Choosing a novel – just one novel – to represent the year 1939 was always going to be tough.
For some reason, 1939 was a pretty good year for literature. Perhaps it was something in the water? James Joyce published his final novel, Finnegans Wake in 1939. But given the…err, slightly less than ideal experience I had reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man last year, there’s no way I’m ready for another barrage of Joyce’s particular brand of bollocks genius just yet. Maybe later. Much later.
John Steinbeck published his other well-known work, The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. But, to tell the truth, I’m not completely over Of Mice and Men. I can’t even think about rabbits without getting a little teary. Which isn’t very convenient, given that it’s the Easter long weekend as I write this review.
If you’d excuse me for a moment, I think there’s *sniff* something in my eye…
Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep in 1939. But, without giving too much away just yet, I’ll be reading another Raymond Chandler novel soon for Book to the Future.
Of course, Christopher Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin in 1939, and it’s commonly acknowledged as his best work. I was impressed by Mr. Norris Changes Trains a few weeks ago, but thought it’d be nice to read an author I’ve never experienced before.
Someone like, for instance, Flann O’Brien, who published At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939. Or Jean Rhys, whose acclaimed novel, Good Morning, Midnight was published this year as well…
I read a little about each book. They both sounded fascinating. But I had to choose just one. Decisions, decisions…
So, in the end, I did what any sensible person would do.
I flipped a coin.
Good Morning, Midnight
by Jean Rhys
Published in 1939
“… You imagine the carefully-pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That’s just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth” (p. 63)
The truth about Good Morning, Midnight is this: perhaps you’ll recognise aspects of yourself reflected wonkily back at you from the pages.
If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by sadness or grief or loneliness or shame, you’ll read Jean Rhys’ 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight with a wry sense of recognition. This is by no means a comfortable book. You might find yourself squirming as you read passages. But that’s the thing about the truth – the truth is never comfortable.
Sophia Jansen is a middle-aged woman living in Paris. Still reeling from a tragedy that took the life of someone close to her, Sophia abandoned her London life and has returned to Paris after a long absence. With little hope and even less money, she moves from one cheap room to another, from one job to the next job, from one day to the following day.
Struggling with her own poverty and alcoholism, and the shame that goes along with it, Sophia lives on the very edge of society. Her Paris is mapped out by the few restaurants where her presence is still tolerated.
Sophia’s existence has become a matter of merely passing the time, making plans for an unattainable tomorrow, which stretches out forever in front of her, as she mimics the lives of the human beings around her.
“But this is my attitude to life. Please, please, monsieur et madame, mister, missis and miss. I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed but look how hard I try…” (p. 88)
Good Morning, Midnight, like so many modernist novels of the Twenties and Thirties, is a stream-of-consciousness narrative, written from a stifling first person perspective. In the hands of some authors, the stream of consciousness technique bears little relationship to actual consciousness. But Rhys’ writing echoes the way thought actually works. It’s beautiful and yet profoundly disturbing.
I found it possible to read Good Morning, Midnight only in small bursts; a few pages at a time. Otherwise, it’s simply too overwhelming – like, for instance:
“In the middle of the night you wake up. You start to cry. What’s happening to me? Oh, my life, oh, my youth. …
There’s some wine left in the bottle. You drink it. The clock ticks. Sleep. …” (p.75)
Rhys slips into the second person for a short paragraph, and suddenly, Sophia’s problems are your problems, too – you’re trapped in this novel, forced to contemplate the horror of Sophia’s hellish life, just for a brief moment. Jean Rhys smothers the reader in the novel’s claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s important to remember to breathe as you read Good Morning, Midnight.
As the novel unravels, Sophia’s memories slowly reveal to us her awful story; the chain of events that brought her to the streets of Paris. It’s a slow, painful process – and Rhys, like the expert storyteller she is, tells us Sophia’s tale at exactly the right pace.
I admit, I did find it a little disorienting when Sophia suddenly sends us hurtling back in time to an earlier point of her story. Sometimes, it’s not entirely obvious how the particular tangent of memory we’re flung down relates back to the present. But this is Sophia’s story, and she’s determined to tell it. Given that she spends so much of her time drunk, she does a decent job as a narrator. Rhys gives her just the right combination of lucidity and incoherence. It’s not always completely clear what’s happening – but, really, what more could we expect?
What did worry me about reading Good Morning, Midnight was the fact that much of the French in the novel is left untranslated. It’s good luck on my part that I could translate most of it, but there were still a few phrases and expressions that left me scratching my head.
“It’s all a lie, it’s a snare, it’s a trap. This girl, you understand, is a liar. What she wants is three hundred francs to give her maquereau…” (p. 74)
What? Maquereau translates as mackerel. She wants three hundred francs for her mackerel? That’s one expensive fish.
After a little Googling, I found out what was really going on – maquereau is also French slang for a pimp. Which makes more sense than a fish. But really, how am I meant to be familiar with French slang from the Thirties? My version of the novel, the Penguin Modern Classics edition, includes nothing in the way of endnotes to help a poor reader find their bearings. It’s an annoying omission I wish Penguin would correct.
Or perhaps, this lack of notes surrounding the text is entirely intentional, and the novel is designed specifically to make us feel lost, uncertain, and insecure. If that’s the case, it most certainly worked. However, it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable or comprehensible novel.
Good Morning, Midnight is extremely confronting, yet strangely beautiful. Even though we watch from the outside, Sophia’s Paris is like a fair at nighttime – and in this novel, it’s always nighttime. The novel is haunted by images of mirrors, of reflections that don’t always show you what you were expecting to see. More than once, Sophia is mistaken for something she isn’t, a repeated experience that forces her to see herself through other people’s eyes.
What Good Morning, Midnight shows us is that identity is not something fixed and constant; it’s something created for us by those around us. And it’s something we create for ourselves from new every day. Sophia isn’t even consistent about her name – she calls herself Sasha when she wears her big, fur coat. With a new hairdo or a new hat comes the chance for an entirely new beginning, a whole new identity. Again and again, Sophia tells us her plans for tomorrow, tomorrow, each page is spattered with ellipses, but though time advances, this novel is ruled by the past. With every day comes a new chance, a new beginning…but will Sophia ever really be able to escape her past, or is every chance at a new life doomed inevitably to failure?
Emotional, confronting – even frightening, Good Morning, Midnight is a profoundly unsettling novel, in which beauty and horror sit awkwardly side by side.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Good Morning, Midnight is amazingly well written, but there are so many confusing moments. And it’s so draining to read. I know that’s not really a criticism. I expected something a little more from this book; some glimmer of hope peeking through all the awfulness. In the end, I’m not sure there was.
In a word: