Midnight, when I hope to be able to return to Paris. For these reasons, this also seemed like the time for a pause and reflection on my project so far.

The party sat in a very small café in the Rue Lamartine. There was a bar upstairs and a coal shop in the cellar, an unexpected but usual combination. Through the open door they could see the Place Cadet and its kiosk of flowers, the red back of a newspaper stall, and the open mouth of the Metro station.

When I started this writing blog – two years and 45 posts later – it was the start of a quest not only to write about the places in the books, but to find my own voice and start to think about what I want to say about Rhys, and more importantly, why. As I write this, I am aware that my work has begun to move in other directions from my writing here on the blog, which is largely based around the specific locations and text of the books, and which was always intended as exploratory. My intention is only to continue with the blog while it is still a valuable space for me and I enjoy doing it. Sometimes I can see the book so clearly it almost exists in tangible form, and yet I know that it may never become a real book, that there is a long way to go. Perhaps the quest itself is something I also feel drawn to continue, one without a real start or ending, and so for the time being at least, the pieces I write in this space are of value to me. On a personal level, writing for me is now something I do with regularity and not just sporadically, something I think about almost all the time and that has found its space within my life. It is in some ways a refuge and I can’t see that changing now. I will always be thinking of ideas, looking for ways to form my thoughts into words.

‘You understand, don’t you, that I must get away? I’ve lost my luck. I care too much. I did my best but it was no good. I’ve lost my luck.’

His mouth drooped at the corners. There was something wolf-like about his sharpened features. He went on:

‘I can’t any more […] I’m not myself any more. Life is pressing on me all the time. Constantly. To doubt everything. My God, it’s horrible, I must get away. There’s an emigration bureau at Genoa. I’m going there … Partir. Partir. To get away,’ he muttered.

In many ways, recent events – lockdowns, travel restrictions, leaving the EU – have put the completion of my specific quest of going in person to each location in the books very much in doubt. And yet I am aware that this is a question I have been asking in my project all along – why go to these places and why not just research and write them from a distance?

‘Paris is the most beautiful place in the world,’ she said seriously. ‘Everybody knows that.’

This is where the ending of Quartet plays out. On the ‘third floor of a dark and dilapidated house in the Rue Bleue’ in a room with piles of cardboard boxes in the corner, crowded with odds and ends of furniture and photographs staring down from the walls, ‘a place like a bric-a-brac shop, smelling of dust.’ Looking back through my points of surfacing in Quartet, a book filled with references to sites across Montmartre and Montparnasse, some of which I have visited and explored here – through streets, hotels, cafés – the different views of the city. Through these locations I have crossed into some of the imagery and ideas in the book: the bars and nightlife, the concealed and invisible populations of migrants and stateless people, the elegant façade of the grand buildings and sites of justice and respectability, the life of the back streets, their poverty and hidden spaces, the dark river flowing through, the city as labyrinth.

‘I like sitting on the terrace of a café near a kiosk and looking at the names of the newspapers’ […] She stared at the newspaper kiosk and again began to imagine herself in a train, thudding across the great plain of Europe.

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