Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

海のふた [Umi no futa] by Banana Yoshimoto

海のふた (The Sea’s Lid?) is very much a typical Banana Yoshimoto​​ novel. We have the quintessentially Yoshimoto-esque narrator (usually a quiet young woman who is grieving someone or longing for something), a slice-of-life storyline and a small-town setting. This novel takes place during the summer months and Mari has just moved back to her hometown by the sea. Here she opens a kiosk selling shaved ice, opting for more natural flavours and less artificial colours. She observes how her town has changed, from the increase in the elderly population to how young people tend to leave as soon as they are of age. Yoshimoto is particularly attuned to the natural world and there are plenty of lovely descriptions of the sea and other nearby landscapes. Mari eventually is joined by Hajime, who is the young daughter of one of her mother’s friends. Hajime, who is grieving her grandmother, begins working alongside Mari and the two, over the course of summer, forge a tentative friendship.
The pacing is very gentle. Nothing of note truly happens, we are simply lulled by Mari’s narration. A sweet and quick read, this is one of Yoshimoto’s best novels. Mari’s melancholy is catchy and makes for a particularly nostalgic read. Her feelings towards her hometown, her kiosk, and Hajime, are all rendered with clarity and it was all too easy to understand and empathize with her.
Once again, Yoshimoto’s subtle prose perfectly complements the dreamlike atmosphere of her story.

海のふた was a perfectly bittersweet summer read that I would definitely recommend to fans of Yoshimoto or slice of life novels.

my rating: ★★★½

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