Amy Winehouse of Modernism

Seth Satterlee -- November 12th, 2013

Jean RhysAs I crawl through my bedside stack of books, I’ve only now reached those I accumulated during the summer. In a July article for PW’s Tip Sheet Laura Frost called Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight one of the 10 Best Modernist Books (in English). It’s a short work with an underdog history, falling into obscurity before a late revival. It was this sentence from Frost’s article that sunk the hook for me: “Rhys is modernism’s Amy Winehouse, and I mean that as a compliment.”

Having read Wide Sargasso Sea in grad school, Frost’s sentiment immediately struck me. Rhys, like Winehouse, was a self-styled outsider and lived a meandering, booze-infused life–maybe not quite as destructive as Winehouse. Both utilize the techniques and traditions of their respective medium as a springboard for innovation, their work feels playful, even spurious at times, on top of being extremely technical and conscious of tradition. They re-purpose old hats in striking new ways, and do so loudly. Rhys had Charlotte Bronte; Winehouse, Frank Sinatra and Motown.

Good Morning, Midnight is a surprisingly modern novel. Although the plot lacks the flair of Sargasso Sea, the style is loose and full of emotion. The protagonist, Sasha Jensen, is an English ex-pat floating around Paris, chatting in the cafes, organizing her days around where to drink. Unable and unwilling to hold on to a job, she is an aging wastrel at the mercy of those who haphazardly lend support . Sasha is sad, but biting and clever in her sadness. Her melancholic, blunt personality attracts a mix of men and this seems to have sustained her over the years. Many have called Rhys’s style stream-of-consciousness, but it doesn’t feel as detached from narrative realism as the voice of other writers of the 20′s and 30′s. As Sasha’s choices begin to dwindle and the world closes in on her, the sentences becoming equally claustrophobic. She is in one room or another, one with a bath, another without. The cafe that tolerates her, the one that doesn’t. You can feel her desperation as these circles repeat, the acquaintances and cafes change but the archetypes never do.

Rhys vanished from public life after the novel was released and didn’t write again for another decade.  But the times would change and catch up with her work. As Frost says: “Modernists felt that they were living through a period of momentous change that called for equally radical changes in literature… Out went clear, coherent, linear plots, omniscient narrators, and straightforward language. In came fragmentation, multiple points of view, stream of consciousness, dense allusions, and ambiguity.”  Reading Good Morning, Midnight it’s hard not to see Rhys as a game-changer. An advocate for the disenfranchised woman, she exposes the hypocrisies of gender norms through the eyes of an outcast too sharp not to point out the obvious.  It was a 1949 stage version of the novel that forced the literary world to reconsider Jean Rhys, and she confessed this resurgence sparked the ambitions of her later writing. But Rhys was uninterested in her late fame, it didn’t go with her outcast self-conception. If Rhys is the Amy Winehouse of modernism, it’s good the fame wasn’t there when she craved it, or else we wouldn’t have the rest of her remarkable work.

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