Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to present a woman who feels much worse than you can in the dull bottom of February.
The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have been 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 an inexpensive paperback of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ 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 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.
Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week bringing you a droll voice from the long-lost past.
His name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” that sold a million copies in France. (It was eventually published in 24 languages.) In 1928, The New York Times described him as “the biggest seller of any living French writer — or dead one either.” Fifteen of his novels became films. (“Madonna” was filmed twice.) Over his career, he sold 15 million books in 32 languages, and his kind of writing — a slick blend of journalism and high-society intrigue — acquired a brand name: dekobrisme.
“The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” went out of print in 1948.
It’s finally back. So let me introduce you.
Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973) began his career as a translator (Daniel Defoe, Jack London, Mark Twain). In the early 1920s, he was a journalist and foreign correspondent. His fiction reflects his training — it’s grounded in the news, is briskly paced and has an unusually tart point-of-view.
The plot, as these things go, is simple. Lady Diana Wynham is a London widow known for her beauty (“the type of woman who would have brought tears to the eyes of John Ruskin”). She is just as well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: “Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here].
Lady Diana is about to be ruined financially. Her sole hope of salvation is l0,000 acres of Russian oil land that her late husband, the English ambassador to the court of St. Petersburg, received as a gift from the government of Nicholas II. It is — in 1920s money — worth 50 million dollars.
The bad news: Russia’s Bolshevist government has confiscated all foreign property.
The good news: Leonid Varichkine will get it back for Lady Diana in exchange for “one night” of love.
What are a few illicit hours to a woman “who could never be happy without a great deal of money?” But Lady Diana is as clever as she is amoral. She proposes a better deal.
“Madonna” starts in London, makes stops in Berlin, an Arabian prison and a yacht in the Mediterranean, with a melodramatic climax in a castle in Scotland. In addition to distance, lessons are learned: a Communist can be converted to capitalism for less money than you might think, and “passing infractions of fidelity” are “trivial.”
I’ve dipped into a few other Dekobras. They’re not awful. But “Madonna” is clearly his showpiece. It’s a fun, terse, story that is as convincing about London drawing rooms as it is about Russian execution chambers. And he makes you care about Lady D.
Hello dear English Muse readers, Naomi Bulger here. I also like to blog little messages in bottles from Australia.
I recently had a little girl, Madeleine, and I have discovered that one of the most fun parts of having a baby is having a legitimate excuse to delve head-first into children’s books. Ok at 13 weeks, my little girl isn’t exactly advanced in the literary department, but that doesn’t stop me reading to her. And already she loves to look at the pictures, and makes little “Oooh” noises, trying to copy my speech, as I read aloud.
I bought Paris Y Es-Tu while I was in Paris last year. It is a stunningly illustrated ‘hide and seek’ book by Japanese artist Masumi, kind of like Where’s Waldo/Wally, except you are looking for different people and little lost things all over Paris. When Madeleine is older, we will trace our fingers together over all these places, and I’ll tell her what is there, and we will dream about going to Paris together.
Then on the weekend I found this little New York, Baby book, and I have already read it to her several times.
“Look, they’re shopping in SoHo, that’s where Mama lived,” I say. And, “This is Central Park. One day, we will go together and see the turtles.” And, “That’s ‘The Lion King,’ on Broadway. Mama took Daddy and Nanna and your two sisters to see ‘The Lion King’ when they came to New York for a visit.” And, “Just around the corner from there is where Mama and Daddy met.” So she will learn about her mother’s life in New York.
What would/do you read to your child?
What would you do if you’d never been to Paris before and you had one day, just one, precious day, to see as much of this magical city as you could? Where would you go? What would you see?
This is Naomi Bulger visiting from my blog Messages in Bottles, and I had the pleasure of acting as a guide to Paris for Mr B, my mother-in-law and two 13-year-old girls in this way last year. I tried to pick out a range of classic tourist sites for them, alongside some ‘quieter Paris’ experiences. Here’s what we managed to pack into one day.
1. Le repas
Prepare some snacks before you start. If you pass a market or grocery store on the way, buy a bottle of water alongside a little packet of olives, fresh bread, some cheeses and meats, and perhaps a punnet of raspberries or a bunch of grapes for dessert.
Then take the metro to Chatelet Les Halles. Follow the signs to the Hotel de Ville and when you come out, Paris will appear around you in all its glory. When we emerged in Paris this way, the girls’ jaws just dropped. It made me so happy to see how much they loved it. “NOTHING could be more beautiful,” my stepdaughter Em said.
2. Embrace your inner ‘touriste’
Since we only have one day, let’s get an overview of all the key sights. Buy a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off bus, most leave every 10 minutes or so. You’ll pass by Notre Dame, head over the river, pass the Musee du Louvre, roll along the Champs Elysee, circle the Eiffel Tower and more. It’s a fabulous introduction to Paris. You can of course get off and explore at any time, but I recommend just sitting on the rooftop of the bus (and snacking on your supplies) to get a wonderful overview of the city. It’ll take about two hours.
3. Notre Dame de Paris
When the bus gets you back to where you started, stroll over to Notre Dame. There may be a line to get inside but don’t worry, even the longest lines seem to move very quickly and even if you’re not a ‘church person’ (I’m not), this is worth it. Yes, there are tourists. But there is something about the age, the stillness, the history of this cathedral that lend it a certain power. Prayers come alive in Notre Dame. Light a candle for someone you love, but be careful. We lit a candle, together, and prayed for a baby. That was in September last year and our little girl is due in two weeks (do the math).
4. Dejeuner on Ile Saint-Louis
Time for lunch and a little rest? Wander around the back of Notre Dame, admiring the pretty flower garden, and over the bridge to the tiny, historic island of Ile Saint-Louis. Here you’ll find lovely, medieval laneways with cafes, cheese shops, patisseries, boutique fashion, home design and candy stores. Stop for a leisurely lunch at Café St Regis on the corner just after the bridge and, afterward, you must head down to the famous Berthillon for some of the best ice cream in France. (Seriously!)
5. Les bouquanistes
When you’re feeling refreshed, cross back toward Notre Dame then over the Pont des Arts, to the Left Bank. Along the way, it’s such a treat to stop among the bouquanistes that line both banks of the Seine. Here you’ll find antique books, prints and other wonderful discoveries. If you’re in the company of someone you love, you may also want to buy a ‘love padlock’ to leave as a memento when you re-cross the Pont des Arts later.
6. Shakespeare & Company
Once you get to the Left Bank, it’s only a short stroll to Rue de la Bucherie for a visit to Shakespeare & Company, a book lover’s utopia. This little English-speaking bookstore sells new and used books and has a wonderful upstairs reading room and library for taking time out, with comfy lounges and a piano, and medieval windows that overlook Notre Dame. It has been a haven from the hustle and bustle of Paris for countless writers, artists and friends throughout the years, including Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Gregory Corso, William S Burroughs and Alen Ginsberg.Warning: you may well want to move in.
7. Le Musee du Louvre
When you are ready to re-enter the busy city, cross back over to the Right Bank and head on into the Louvre. If I’m honest, you could spend a week exploring the collection here, and I’ve only given you an hour or two. So pick and choose what interests you. Many people make beelines to the Mona Lisa, and I confess that’s what the girls wanted to do (afterwards, they went back outside and cooled their feet in the fountains by the Pyramide). But there are so many artistic riches housed in this glorious palace. Take your time. Wander. Explore. You will love it.
8. La Tour Eiffel
It’s almost dusk. Hop back on the metro or, if you have time take the ferry for a glorious journey, and make your way to the Eiffel Tower. Climbing it is not too difficult (or there is a lift if you prefer), and oh my WHAT a view. When you’ve had enough of soaking up Paris from the air, head back down to one of the stalls by the river and buy yourself a freshly-made savoury crepe (I’m a big fan of the classic jambon et fromage), then cross the bridge to the Palais de Challot (the grassy area in the photo above). Find a soft spot in the grass and munch on your crepe while you wait for the Tower to light up. It is a magical sight.
Take your time heading back to the hotel. Pick a little restaurant that feels like home and settle in with a good bottle of wine and some seasonal produce (if you can fit any more food in). Relax. Enjoy. You’ve earned it.
An extra day
If you manage to score an extra day or two in Paris, lucky you! Here is a handful of other ideas but, really, you could stay in Paris for a month and never run out of wonderful things to do.
1. Explore the shops and historic twists and turns of Le Marais 2. Treat yourself to a classic bowl of moules-frites with beer 3. Visit the famous Moulin Rouge 4. Peruse the wonderful artworks in the Musee d’Orsay (and while you’re at it, consider some of the smaller galleries, too) 5. Take the train (about an hour away) to see the stunning Palace of Versaille 6. Hunt for treasure at one of Paris’ many marches aux peuces (flea markets) 7. Have your portrait painted in the Place du Tertre, Montmartre, and soak up an artistic world that once belonged to Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec and Van Gogh 8. Stop in for a bite at the famous and fashionable Cafe de Flore; or opt for its rival, Les Deux Magots, a former haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir 9. Simply follow the crowds and get lost inside this vibrant, beautiful city
Hello again friends, this is Naomi Bulger, guest blogging from Melbourne in Australia’s south.
Around Easter when I was walking home from the post office, I just so happened to pop into my local bookstore, Readings, where I just so happened to come across a sweet little book of visual treats, Paris versus New York: a tally of two cities. It was simply too much to resist. I carried the book across the road and around the corner to a cafe, where I ordered coffee and a hot cross bun (toasted with the butter melting inside) and settled in to browse. After all, it’s not often that I get to immerse myself in either one of my two favourite cities these days, let alone both at once.
Wouldn’t you love some of these on your wall at home?
I have lived in New York, and visited Paris many times. It’s hard to know which city I love best.
I love Paris for its style.
I love New York for its energy.
I love Paris for its cheese.
I love New York for its mac ‘n cheese.
I love Paris for the scarves.
I love New York for the hats.
I love Paris for afternoons on the lawn by the lake in Versaille.
I love New York for afternoons on the lake in Central Park.
I love Paris for the pride I feel when my French kicks in.
I love New York because people think my Australian accent is “exotic.”
I love Paris because old ladies give me fashion advice when I’m shopping.
I love New York because strangers stop on the street to offer directions.
I love the two tiny islands in the middle of Paris.
I love that New York is an island that feels connected to everywhere.
I love that I am inspired to write in Paris.
I love that writing = opportunity in New York.
I love that my family’s cultural heritage is in Paris.
I love that my friends in New York feel like family.
How about you? Paris versus New York: what do these cities mean to you?
(All images are from the Paris versus New York blog that inspired the book)
Hello, amazing people! I am Gulfem Karci from All Happy Things Around, you may already know me as I did some guest blogging for English Muse for a while ago(you can see my previous posts from here, here and here) This was an amazing experience for me and now I will be an honored guest of you on every Monday!
Although I did some guest blogging here before, I have noticed that I did not tell much about myself. Before starting to regular posting, I have decided to share some about of my personality and my life.
I love beginnings… Their unique energy, ambiguity in a sweet fashion and excitement they bring… Overall, such a warm and refreshing feeling! Therefore, I have decided to pretend like we have met just now and I offer you a warm beginning
Highly inspired by “Phrases We Owe to Shakespeare” post at English Muse, I have started a tiny self-project that I call “reading at least 1 book each week”. Since I started university, I somehow abandoned my biggest hobby ever and rarely read books. The one important dimension of my life was gone. I blamed my busy schedule, exams and everything. Then, I came across with this very post about a girl having a mission reading 52 books in 1 year. It was the very moment that I have realized that the reason for giving up intense reading was nothing but me.
I immediately prepared a reading list AAAAND now today I started my 18th book in the scope of this tiny self-project! Feeling of a book capturing you, making connections with your past experiences, finishing and thinking over it! All of those add great deal of wisdom and perspective to reader. Seeing that you can evolve with 17 good books is an amazing experience itself
For me, the most divine place in the world is Shakespeare and Company and I literally spent a tiny fortune over there during my recent trip to Paris.
Another detail about me is I am true stationery store addict. You can put me a stationery store with a considerable level of assortment, then I can forget about time dimension and even who I am. Adorable notebooks, pens with different colors, celebration cards… My favourite stationery store is Ordning&Reda.
I have many different notebooks that I write much about myself, mostly about future. I do not like talking about past. I always plan something, I sometimes even plan of planning other thing. My stationery addiction comes from my true-love for writing, I believe.
The last detail I want to share with you is much more like a confession! I have always been the latest adapter of technology. Although I am just 21, I have never been aligned with those technology waves. Need examples? I opened my blog only two months ago and I opened a Twitter account only last week. Also, I selected the most basic blog template ever that thousand of people have it! It will be renovated soon, though! See? I am not exaggerating
Next week, I will continue with my regular posts, until then I would be grateful if you can say “Hello” to me Either by commenting here or on Twitter! Of course, you are always welcome at my blog, All Happy Things Around!
See you next Monday! Love!
(Photo credits: 1, 2, 3)