Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jean Rhys in Montparnasse

The classic 1920s Art Deco café Le Sélect is one of the key stops on my “Lost Generation” literary tours. Standing at the corner of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the rue Vavin, Le Sélect opened its doors at the height of the expatriate frenzy, in 1925, and remains the best preserved café of the era. This was a hotbed for writers. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway here set no less than four scenes in his first novel, published the year after the cafe’s opening. But other outstanding writers also made fine use of Le Sélect – Jean Rhys among them, in her first novel Quartet, published in 1928.

In a scene in the café, her fragile heroine Marya has to endure a nasty scene at with her lover Heidler and his testy wife Lois. Trying to lighten the tension, Heidler beckons Guy Lester to the table, but the utterly plastered Guy calls Marya a hussy.:

“Darling Marya,” said Lois, laughing on a high note. “You don’t know her,
you don’t. She’s as harmless at they’re made, Guy. A sweet young thing on the
sentimental side.”

The thinly disguised models for Heidler were Ford Madox Ford, Lois for his long time mistress the Australian artist Stella Bowen, and Marya for Rhys herself.

Ford Madox Ford was a British literary powerhouse, famed for his 1916 World War I novel The Good Soldier. He moved from London to Paris in 1922, in time to attend Proust’s funeral as the self-appointed representative of English letters. In Paris he joined Ezra Pound in promoting James Joyce’s work and in 1924 founded the Transatlantic Review. He and Stella Bowen moved to No. 84 Rue Notre Dame des Champs in 1925.

Ford was a wheezy middle-aged fat man with a walrus-like moustache, but had remarkable success with women. His friend Joyce wrote:
“O Father O’Ford you’ve a masterful way with you,
Maid, wife and widow are wild to make hay with you.”

Stella Bowen
Jean Rhys was one of those wives. She was officially Mme Jean Lenglet, married to a Dutch man of that name. Ford hired her in 1924 to work on the Transatlantic Review. He tutored her in the craft of writing, published her first story in the Review, and took her birth name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams to the pseudonym he created for her of Jean Rhys. She was thirty-four (hardly the young thing Marya seems to be in Quartet), a beautiful woman, but emotionally shaky and painfully shy.

Their affair began early in 1925, after her husband Lenglet went to prison for embezzlement.
At the time that Ford and Stella Bowen moved to Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Rhys was in Juan les-Pins, helping a rich American woman write a book (as does Rhys’s heroine Sasha Jansen in her later novel Good Morning, Midnight), but Ford managed to get her fired by the lady, forcing Rhys  to come back to Paris, where he installed her in a hotel by the Gare Montparnasse. It was just such a place as the one Heidler installs Marya in Quartet:

“It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession
of petites femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully
thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir
vivre and all the rest of it.”

Ford’s final break with Jean Rhys came in the fall of 1926, when, after much griping from Bowen, he left for an extended book tour in the United States. Rhys then returned to her husband in Holland, where she wrote Quartet. Its publication two years later was successful – and sparked alternate versions of it by the three other concerned parties: a novel apiece by Ford Madox Ford and Jean Lenglet and a frontal attack on Rhys by Stella Bowen in her autobiography, Drawn from Life. Ironically, Quartet turned a quartet.

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