Monday 25 December 2017

Jean Rhys, Collected Stories

The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys is a large supple paperback of about forty stories, with forty narrators who segue into each other but for their names, which shift about the territory of England, Europe and the Caribbean. Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, out of which she chose Gwen Williams; she became Miss Gray when she was a Gaiety girl; Ford Madox Ford chose the name Jean Rhys. Finding a narrator in her stories is a strange sport; a page or two in and, oh, so this is the centre of the maelstrom, this restless, fraught Inez, or Francine, or Lotus, or Petronella. I imagine Jean Rhys choosing the names almost with impatience, for occasional use when the narrator is addressed by someone at enough distance to call her by her name. Now and then she gives in to the first person: Yes, this is me talking to you, too weary, too far gone to need a name; or too astounded.
Suddenly I realised I was happy.
There was a nightlight burning. He opened his eyes and looked straight into mine. His eyes were set slantwise, too, and I imagined they looked sad.
He was tied up in the French way like a Red Indian papoose, only his head out of the bundle. I shall dress him differently when we get home.
Little thing! I must kiss him.
Perhaps that is why he looks sad — because his mother has never kissed him.
Here at the pit of the year Jean Rhys stories are the thing. Especially when you've read half the book in shortish bursts in the middle of the night and then bring it out into the damp solstice light of afternoon. Her creatures lurch around their misfortunes with disarming freedom.
Nobody's going to comfort you, she told herself, you ought to know better. Pull yourself together. There was a time when you weren't afraid. Was there? When? When was that time? Of course there was. Go on. Pull yourself together, pull yourself to pieces. There was a time. There was a time. Besides I'll sleep soon. There's always sleeping, and it'll be fine tomorrow.

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