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 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.
The Palais de Justice is located on the Quai des Orfèvres on the Île de la Cité by the river Seine. Stretching out along the river bank, it dominates the scenery, grand and forbidding. It is one of the oldest official buildings in Paris, a site of great historic events, and revolution; the palace of justice, a monument to justice and injustice, looking out across Paris.
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.
This is the first of Rhys's Paris hotels and I have chosen my location well. I am staying on Rue Constance, on the next street along from Rue Cauchois; both streets are just off Rue Lepic. The streets join together and I can walk around the corner into Rue Cauchois.The hotel of the universe is inhabited by people of many different nationalities, reflecting the area's status as a place of arrival. It was a part of the city Rhys explored when she first lived in Paris, and she is able to draw on this area in writing Quartet.
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.