Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, thinking today about the economy — in a very personal way.
The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is rumored to be Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her looks and her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.
Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy the not overly expensive paperback from Amazon, click here.]
For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:
She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.
That burst of writing is found on page 3. It is both a tour de force of insight and a warning: Rhys has an unblinking eye. What that eye sees may not be pretty — but you can count on it to be the truth. Here is the key truth of this novel: a woman in her ’30s, already looking back rather than forward. You can’t help but worry for her.
Work? “By her eyes and the dark circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable.” Drunk, she looks out at the Seine and imagines it’s the sea. Dear Lord, how will she make her way?
That grotty topic — money — is ignored in most novels. People just…. have it. Not here. Indeed, the engine of the plot of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ is money. Julia lives from check to check — on the kindness of the men who have used her and discarded her, you might say. Which is fine when the men are generous and guilty.
But now comes a lawyer’s letter, with a check for 1,500 francs, five times the usual amount: This is her final payment. Mr. Mackenzie is cutting Julia off. A prudent woman would — well, what good does it do to outline a plan of action that is unavailable to an imprudent woman like Julia? We know what Julia will do: seek Mr. Mackenzie out and have a scene. Which she does. In a restaurant. Where she ends her haughty, desperate monologue by slapping him lightly on the cheek with her glove.
Ah, but luck is with her. Reeling out of the restaurant, she encounters George Horsfield, a troubled, interior man who is attracted to birds with broken wings. Bars follow. Too many drinks. Much talk. From Mars, this could look like a mating dance.
England beckons. I can’t see why — there’s nothing for Julia in London except a sister resentfully nursing their dying mother. But the change of scene energizes Julia: “She had lost the feeling of indifference to her fate, which in Paris had sustained her for so long. She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.”
Her mother’s death triggers a complex reaction: the realization that she hates her sister (and vice versa), a sharpened resentment against the power of money, the feeling that she can almost see “the thing that was behind all this talking and posturing,” a sense of herself as “a defiant flame.” And on a more basic level: Can she cut a deal with George Horsfield?
Sex is ahead. Very 1920s sex — what passes for passion in that time will be an eye-opener for some readers. And more wine. A funeral. A kind of crack-up. And, finally, the return to Paris. All along, you cannot help but think: What is it with Julia? Has she just had some bad luck and it turned her sour? Is she a selfish bitch who’s getting exactly the life she deserves? Will she come to a “bad end” —- or does her decay roll on like the Seine?
Ah, but there is Mr. Mackenzie in a cafe. This time Julia doesn’t hesitate to approach him. And to ask him — with a directness she lacked earlier — a question. It’s a short scene for an end of a book, just two quick pages. But they are so stunning they take your breath away. If you didn’t know, from the terse writing on every page before this, that Jean Rhys is a great writer and that this, but for the grace of God, is the story of your life, you know it now.