In the late thirties Sophia Jansen, hopeless, lonely, depressed, alcoholic, has come back to Paris to revisit the scenes of previous failures for “a quiet, sane fortnight.” We’re not sure how old she is, but she’s very much aware that she’s not as young as she was. Sophia has come apart; she’s not in the process of coming apart. I hadn’t read any Rhys for years and it was interesting to see that there is something engaging about the misery and monotony, and to try and work out what it is.
Sophia has a submerged kind of consciousness, emerging occasionally into clarity and recognition of pain, or, much more rarely, into recognition of its absence. She is past pride, she’s given up. She hasn’t got the stamina for the performance of social interaction. She is frightened and alienated by other people and resentful of them; she feels herself at the mercy of their agency, having none of her own. She’s self-pitying, but not really the kind of character there’s much point in thinking should just buck up and get their act together. She’s far too far gone.
The book is made up of her recollections of past humiliations and tragedies and chance encounters with people she is never going to be able to really connect with in the present. She plays at connecting with them for moments, but could not sustain any relationship. Sophia keeps bolting into the lavatories of cafes (called here lavabos, as I have never seen elsewhere) to look at herself and temporarily escape into her own society. There is a sense that she finds a certain, dysfunctional comfort and self-affirmation in confirmation of her doomed status: “Who is this crying? The same one who laughed on the landing, kissed him and was happy. This is me, this is myself, who is crying. The other – how do I know who the other is? She isn’t me.” I guess the book is about the consolations of self when barely recognisable as such. It engages, I think, because of something to do with the implicit contrast in it. It’s made up of Sophia’s vulnerability and incoherence, yet it’s well arranged. Sophia/Rhys lays out everything in just the right place and order. It represents a dogged energy and purpose. Also a kind of ultimate satisfaction with the state of things.