Century-old novel holds up prowess with modern dialogues
‘Quartet’, British author Jean Rhys’ debut novel was published in 1928 and almost a century later it dashingly holds up its prowess with poetic, astute writing and modern dialogues.
It offers readers a captivating introduction into the world of Rhys’ female heroines, surviving by a thread in a world that so clearly despises women yet can’t seem to get enough of them.
Former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, is a 28-year-old married to a dubious art merchant – polish Stephan Zelli – with whom she has been living in Paris for the past four years. When he is arrested and sent to jail, Marya tries to get by with the help of English socialites. A couple – the Heidlers – host her but the encounter opens doors to manipulation, sexual games and psychological terror.
Nobody seems to understand sensitive and observant Marya, who is helpless in her disgust and fascination for the Heidlers. Men try to dictate her life, her chorus girl contract included a clause: “no play, no pay” – something which followed her beyond her former job as the Heidlers repeatedly mention she should play and respect the rules of the “game”.
The book begins with a quote by American author R.C. Dunning, once dubbed the “living Buddha of Montparnasse” of 1920s literary Paris, who wrote: “Beware/ Of good Samaritans - walk to the right/ Or hide thee by the roadside out of sight/ Or greet them with the smile that villains wear.” And this advice weighs heavy on readers’ chest by the end of the book.
Marya’s life is deeply marked by her social circumstances, she has no rich relatives to turn to or ask for shelter. She lives in fear. Fear of the men in her life, fear of the falsely nice benefactors, fear of loneliness, unhappiness and further misery. In the face of cruelty and hardship, she often turns to alcohol. Rhys writes: ‘It was astonishing how significant, coherent and understandable it all became after a glass of wine on an empty stomach’ - but it plunges the protagonist even further into powerlessness. As she gets caught in everyone’s trap, she has a harder time uncovering what it is she truly desires.
Especially during moments such as these, Rhys uses poignant metaphors: “And her longing for joy, for any joy, for any pleasure was a mad thing in her heart. It was sharp like pain and she clenched her teeth. It was like some splendid caged animal roused and fighting to get out. It was an unborn child jumping, leaping, kicking at her side.”
The dialogues are modern, intentionally calibrated and, with third-person narration, readers get a glimpse into the thoughts and desires of other characters and what they would like to say in contrast with what they actually end up saying. It seems as though no one can ever be trusted to tell the absolute truth.
Marya’s life and fate are troubling, but the writing is exceptionally astute. Sucked into her dark world, the reader keeps hoping for a better future for her. Poetic and highly observant of human nature, the book holds up its mastery.
A new biography about the author, ‘I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys’, written by Miranda Seymour, was published this year.