Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: Quartet, by Jean Rhys (1928)

Jean Rhys' first novel, Quartet, published in 1928.

Ella Williams, who wrote under the pen name Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.
I first encountered the writing of Jean Rhys when I read her excellent novel Good Morning, Midnight in college. I thought it was a superb book, and I’ve always had it in my head to read something else of hers, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen until I recently picked up her first novel, published in 1928 under the title Postures, and the following year in the United States as Quartet.

Quartet tells the tale of Marya Zelli, an English woman living with her husband in Paris. When her husband is sentenced to a year in jail for theft, she drifts aimlessly, before being taken in by an English couple, H.J. and Lois Heidler. The Heidlers seem nice enough, but suddenly one day H.J. confesses his love for Marya to her. They start an affair, which does not seem to bring Marya any joy.

Quartet is a rather depressing little novel. Marya is a character who is amazingly aimless, and she seems to have no ambition in life. I kind of wanted to shake her and say, “Hey, Marya, maybe you should get a job or something, rather than just drinking yourself into a stupor all of the time.” That being said, Rhys does a good job of bringing to life the sordid underbelly of Paris.

Rhys was an excellent writer, and Quartet is sprinkled with great lines. Two of my favorite quotes are:

“Of course he was a clever young man, but how clever, that was the question. Clever enough to recognize the truth when he heard it? Hardly anybody was clever enough for that.” (p.92) 

“Love was a terrible thing. You poisoned it and stabbed at it and knocked it down into the mud-well down-and it got up and staggered on, bleeding and muddy and awful. Like-like Rasputin.” (p.122-3) 

Rhys sometimes enters the minds of minor characters for a moment, and we briefly get to hear what they are really thinking, and how that doesn’t match what they actually say. It’s an interesting technique, and I think it works quite nicely.

Quartet was loosely based on Rhys’ relationship with the modernist British author Ford Madox Ford, author of The Good Soldier, (which I reviewed here) and the Parade’s End tetralogy. Ford was an early patron of Rhys and encouraged her writing. He chose Jean Rhys as her pen name. (Her real name was Ella Williams.) Ford also had an affair with Rhys, and he’s the inspiration for the character of H.J. Heidler. (Ford’s real name was Ford Hueffer.) If Ford was anything like Heidler’s character, he was not a very nice guy.

If you’re looking for a bleak portrayal of 1920’s Paris, read Quartet. You’ll discover the brilliance of Jean Rhys, one of the 20th century’s most unjustly overlooked writers.

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