Monday, June 9, 2008

"Good Morning, Midnight" by Jean Rhys

Never read Jean Rhys if you are unemployed and tend to overspend on late night visits to cafés. It tends to make you feel as though you are spiraling into depression, are old beyond your years, will never have money again, and despise the nature of humanity.
Published in 1938, the book chronicles the thoughts and habits of Sasha Jenkins, an Englishwoman (“L’Anglaise”) who has returned to Paris. She is poor, but spends her days revisiting old cafés, drinking, making casual – and disappointing – acquaintances. A woman obsessed with finding enough money to live comfortably on, she stoops to embarrassing lengths and rails against those who debase her.

Given a colour, this novel would be grey. Sentences now and then remind the reader that this is the grey that follows World War I, shortly before the Second World War and the subsequent French occupation. Life is meaningless, everyone is poor and grasping, youth is short and the devil is laughing.

Partially, one feels sorry for Sasha, regrets her sad history and the dismal world in Paris. The other part of me wants to kick her. Why doesn’t she go into the vital French countryside, and learn how to bake bread and grow vegetables? Perhaps if she removes herself from the influence of the city and her own self pity, she will be able to recover.

The most uncomfortable part of this book is how one can see the author painted on every page; the poverty, and the drinking. Jean Rhys’s heroines were often based on herself, and her books born out of her journals. This book is one of her earlier works. It will be nearly thirty years before she publishes her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, and finally earns the acclaim she deserved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Word on Ulysses

It looks so tempting: a large, fat, pliable book. The pages are soft, the font is just right; if you carry it around with you, you can wear the term “literary” like a badge on your hat. (Warning: if you are not smart enough, you may have to log on to wikipedia to understand that there are indeed eighteen episodes which are supposed to correspond with The Odyssey. You may have to debase yourself further by reading the explanations and the sketches of what those episodes are trying to chronicle.)

To my credit, I finished the last third of the book on a turbulence-filled plane ride sandwiched between my mother and an unhappy man who was invading the demarcations the barrier between his seat and mine had delineated.

It has become my subsequent goal to read Joyce’s Ulysses at least once every five – or ten – years, and perhaps by the time that I am forty-five I will be able to discern the exact narrative arc and the Circe episode won’t scare me, and eventually I will love it, and throw obtuse references to everyone who asks me. People will ask “Did you like Ulysses?” and I will gush: “I loved it. James Joyce and I – our souls are connected.”