When I read Rhys, I find the ring of truth and something I recognise - about what real experience feels like and the difficulties of communicating, that not everyone has the capacity to change things or to shape the world around them; that not everyone has the voice or the words.
The figure of the flower seller, crossing international boundaries, finds echoes in Rhys's story 'Outside the Machine' in which she writes about identity and inner division, and the sense of not belonging, with having no place. It is about a sense of precarity, and homelessness, of being outside. When asked why she is living in Paris, the character Inez says, 'No, I don't feel particularly at home. That's not why I like it.' And later in the story she thinks: 'Why must you always take it for granted that everybody has somewhere to get back to?'
After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is such a great title for a book and I am a great admirer of its first line and the exactitude in which it is framed. The first location of this book is the Quai des Grands Augustine, and the hotel in which Julia goes to stay at the end of her relationship with Mr Mackenzie. There are no hotels existing now on this part of the quay, but in her biography of Jean Rhys, Carole Angier places her in the Hotel Henri IV during 1928 when she was writing Mackenzie, located on the Rue Saint Jacques in the streets behind the left bank of the Seine.
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.
The sense of unreality that comes from walking within an invented form, a tangle of signs and symbols, and all the time knowing that it isn’t real. The labyrinth is part of the circle of time, of finding myself back at the place I started, of living within an illusion, a figure of the imagination. The streets are not really a labyrinth, and at the same time when I look at a map, they appear circular, so that walking around and the names of the streets create a sense of repetition, like being caught in a recurring dream.
Atget’s project to photograph a disappearing Paris, places him in the tradition of street photography and the flâneur, observing the city, preserving and capturing its details and subjects. His photographs capture a moment contained within the spaces of a Paris in flux. They capture the transitory, fleeting glimpses of courtyards, streets, shop windows, interiors and reflections.
I knew then that the streets had already started to seep under my skin. It is something to do with motion, and the repeated retracing of steps. In the same way I keep returning to Rhys, and to the way she has infiltrated into my own experience.
A cheap hotel in Paris. Hotel rooms often figure in Jean Rhys books, and this particular hotel is situated in an impasse, that most evocative of French place names. They can be found everywhere in Paris, and often they are named. Threaded through the book are some possibilities that might help me to pinpoint its location, and from the map I can identify a few lines which lead to nowhere, dead ends.