I may be ordering an orange and lemon tree for the conservatory, but for the time being, this is what my little reading oasis looks like (before it gets too cold to sit in there). Although there hasn’t been that much time for reading lately…
Here are some more ambitious reading corners to which one might aspire…
There is still plenty of unfinished business on the French side of my administrative papers, so I amused myself with some ‘literal’ translations of their menacing letters. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf and wakes up at night panicking about fines and other punishments? Not me, not me!
Apple of the Côte, apples of all orchards unite!
Pursue this chance
limit the number of dates you go out on
keep your bearing regal
and return your ransom
in the envelope joined to the hip of this letter.
You major retard.
Even I can’t keep the imperatives and bad language out.
I’m linking this to dVerse Poets Pub, my first contribution there in a long, long time. The form is one created at the Pub: a quadrille, a poem of precisely 44 words, and the prompt in this case was to contain the word ‘open’. I cheated a little bit with some double-barrelled words, but for much clearer and better poems, do join us over at the Pub!
Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.
Where Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.
The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.
What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.
When she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please. The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.
Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).
Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.
Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.
In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.
Having somewhat haphazardly flung my books out of boxes and onto shelves, I discovered I couldn’t find anything anymore. So I’ve tried to rearrange my shelves according to countries and subject matter. Here is what I’ve been able to do so far.
The French Corner. This is a narrow bookcase at the very edge of the room, which has books (some in French, some in translation) by and about French authors or about France (but not the dictionaries or French culture guides, which are housed with the reference books). Unsurprisingly, this section of my library has grown exponentially during my 5 years in that part of the world.
Non-fiction is relatively modest and housed just below the French section. (But there is an additional overly large academic and business books section, see below.)
A whole shelf is dedicated to books on the writing craft and literary criticism – and includes the complete diaries of Virginia Woolf (my favourite writing book), while another shelf is all about poetry. Alas, I’ll soon be running out of space on this latter one.
I’m pretty sure I’ve got more German books stashed away in the loft, but for the time being there is sufficient space on these two shelves to house Scandinavian fiction and Peirene Press as well. [Update: just went up to the loft this morning and can tell you there is no more space to house anything. See the picture below this one.]
Japanese literature is housed next to books on Japanese society, culture and religions (which might help you guess what the subject of my Ph.D. was). Once again, I am convinced I have far, far more Japanese books up in the loft (or at my parents’ house in Romania).
As for Romanian books – I had to set up an additional bit of foldable shelving to do it justice, although I also added some authors loosely categorised as ‘East European’ – Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Kieslowski (the film director) and Andrzej Stasiuk. The Russians are on the bottom shelf as well, although I am confident there are more of them lurking up in the attic. Apologies for the darkness of the shot, but light conditions were against me.
Then we have the mish-mash shelf: Spanish, South American and some non-Japanese Asians.
After setting up all of these shelves beautifully, I then realised that I don’t have much space left for the English language fiction, which represents by far the greatest proportion of my books. Sigh! I think I may have too many ‘professional’ books. I love my anthropology books, but I may need another office for the more business-like stuff, so that I can leave this one free for creative pursuits.
There is one more segment of wall against which I could put up additional shelves, but the study will also have to accommodate an armchair-bed for visitors, so I doubt there will be any room left over. If the alternative is no more shelves, then I may have to give visitors my bed and sleep on a mattress in my beloved library.
Or maybe I should copy this brilliant idea of ‘book-hunting’ from Belgium?
If you get even more ambitious, beyond the suburban world of conservatories, there is the palatial orangery beckoning. All good European palaces had them in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are a few favourites you might want to make your own.
Now I’m thinking of getting a little orange tree for my modest conservatory, just so I can legitimately call it an ‘orangery’.
Becky, Harry, and Leon are leaving London in a fourth-hand Ford with a suitcase full of stolen money, in a mess of tangled loyalties and impulses. But can they truly leave the city that’s in their bones?
That’s the blurb. And the story takes us back to nearly a year before this significant moment, to see what led them to desperate measures. I have a hard time making up my mind about this book. There were aspects of it I really liked: the nuanced observation of life in South London, the ability to squeeze so much in a single sentence or description, the ear for dialogue. Plenty of raw emotion too, helping everyone to understand the younger generation better. Yet overall, the structure and the interplay between characters did not quite hold together for me. Too many coincidences, although I could relate with the characters’ struggle to find jobs and meaning in an urban life full of compromises and rejection.
However, Kate Tempest is a very talented and innovative poet and performer, and also a playwright, so I will always read anything she has to offer. She even has rapped with a band and brought out an album. Here is one song which seems to fit well with the novel: ‘The Beigeness’.
David Peace: Tokyo Year Zero
David Peace is another performance poet. This became clear to me when I saw him reading from his books in Lyon. He has a sensitive ear, so highly tuned to oral storytelling and any kind of sound effect. So many will find the excessive use of onomatopoeia exasperating (even I did at times, no matter how kindly disposed I am towards the author), but I can discern a purpose to all this. It’s the soundtrack of a postwar Japan which has hit rock-bottom, has lost its soul, is being humiliated and punished (but also rebuilt). This is most certainly not going to appeal to everyone. The almost unbearably graphic portrayal of the Victors and Losers, the city teeming in bad smells, lice, prostitution, hammering. Peace describes the hunger and despair, the daily suicides and train delays, the overcrowding, with all the juxtapositions and repetitions of a rapper.
A very brief summary of the plot: A serial killer seems to be preying on vulnerable young women in 1946 Tokyo but the police are too frightened for their own jobs, too shaken by the trauma of war and the daily crime and horrors they encounter. The unreliable, frenzied, unlikable main character Detective Minami seems to be the only one stubbornly pursuing leads.
As usual in a David Peace novel, there is little comfort or fluffiness or redemption to be expected. An admirable experiment, but one that will divide readers like Marmite.