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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

September 22, 2011 13 comments

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. 1966. 239p French title: La prisonnière des Sargasses.

Wide Sargasso Sea is known as a prelude to Jane Eyre but there’s more to it than a simple addition to Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It is a stand-alone novel anyone can read even without knowing the details of Jane Eyre.

We are in the 1830s in Jamaica. Antoinette Cosway is a young Créole, a white young woman born in Jamaica from English colonists. Her brother is retarded and her father died when she was young. The first part of the novel relates her childhood in her family’s estate and the ruin following riots with black slaves and eventually the abolition of slavery (1834). It’s a first person narrative, Antoinette is rather solitary as her family is despised by other colonists. Moreover, their estate Coulibri is on a remote place of the island. Antoinette describes the country, the atmosphere, the flowers, the exotic trees. I saw paintings by Le Douanier Rousseau. She’s a sensitive child, afraid of many things, a bit superstitious. She’s impressed by the stories that her black nanny Christophine tells her. That Christophine is an uncanny character. She was prosecuted in La Martinique for practicing voodoo. She influences Antoinette with her beliefs and stories. As Antoinette is left to herself – no governess, no proper education – nothing counterbalances Christophine’s power over her sensitive mind. Her mother has no interest in her education and she runs wild in the nearby wilderness.

Antoinette’s mother is a sort of weird, proud and beautiful woman who escapes destitution by marrying Mr. Mason. He then becomes Antoinette’s stepfather. They live together until a terrible event costs her brother his life and make them flee to Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica. Her mother will never recover and will sink into madness. Antoinette is left in a convent, to get a little education with nuns and be safely kept. The fears and ghosts are still there. When she’s old enough, her stepfather marries her to an English gentleman she has never met before. This gentleman is never named but we know it is Mr Rochester, one of the main characters of Jane Eyre.

The second part is also a first person narrative but the voices alternate between Antoinette and her husband. They live in Antoinette’s family house. He shares his thoughts, depicts the strangeness of this new environment, the fauna, the flora, the ambivalent relationships with the black domesticity. They are all old servants of the family but he feels hostility towards him and white people in general. Everything is different from what he has always known and he struggles to adapt to the customs of this country and the presence of these unfriendly servants. She details her vision of him, their marriage, their new life together.

Antoinette and he have been thrown into this arranged marriage to satisfy their greedy families. Mr Mason needs to marry his stepdaughter to a stranger, someone who ignores the background of the family and the local gossip. The man’s father needed to marry his cadet son to a rich girl, to secure his living. They’re part of a trade. The man will do his best to adapt. He knows the marriage has been arranged for financial reasons. When a local man sends him a letter revealing the several cases of madness in his wife’s family, all his good intentions vanish. Before that letter, he could live with the idea that they had both been the victims of a trade. After that letter, he will consider that Mr Mason duped him and that he’s even more a victim than she is.

Antoinette perceives the change in her husband’s mood and attitude. She resents it as she tries to love him. She’s always been unbalanced but his rejection throws her into madness, not helped by Christophine’s toxic presence and influence. It turns to hell. Their thoughts and emotions are laid bare and we watch the implacable machine of hatred, madness and violence.

This is a multi-layered book. As a background, we have the history of Jamaica, the colonies, the riots and the conflicts between Black slaves or former slaves and white colonists. Jean Rhys was born in Jamaica and her description of the nature is gorgeous. I heard her pain and her nostalgia in this book, the same kind of feeling that is underlying in the novel by Hella S Haasse I’ve read earlier this year. It’s the particular feeling of the creole, the white person born and raised in a colony. Their childhood memories are there, they belong to this country and yet it isn’t their country. They’re foreigners in their home country in Europe and considered as foreigners in their adopted country. I’ve read that Jean Rhys needed nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that it comes a long time after her other books. I suppose it was tough for her to think about Jamaica, the lost paradise of her childhood.

It is also a fantastic prelude to Jane Eyre, explaining one of its main events in a convincing manner. Charlotte Brontë’s device may seem a little artificial but it makes sense after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s impressive how Jean Rhys perfectly manages to make the stories fit into each other.

I disagree with the French blurb of the book, making of Antoinette alone a victim of a cruel husband. She’s not the only victim and the English man’s hatred grows in spite of him, out of pride. The thought of being a toy in his father’s and in Mr Mason’s hands is enough to ruin all his good intentions to make the better out of the situation. It’s the story of a double imprisonment in marriage. Hence the title. The Sargasso Sea is a sea without shores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near Bermuda. It’s a place where the water is full of seaweed floating on the surface. It could be a place full of life. It isn’t. There aren’t many fish there and sailors dread that area as the winds are weak and the boats get stuck. It’s the perfect metaphor for Antoinette and her husband’s story. They’re stuck in Jamaica, in a nest of lies, of violence and suspicion. The vegetation is luxuriant and keeps them captive. Their relationship is sterile. It is all madness and hatred between the spouses, between white and black people and even between members of a family. The Sargasso Sea is the image of the society that imprisons Antoinette and her husband.

The description of madness is masterly crafted, one of the bests I’ve read. We see Antoinette’s slow journey to hell, fighting against the ghosts of her past and the tricks of her mind. It’s full of pity but doesn’t hide the reality. It is hard for Antoinette but it is also hard for her relatives, including her unfortunate husband. It also shows how helpless he feels in the presence of that illness. Voodoo plays a part as Christophine fuels Antoinette’s craziness with her ideas.

Jean Rhys has an extraordinary style – even in translation – and yet I’ve heard this one isn’t her best book. Lucky me, I have treasures to read ahead. Many thanks to Max from Pechorin’s Journal for bringing her to my attention. He reviewed La Grosse Fifi, Quartet and Good Morning Midnight.

Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 27 comments

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. 2009. 202 pages.

The curse of our generation is that everything’s been tried before. Drink, drugs, God, sex, meditation, masturbation, crystals, mushrooms, peyote, shamanism, communism, consumerism, tai chi, feng shui, kung fu, flower power and TV shopping. It’s obvious to anyone that out little road trip here is nothing more than a tired repetition of an age-old formula. But have you got any better ideas, Jack? Have you thought of something that nobody else in the world before you has thought of?

As regular readers might have noticed, I’m in a “classics revisited” mood these days. After the excellent 1280 âmes, the awful Madman Bovary and before the fantastic Wide Sargasso Sea, I read Andrew Blackman’s debut novel, On the Holloway Road. It’s an assumed adaptation of the mythic On the Road by Jack Kerouac in modern Britain. I was curious to discover what he had done with such a pitch, a slippery slope, in my opinion. As I had re-read On the Road last year and reviewed here, it was recent enough for me to see the links between the books.

Jack lives in London with his mother after his father died. He’s in his twenties or maybe early thirties and has decided to become a writer. While he struggles with his first novel, he meets Neil Black during one of his errands on the Holloway Road. They embark in his Figaro for a road trip to the extreme North of Great Britain. They have with them the audio book of On the Road, read by Matt Dillon. It’s a first person narrative, we only have Jack’s version of the events, he might be an unreliable narrator.

I’ve noticed that road trips in Britain consist in driving in the wild North. (cf The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) Jack muses: “It’s a landscape of possibilities, where for a while you feel as if you can breathe air that hasn’t recently passed through someone else’s lungs”. Does going beyond the Wall of Hadrian still symbolize something? Incidentally, I wondered what it would be in France and I couldn’t figure it out. Such road trips would be more on foot, on the way to Santiago de Compostella or in the Massif Central, with a donkey on Stevenson’s footsteps. But back to the book.

In French we say “coup de foudre” (literally “flash of lightening”) for “love at first sight”. I prefer the French expression because it can be used for many situations, including friendship and doesn’t have necessarily a romantic meaning. Jack has a “coup de foudre” for the buoyant Neil. They are like fire and ice. Neil is weird, unpredictable, prone to verbal logorrhea and incoherent theories about life and freedom. Jack is quieter, respectful of rules and principles, desperately reasonable. Jack is fascinated by Neil, their relationship is based on rather blind adoration and even if Jack is aware that it is toxic for him, he can’t walk away from Neal. He’s like a drug to him.

I got a sensation that was strange to me at the time but would soon become familiar: that Neil was doing enough living for the two of us, and there was nothing left for me to do but watch.

I wasn’t fond of Neil (I wasn’t fond of Dean either btw) but I sure felt sorry for Jack. Being myself rather shy and quiet, I understand perfectly why he’s so attracted by the extroverted Neil. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a hint of homosexuality between the two.

All along their trip, we realize that their dream of American wilderness and of carefree behaviors such as Sal and Dean’s cannot happen in today’s Britain. The environment makes it hard to break the rules. Attempts at driving wild are cut short by traffic cameras and automatic flashes. Soon Jack is afraid to lose all his points on his driving license. When Neil throws away some trash on the highway, they are quickly arrested by the police and get a fine: someone had reported it. When they want to be hired on a drill platform, they learn you need qualifications and a special security training and that two good arms and a will to work aren’t enough.

For those who haven’t read On the Road or don’t remember it, the characters of the book are Sal and Dean, respectively Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy in real life. When I thought about the two sets of characters, I saw butterflies. Sal and Dean are day butterflies, the colorful ones who fly playfully from one flower to another under a sunny sky. They have a vivid and joyful way to fly, as if they were enjoying their short time on Earth and trying to make the best out of it. They’re jazz, light, fun, sad, full of life. On the contrary, I saw Jack and Neil as night butterflies. They’re grey, hollow, and live in a dark world and their pool of light is made of electric bulbs. When they fly, it’s only to bump into that artificial light they take for the sun and burn their fragile wings. Their freedom is sad and limited. It’s limited by their time and by their country, the cops, the camera, the rules and the absence of vast wilderness. They’re electronic music, mechanic, repetitive and inhuman. Their goal in itself draws the difference between them. While Sal and Dean drive to the sunny California, Jack and Neil drive to the windy and cold island of Barra.

On the Holloway Road left me singing Send A Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash. It’s a sad song about a man whose friend just got liberated from prison and who knows he’s himself  in jail for life. It stayed with me as a bridge between today’s Britain and 1950s America. After all, isn’t it what this book is all about?

 

Madman Bovary by Claro: read Flaubert instead

September 9, 2011 11 comments

Madman Bovary by Claro. 2008.

When I entered a book store and asked for Madman Bovary, the clerk looked down on me and replied “You mean Madame Bovary” and it wasn’t even a question. She didn’t say “of course” but I heard it. So my voice was slightly irritated when I confirmed that I really wanted Madman Bovary by Claro, published by Babel.

It’s the story of a man who’s been dumped by his lover Estée. He decides to stay in bed and drown his sorrow in re-reading Madame Bovary. The blurb was intriguing, I wondered what he did with that pitch.

Then I lost myself in a sort of incoherent stream of consciousness in a style full of affectation. I hate sentences as “Naturellement virgule par nonchalence virgule il en vint à se délier de toutes les résolutions qu’il s’était faites.”. (“Naturally comma out of nonchalance comma then again he came to free himself of all the resolutions he had taken”.) I wonder why it’s not written full stop at the end. Claro should read Jean-Bernard Pouy to learn how to play with the language without sounding pedantic. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you want to twist grammar and vocabulary.

I didn’t survive past page 47, too mad for me. I left the guy where he was, thinking I should re-read Flaubert instead.

1280 âmes: In search of lost characters from Jim Thompson’s Pop.1280

September 6, 2011 14 comments

1280 âmes by Jean-Bernard Pouy. 2000. Not translated into English. The title means “1280 souls”

Pierre de Gondol owns the smallest book store in Paris, 12m² of over crowed shelves and his literary knowledge seems inversely proportional to the size of his bookshop. His clients are mostly composed of erudites, lunatics of literature who moon over their favourite authors, researching details and original editions. The kind of weirdos who must have had their foreheads hit by an encyclopedia of literature when they were in their crib.

One day, a new customer bursts into the shop and asks Pierre to enquire after the five people who disappeared from the original version of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. Indeed, the mythic book number 1000 in the even more mythical Série Noire collection, ie Thompson’s Pop.1280, was translated into French by Marcel Duhamel and entitled 1275 âmes. Where are the five missing inhabitants? Pierre starts his enquiry in Parisian libraries and flies to America, to Oklahoma to try to discover the real Pottsville and solve the mystery.

Presented like this, it sounds a little dry and slippery as it’s always difficult to write based-on-a-classic books. But Jean-Bernard Pouy isn’t a newcomer in the Noir world (well, at least, in France). He has written over 30 novels, mostly published in the Série Noire Collection and is the creator of Le Poulpe, a character whose adventures are written by different authors. His character, Pierre, as he says, is a fan of Raymonds. Chandler. Carver. Queneau. A nice guy who drinks white wine as his American fellow Noir heroes drink whisky. His girl-friend Iris is a actress-to-be, accepting lousy experimental theatre festivals to make a living. She’s his opposite and a little crazy.

C’est ça, les couples. Moi, j’aimerais écrire comme Joyce ou Gadda et elle, parler comme Micheline Dax.

That’s what couples are about. I would want to write like Joyce or Gadda and she would like to speak like Micheline Dax. (1)

They have an undefined relationship, not living together but always on the razor’s edge. He loves her but sometimes he’s not sure she loves him in return. The side-characters, ie the customers, are funny and original.

I really had huge fun reading this. Coincidence after coincidence, it resonated with my last months’ reading in an incredible way and those who follow this blog will understand why immediately. Pouy has an extraordinary use of the French language. He’s a great admirer of the Oulipo movement and refers to Perec and Queneau every now and then, like here:

J’ai été alors interrompu dans toutes ces périgrinations mentales par l’arrivée intempestive de Serge énervé comme un perecliste ayant enfin trouvé le seul “E” qui paraît-il existe dans La Disparition.

Then Serge interrupted untimely my mental peregrinations. He was as agitated as a Perecist who has eventually found out the only “E” that supposedly exists in La Disparition.

So when one of Pierre’s last literary enquiries was to discover what had become of “the flat couple of Perec, the one in Les Choses, I thought he was winking at me. “Couple plat”, “flat couple”. I wish I had thought of that image myself when I reviewed Les Choses last month. “Flat couple”, it’s even better in English as this couple is flat and their flat is in the centre of the story. Allusions to Proust and Joyce are mixed with onomatopoeic spelling like in Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau. He speaks French like a gourmet has diner in a fine restaurant. He plays with the sounds, spelling New-Yorkais as Nouillorquais, the words and the concepts. (In French slang, a “nouille” is a dummy)

He plays with the codes of genres, mostly Noir and road movies. He plays on the clichés of America for Europeans, just like Thompson creates Pottsville as the archetype of the Southern little town. The French translator, who is also the founder of the legendary Série Noire, wrote that Pottsville is Ploucville, literally Hickville. So we hear of the inevitable long highways, the dreary hotel rooms, the bad food. Look at Pierre leaving his motel room, somewhere in Oklahoma:

J’ai refait mon sac, et comme tous les acteurs de sitcoms dans ce genre de situation, j’ai jeté un dernier coup d’oeil lourd sur la chambre, putain c’est la dernière fois que je viens ici où j’ai été si heureux avec Cindy, et j’ai claqué la porte.

I packed my things, and like all the sitcoms actors in this kind of situation, I threw a last meaningful glance at the room, it’s the God-dang last time I’m coming here where I’ve been so happy with Cindy, and I slammed the door shut.

And to top it off, Pouy knows his Thompson perfectly. He makes correspondences between the original text and the translation, explains Pop. 1280 with biographical elements. It’s a good complement to the reading of Thompson’s novel. He finds a logical explanation to the disappearance of five people between the English and the French version.

As a mirror to the Oulipo, I also discovered the BILIPO, the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières. I didn’t know there was a special library dedicated to crime fiction in Paris. I checked, it really exists and has all kinds of archives about this literature, books of course, but also university essays and magazines.

1280 âmes is definitely a UFO in the literary world, the kind of book you love or hate depending on who you are and when you read it. For me, the timing was perfect, I read it in a row, unable to stop, laughing out loud and learning fascinating literary details. The only flaw lays in the numerous digressions sometimes hilarious and sometimes less successful. I recommend to read it after Pop. 1280 and I understand perfectly that it can be obscure to someone who doesn’t know the book. For me, it was a treat. 


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