Abdicating Responsibility

Jacket image for Quartet by Jean Rhys: black & white photograph of a carousel horse on white background with sans serif typographyIn 2018 I moved back to Dublin after four years marooned in New Jersey. I made a practice of reading the weekend edition of the Irish Times from cover to cover, to get a sense of the public psyche of the country (or at least that of the bourgeois strata of the south Dublin suburbs that spawned me). After several few months I gave it up, fearful that prolonged exposure to Pat Leahy might lead to irreversible brain damage. Often it was the obituary page that gave the most interesting view of the state of the nation.

Throughout that year, Rob Doyle had a column in the Culture section, revisiting some of his favourite books. In that determinedly middlebrow milieu, his invocations of Nathalie Sarraute and E M Cioran offered a revivifying dash of vinegar and pretension. A couple of years later, Swift Books published the full set under the title Autobibliography, buttressing each one with rambling author’s notes that often ran ten or twenty times the length of the original entry. In all honesty, it’s thin stuff — the original reviews are too brief to merit the elaboration — but the list is the thing.

There is a certain release in abdicating responsibility in the face of overwhelming choice. There are more books in any shop than I could hope to read in the years that are left to me (hell, there are more books already in this house than I could hope to read etc.) Why prefer one book over the next? How to choose between incommensurable goods? Submit to the dictates of some arbitrary authority: the recommendations of n+1’s annual Bookmatch fundraiser; Anthony Burgess’s 99 Novels; the inexplicable selections of the other people in your book club. I filleted Autobibliography for anything that raised a flicker of interest, discarding half the list to leave sixteen titles I wanted to read and another dozen I would reread.

Thus, I read Quartet, the first novel by Jean Rhys. Prior to this Jean Rhys had a shadowy existence in the lumber room of my mind, where undigested and often contradictory scraps of information gather dust, undisturbed by the intrusions of reality. I knew that Rhys had returned from years of obscurity with Wide Sargasso Sea because Diana Athill devotes a chapter to the story in Stet, but no image had formed of the earlier career to which this constituted a comeback. For that matter, I had not read Wide Sargasso Sea, on the doubtless specious grounds that I had never read Jane Eyre either.

“The room was full of men in caps who bawled intimacies at each other; a gramophone played without ceasing; a beautiful white dog under the counter, which everyone called Zaza and threw bones to, barked madly”.

This, on page 4. Rhys’s prose is littered with these lightly paradoxical phrases (“bawled intimacies”) that nonetheless encapsulate perfectly some detail of life, the amicable bedlam of a busy Parisian cafe. Her spare, economical style might read too quickly were it not for these arresting turns of phrase. Quartet is a short book (Doyle disarmingly admits that many of his choices were driven by exigency — with only seven days to come up with the next instalment, I too might have picked Bolaño’s  inscrutable Antwerp over 2666) but it covers a lot of emotional experience. Its portrait of a young woman increasingly unmoored and alone in interwar Paris reminded me in some ways of Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion (also one of Doyle’s picks).

Penguin Modern Classics recently reissued Rhys’s four early novels (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight are the others). Their edition of Quartet is typical of their routine high quality: sharp jacket design incorporating a Lee Miller photograph, clean typography, and a solid contextual essay thoughtfully placed after the text. I’ll read the lot. I might even finally get to Wide Sargasso Sea.

Thoughts, hopes, exhortations?