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?'
Petronella can be described as the archetypal Jean Rhys heroine. She navigates a position of uncertainty, living in a bedsit in Bloomsbury and working in shifting or temporary occupations, the artist's model, the chorus girl. She spends her days in aimless wandering and her nights in after hours bars and nightclubs. She fluctuates between the highs and lows of this transient lifestyle, and the financial insecurity and the tenuous identity of her status as a solitary female in the city: 'What's going to become of you, Miss Petronella Gray, living in a bed sitting room in Torrington Square, with no money, no background and no nous?'
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.
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 places, the dark river flowing through, the city as labyrinth.
As well as the literal prison Rhys writes about in Quartet, she frequently portrays metaphorical prisons and spaces in her work. Much of her fiction creates this sense of being trapped, a claustrophobic feeling that has much to do with the spaces she encloses her protagonists in, the rooms and streets, or their lives and circumstances. The city surrounds from all sides, walls close in, and sometimes spaces appear to be shrinking, pavements and passages are narrow and enclosing. Rhys chooses these spaces deliberately as she wants to reflect in them the state of mind of her characters, and more than once she takes the image of a band of iron growing tighter, encircling the heart like a tight grip of anxiety that refuses to let go.
On my visit, I entered the church and found myself alone. I wasn't expecting to feel the depth of emotion I felt on closing the door and standing in the interior of the church. Once inside I felt a surge of what I might describe as reverence, that made me pause and stand still. The atmosphere was dark, quiet, hushed, the sense of time standing by. Something hard to describe, a moment of breathlessness that I wanted to hold onto.
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 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 book is semi-autobiographical, and recreates aspects of Colette's life on the stage. I am fascinated by her portrayal of the music hall, and the people she met there, and her bringing to life of the streets and locale of Montmartre and Paris. Mostly for her use of language, her words like a gift, with their warmth, grace, ease and clarity. With its poetic, vivid and direct style of writing, this is a voice which feels alive and never dated. Intoxicated, I am under its spell.