Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
When you think about Paris there is more than a good chance that the first images that sprout in your mind are the very same ones that grace the covers of the overwhelming number of various glossy travel guides and a bit less glossy travel websites, and those images most definitely are: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and a plethora of other equally picturesque and recognizable places. Rarely does one conjure up the facade of a small and obscure café — however charming it may be — shyly snuggling up to the houses crowding the Left Bank, like a puppy curled up by its mother’s side, and thus the Eiffel Tower beats the competition and wins the contest nearly every single time.
Similarly, when you think of the books that employ the City of Light and Love as their backdrop or as an additional character from their dramatis personae, most likely the top spots on your list are occupied by such titles as: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast; Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; and nearly everything that came from under the pen of Zola or Balzac.
But what hardly ever finds its way to such lists — let alone to their top positions — is a 1939 novel by Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight. It is an often neglected, modernist gem that received a great deal of attention upon its publication, was praised for its writing, but has, since then, unjustly, faded into relative obscurity mainly because the contemporary reviewers found its main themes — that is, loneliness and despair — too hard to bear and relate to; or rather they were reluctant, if not afraid, to admit that they were also prone to such bouts of self-doubt and dejection themselves.
Rhys’ prose is sparse yet mesmerizing; its lightness and delicacy make you want to reread certain passages or whole paragraphs if only to savor the melodiousness and subtlety of her writing for a little longer.
It tells the story of a middle-aged English woman, Sasha Jansen, who returns to Paris on borrowed money, hoping to recapture lost time, but, in the end, is forced to deal with the painful memories of her last stay there. She is lonesome and vulnerable, mourning the years that have gone by and seeking answers in her own reflection peering at her from the bottom of a bottle. She falls in love with the wrong men, lives in the seedy hotel rooms, drinks heavily, proves to be unable to hold a job, almost goes to bed with a gigolo mistaking her for an affluent woman on account of her fur coat, and, on top of all that — to complete the image of utter misery — she contemplates suicide by drinking herself to death.
Rhys’ prose is sparse yet mesmerizing; its lightness and delicacy make you want to reread certain passages or whole paragraphs if only to relish the melodiousness and the subtlety of her writing for a little longer. The profundity of the themes she tackles is both painful and amusing to read, like the opening scenes in which Sasha — plagued by chronic uncertainty, emotional turmoil, and the effects of her heavy drinking — fails to impress the visiting owner of the dress shop where she works as a shop assistant. It is, in short, everything that is absent from the flat and bland Paris-centered scribblings of Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises in particular), for Rhys — that great poetess of alienation — manages to breathe more life, real life, into her vision of Paris, even if seen through the prism of the despair-tinged lines of her writing, than Papa does while rambling on and on about the endless parties and drunken antics of the lost generation. Her book is an ode to depression, isolation, and the ugly side of life that you can’t escape even if you indulge in all kinds of cheating and trickery not to notice it; his is a catchy tune hummed off-key. Her novel is a bottomless river of misery; his is, at best, a puddle striving to pass for a lake.
Rhys is Henry Miller à rebours, offering us a rare glimpse of ‘30s Paris — the city of vivid lights and resounding laughs — from a different perspective.
Rhys, in her stream-of-consciousness narrative, perfectly captures the pains of a troubled soul, haunted by her past, excessively pessimistic about her future, tormented by the pervading feeling of loss of love, of home, and of bygone youth. She is Henry Miller à rebours, offering us a rare glimpse of ‘30s Paris — the city of vivid lights and resounding laughs — from a different perspective, that of a succession of shabby hotel rooms where the sounds of music and fun come muffled and washed out and robbed of their gaiety. She manages to peel off the gaudy epidermis of loud parties and countless rounds of Pernod, as if it were a tastelessly garish carpet, and shows us what lies beneath, even if it isn’t exactly pretty, and then she makes us realize that you can be alone, even painfully alone, in a vibrant city full of people.
One thing is certain; after savoring Rhys’ version of Paris, those rounds of Pernod will never taste the same to you again.