Not-so-gay Paree

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I first read Jean Rhys in my mid-teens; a copy of Quartet from my parents’ bookshelf, which drew me with its undemanding slimness and its cover featuring the beautiful face of Isabelle Adjani in soft focus above a chessboard with the heads of Maggie Smith and Alan Bates floating around her. (The three starred in the Merchant Ivory film of the book, which I have never seen.) From the back cover I learned it was set amid ‘the winter-wet streets of Montparnasse, Pernods in smoke-filled cafés [and] . . . cheap hotel rooms with mauve-flowered wallpaper’. Chic Parisian misery: just what teenage girls love.

The contents did not disappoint. The first lines read:

It was about half-past five on an October afternoon when Marya Zelli came out of the Café Lavenue . . . She had been sitting there for nearly an hour and a half, and during that time she had drunk two glasses of black coffee, smoked six caporal cigarettes and read the week’s Candide.

So glamorous. I was immediately plunged into pre-war Left Bank bohemia; a world of painters, writers and artist’s models, ‘gaily dressed little prostitutes’ and beautiful young men with powdered faces. The mood, rather than the plot or characters, stayed with me. Rhys is brilliant at conveying melancholy in an aesthetic way, so that even though Quartet is a sad tale, Marya’s suffering is leavened by the romance of her surroundings: ‘the pavements were slippery and glistening, with pools of water here and there, sad little mirrors which the reflections of the lights tinted with a dull point of red. The trees along the Boulevard Clichy stretched ridiculously frail and naked arms to a sky without stars.’

Jean Rhys’s first four novels, published between 1928 and 1939, were all heavily autobiographical. Quartet (first published under the title Postures) is based on the love triangle between Rhys, Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen, an Australian artist. Ford and Bowen looked after Rhys while her second husband was in prison for entering France without valid papers. Rhys was frail, poverty-stricken and ineffectual. Throughout her life she lived, like Blanche DuBois, on ‘the kindness of strangers’. The Fords bailed her out financially and invited her to stay with them. Bowen painted her, and Ford encouraged her to write.

Unsurprisingly, Ford

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About the contributor

Rowena Macdonald’s Smoked Meat was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. She has won a number of prizes, and was runner-up in the Royal Society of Literature’s V. S. Pritchett Prize, 2013. She is currently finishing a novel.

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