Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Quartet’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2000.

It seems ironic or pre-determined (or something), because no sooner than I write a post about bleak books and ask you to submit your suggestions, than I pick up Jean Rhys‘ debut novel, Quartet. Ms Rhys doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on bleakness, but boy, she does an exquisite line in melancholy and hopelessness.

This book, first published in 1928, brings bohemian Paris in the 1920s to life. It’s set in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, where people lived in hotels and passed their time in smoke-filled cafes and ate out every night because they simply didn’t have the facilities to cook at home. Women were generally seen and not heard, and relied on men to support them.

Living in this dark, seedy world is Marya, who left England four years earlier to marry a Pole called Stephan. Despite the fact Stephan, an art dealer, “disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied”, she feels safe and “strangely peaceful” when she is with him. But then he is imprisoned, and she’s left penniless and alone.

An older sophisticated couple, Mr and Mrs Heidler, come to her rescue, offering her the spare room in their apartment. Although the idea of living with them fills her with “extraordinary dismay”, she is left with little choice and moves in.

It works out well in the beginning, but Marya, a deep thinker, soon finds herself being manipulated and it all goes down hill from there.

I can’t say much more than that, because I don’t want to ruin the story for those yet to read it. But it’s melancholy and rather glum and poor Marya seems unable to get herself out of the hole she’s created. She comes across as being rather young and naive, but also slightly weak, as if she feels that because she is trapped there’s no use fighting and that it would be simply easier to succumb to other’s desires and needs. Even when her husband is finally released from jail, she seems unable to stand up to his devious ways and just lets him get on with it.

This is a beautifully written book, and I love that Rhys doesn’t explain everything, so it’s up to you, the reader, to fill in the gaps. It’s only 145 pages long, but I did have to re-read certain sections because I felt that I’d missed a subtlety that was crucial to the plot. I think there’s so much going on here, between characters, even within certain character’s heads, that it’s the type of book that would benefit from two or more readings and you’d come away from it with a whole new perspective and appreciation of Rhys’ talent. (Remember this is her first novel.)

Quartet is incredibly evocative of another time and place, and as I read it I kept thinking it would make a wonderful film. So I was delighted to discover that Merchant Ivory have beaten me to it. It was made into a movie in 1981 and that it can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.