In her hotel room in Paris, Sasha lies awake. A sleepless night in which her mind works over the events of the previous evening. After dinner she goes for a drink in one of the cafés along the street. A habitual way to spend an evening, but on this occasion the woman at the next table starts talking to her. The song, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ begins to play, and somehow, she finds herself starting to cry. So, it goes, a woman drinking in a bar alone.
The woman at the next table begins asking her questions, perhaps wondering what her story is, how she can be so close to tears and have so little self-control that this could happen just from hearing a song. Sasha doesn’t wish to be noticed or looked at too closely: her plan has failed. Once she starts crying, she is unable to stop, and she retreats to the lavabo and stands there staring at herself in the mirror.
To the woman she says, ‘It was something I remembered.’
In my earlier post, Street Music, I began to think about Rhys and popular songs – alluding to the way she scatters references to songs and fragments of lyrics in her fiction. Collecting these references to music and lyrics together, I wondered if it might be possible to tell a story through those songs alone. To add a new dimension to my project, I have decided to research some of these songs and lyrics, and to think a bit more about how music might connect to place in Rhys’s work.
The presence of the song, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is a trigger for memory, for her sense of overwhelming emotion. In her sleepless night, Sasha can’t stop thinking about this moment and what it symbolises. From the bars of a melody can come a world of thoughts and ideas. This sounds like a song Rhys might be drawn to, an innate susceptibility to the feel of Sunday, to the melancholy and stillness of the day. In Good Morning, Midnight: ‘Sunday – a difficult day anywhere. Sombre dimanche. …’
The feeling of Sunday is the same everywhere, heavy, melancholy, standing still. Like when they say, ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.’Voyage in the Dark
Sasha doesn’t tell us what she has remembered, but this is an important clue. She tries to structure her time in Paris, the days, and the evenings, so that her memories can’t invade and take over. It doesn’t take long for these thoughts to creep in. Memory is inscribed in the streets of Paris; in the places she walks.
There are several different versions of the song. The music was written in 1933 by the Hungarian composer Rezsö Seress, with the title ‘End of the World’. The lyrics and title were changed by the Hungarian poet László Jávor to ‘Sad Sunday’, and the song was recorded in 1935 in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár. It was recorded in 1936 with lyrics in English and titled ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Paul Robeson recorded a version the same year. Perhaps the most famous recording in English was by Billie Holiday in 1941. As a result, the song became well known internationally, and a certain notoriety seems to have attached to it. Press reports from the time associated the song with a number of suicides, and the song was banned from BBC airplay during the Second World War as it was thought it might be detrimental to morale. It has since been recorded by many different artists, and I’ve included a few of these recordings here.
The meaning of the song was altered in these different versions. The original Hungarian lyrics reflected a sadness and despair about the state of the world at a bleak moment in history, in the context of the Great Depression and growing authoritarianism throughout Europe. This was a period of hard times, the spectre of war and displacement, the terrors of fascism. In ‘Sad Sunday’, the song shifts to being about the tragic loss of a lover, and the deep sadness of missing someone.
There are two different versions of the lyrics in the English language, which you can hear if you listen to the playlist. The versions of the song recorded by Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday reflect these different lyrics.
Jean Rhys wrote about how she felt haunted by certain songs, almost possessed, and this feeling about music is something I can relate to. Music can be like a container for memory, that passes by or through the time we are in, that takes over and is overpowering, or just floats gently by in the background. There are songs that disturb and that carry with them the power of place and the times we heard them, or the people we were with; layers of emotional resonance that tie to the meaning of the song, of what it meant, or how it made us feel.
Rhys adds a reference to this song at the start of her book. It is either a song the reader will know already, with its own connotations; or within her text, the words ‘Gloomy Sunday’ might add a layer of mystery. A song title which speaks for itself and situates the book within its aura of quiet melancholy. In the uneasy shadows of her sleepless night, never fully awake or asleep, existing in the space that drifts between, the presence of the song suggests a sorrow that can’t be defeated, a sorrow that seems bigger than the world, a sorrow about being in the world. Sasha’s thoughts begin to take her on a trail, back to the past, of dark streets and dark rivers. It as though she is afraid that once it is unleashed it will have a force of its own, one that she won’t be able to carefully control.
There is something powerful and haunting about listening to this song, and it has a dark and mournful melody, particularly in the earliest versions. Lyrically poetic, it also contains a sense of its time, of the dread and uncertainty that shadowed the 1930s. The legends that have attached to the song, may also be present in each listen, and it is interesting to think about how popular songs might travel and adapt over time. Even without its notoriety, there is an atmosphere of sadness evoked by the song, and something compelling, something that is hard to shake.