From her balcony in the Hotel de l’Univers, Marya’s view is elevated. She can look over the rooftops and down to the Place Blanche and beyond, across the rooftops of the city. She can watch the lights coming out and the movement of the streets below. The hill of Montmartre provides a vantage point. This perspective reflects the sense of Montmartre as distinct, set apart from Paris, its history and status.
My project is concerned with how Rhys uses place and the topography of her streets and rooms to address and reflect the interior feeling and state of mind of her protagonists. When Stephan is arrested suddenly, the landscape of Paris reflects Marya’s lost and uncertain status. The city streets appear labyrinthine, the mist, rain and reflections of light and dark, play into her sense of finding herself alone in the city, unsure of where to turn. The city streets become a place where it might be possible to vanish without a trace, to fade into the background along with the invisible and unknown. This accords with the status of refugees as invisible, often falling outside historical accounts of nation-states, and the stateless as undocumented, anonymous and absent from history.
My starting point is to try and locate Café Lavenue. I have found a photograph, by chance, which suggests that it lay on a corner, an intersection somewhere along the Boulevard Montparnasse. The photograph shows where the street meets or is crossed by another street, and that there is a metro station in front. Lavenue looks to occupy the building, in typically grand Parisian style. I have a hunch that I may be able to locate the intersection and that the building itself may be unchanged.
Following Anna's journey in Voyage in the Dark, I have walked to different points in Bloomsbury, Kings Cross, Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Fitzrovia, Soho, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Mayfair, Bayswater and Notting Hill. Anna's London is one which can feel confined and yet she is on the fringes of some interesting cultural sites: its theatres, music halls, cinemas and nightclubs.
I have been imagining the places in Jean Rhys's quartet of urban novels of the 1920's and 1930's as points of surfacing and disappearance. Mapping out the locations in the books as a journey through London and Paris. As I walk, I absorb myself in the books, thinking in tangents and asides; seeking out reflections on significant themes and passages, recurrent symbols and ideas. As points of departure from which to write, I cover these distances just to reach a state of mind.
I am walking through central London thinking about clothes. The territory of the flâneuse, stopping to look at the window displays and the passers-by; catching a glimpse of reflections, the light and the shadow. Clothes in Rhys are connected to her use of literary devices such as mirrors and doubles, to her interest in subjectivity and existential uncertainty, and to status and political positioning. Encoded within Rhys's city novels are the subtle linkages of economy and sexual encounters, as well as contemporary anxiety around women in public spaces.
I wondered if it might be possible to tell a story through those songs alone, the sounds of the streets, and the popular music Rhys and her protagonists listen to. [...] a trail of itinerant city life winds its way through the books; the presence of transient figures who drift in and out of the narrative, like music from the streets drifting in through windows, troubles the already tenuous identities of Rhys protagonists and their uncertain status.
‘All this passport business is only because it’s wartime,’ I said. ‘They’ll stop it as soon as the war’s over.’ He smiled a little and said, ‘Perhaps, perhaps.’
Jean Rhys’s work portrays a series of rooms, a life composed of rooms occupied; the movement from room to room. Often in her work there is a sense of the uncanny, the unhomely, where the unfamiliar masquerades as familiar and vice versa. When I lived in London, I used to fixate on a few cheap looking hotels near Finsbury Park. They represented a kind of disengagement for me, an escape from real life. Reading Rhys, I found myself wanting to put into words, that sense of departure and of estrangement.
Rhys heroines are fatalistic partly because their lives are precarious. They are unable to make tangible plans because the instability of their lives, and their economic and existential uncertainty, means that they live moment to moment, not knowing what might happen next. It it this living by chance that opens up to expansiveness, or closes down to disappointment and empty feelings. This creates a sense of tension, between hope and despair.