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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

“As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and an African-American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga’s mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga’s white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people’ leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of a cipher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, frigid, standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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