Jean Rhys and the Wolves

If your only interaction with me were via this blog, you would think that my entire life was consumed by an obsession with Jean Rhys. And that’s not true, because I have a lot of obsessions, of which Jean Rhys is only one. Last week I finished a collection of her short stories. Because I’m going to Paris in January and because she writes about Paris so often, I started thinking about how much I’d like to try and go places that she mentions in her writing. But her fiction is short on details (if long on melancholy), meaning that I had to turn to Google for the answers, as our generation is wont to do. And this lead me to the realization that she was interviewed by The Paris Review in 1979 (issue 76). If you buy it from the Paris Review website, it’s $60. On Amazon, it’s $8. I’ll leave you to imagine which purchasing decision I made. I read it earlier this week and made some discoveries. For one, in 1979, you could order a lifetime subscription of The Paris Review for $100. The interview itself is only kind of great, a bit stilted, perhaps, possibly because Jean Rhys was 84 at the time and apparently still a fan of hitting the sauce on the regular basis.

Rhys died before the issue was published, so in addition to the interview, the issue ran a “remembrance” of Jean Rhys, by some guy named David Plante, whose work I do not know. The remembrance depressed the hell out of me. It’s about how she’s a senile drunk obsessed with Ian Fleming novels and her own mediocrity. (And in truth, she is mediocre sometimes, and I kind of love that. There’s an earnestness (a desperate earnestness?) to writers who figure out a style and a narrative and a way of crafting dialogue through writing for a paying audience that I think gets obscured now. I blame MFA programs.) But I find myself indignant that the Paris Review should have published this so soon after she died, within the year. I mean, I’m reading it 30+ years later, and I’m askance at just how crazy and drunk and petty Jean Rhys is the months before her death. But that this should have been her legacy so soon! It seems mean-spirited. The lure of interviews for me is in the pleasure of reading the language of people who are in love with language, like when Jean Rhys says “a room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves.” And I’m usually an ardent advocate of a New Criticism separation of what a writer writes and who a writer is. But that’s kind of the problem here – someone being a writer of quasi autobiographies doesn’t justify the audacity of shoe-horning a narrative of drunken senility (to which she did not agree) immediately after an interview (to which she did). She was 84 and old and crazy and just didn’t want to feel alone. The fact that she wrote some beautiful prose and was a nutjob doesn’t avail other writers of the responsibility of common human courtesy or empathy or a willingness to let an old woman tell her story instead of telling one for her.

Demented drunk or not, I am still planning on wandering around Montparnasse in January because that is where Jean Rhys lived. I hope it’s haunted by an angry, drunken, petty ghost who insists that the color of Paris is pink, not blue or green like London.

Jessa Lingel

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One Response to Jean Rhys and the Wolves

  1. Hi Jessa Lingel, this is to say that since 1980 I also want Jean Rhys All to Myself. Good title, bravo. In 1984, I went to London (from Paris) for a conference about her with Diana Athill and this awful guy called David Plante, and after the speech I stood to ask WHY Jean did admit such a guy to be helping her, knowing how much she hated judges and “morale”. Many applaus from the audience and this little scandal was reported in the newspapers articles that appeared next day, all about the book of Plante: Difficult Women.
    I am a writer myself, now living (happily) in Vienna after about 35 years of Paris. My books are in french, not translated in English, alas, but in German, Russian and… Hebrew!
    Wish you all the best and many happy returns about Jean and everything.

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