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Street Haunting with Jean Rhys

March 12, 2013 | by

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Illustration credit Joanna Walsh.

The author Jean Rhys had trouble finishing her stories. Rhys told her editor and friend Diana Athill that “ending a novel based on things that had really happened ... was difficult because a novel must have shape, and real life usually has none.” In Rhys’s later years, spent struggling with her autobiography and idly drinking in her Devonshire bungalow, her memory was faulty. The problem wasn’t just that she couldn’t remember; Rhys told Athill that she sometimes felt “more like a pen being used than like a person using a pen,” a startling insight that perhaps led Athill to write, in the foreword to Rhys’s unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, published posthumously in 1979, that her friend had “used up” her life in fiction.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1967) was Rhys’s final book, the one that made her famous late—“too late,” she said. Set in the early nineteenth century, Wide Sargasso Sea was Rhys’s great historical vendetta, in which she furnished a life for the West Indian “madwoman” Charlotte Brontë dismissed to Rochester’s attic in Jane Eyre. I began where Rhys ended, reading her last novel at sixteen in an English class at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, England, a few doors away from the Perse School for Girls, the posh private school Rhys had attended on moving to England from Dominica in 1907. Jean and I went to school on the same street a hundred years apart, sixteen-year-old sisters in the same place at a different time. Cambridge had changed, but Jean stayed with me. Neither of us liked school, and we both knew what it was like to be derided by a Perse girl; Jean for her Creole accent, and I for being a Hills Road student (in keeping with informal tradition, our schools maintain an absurd rivalry). Read More »

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Literary Paint Chips: Gallery 3

May 14, 2012 | by

Paint Samples, suitable for the home, sourced from colors in literature. As seen in our two-hundredth issue.

Fox Stain1 Graham Greene2 Iteration Pudding3 Hood4
Fence5 Skipper’s Whiff6 Pizza7 Noise White8
Martyr’s Tongue9 League10 Funeral Suit11 Dead Sea12
Doze13 Dishwater Blonde14 Stupid Blue15 Dorsal16
Bible Black17 Lo’s Socks18 Poop Poop19 American Autumn20
Damned Spot21 Spit Black22 Georgie’s Pins23 Oatmeal Tweed24
Treasure Blue25 Nimbus Card26 Felon Yellow27 Wine-dark28

Annotations

  1. “The season’s ill— / we’ve lost our summer millionaire, / who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean / catalogue. His nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen. / A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell.
  2. Graham Greene
  3. “But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” ‘Arcadia,’ Tom Stoppard.
  4. “Her mother was excessively fond of her; and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman got made for her a little red riding hood.” “Little Red Riding Hood,” Charles Perrault.
  5. “Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.” ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ Mark Twain.
  6. “Wendell takes a whiff of Skipper, who is wearing what used to be a pair of pink flowered pajamas. A small bit of satin ribbon is still visible around her neck, but the rest, including her smiling face, is wet brown mud and something else. ‘Part of this is poop,’ Wendell hollers.” “Cousins,” Jo Ann Beard.
  7. “She noticed a piece of bright orange pizza stuck between his teeth, and it endeared him to her.” “A Romantic Weekend,” Mary Gaitskill.
  8. “I heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white.” ‘White Noise,’ Don DeLillo.
  9. “St. John Nepomucene was martyred in Prague in 1393 for refusing to reveal a secret of the confessional. His tongue has been entirely preserved. Experts examined it 332 years later in 1725, and testified that it was the shape, color, and length of the tongue of a living person, and that it was also soft and flexible.” ‘Beautiful Losers,’ Leonard Cohen.
  10. “Then, again, I have heard it is no use your applying if your hair is light red, or dark red, or anything but real bright, blazing, fiery red.” “The Red-Headed League,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
  11. “In the meantime I unpacked my bag, opened the wardrobe and hung up the dark gray suit I had taken along to Chur as my funeral suit, so to speak.” ‘The Loser,’ Thomas Bernhard.
  12. “I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Colored they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That’s where we’ll go, I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy.” ‘Waiting for Godot,’ Samuel Beckett.
  13. “And then I went off into a blue doze, sitting there in the car next to William. I was thinking about Josephine who is also this very dear friend of mine.” ‘Novel on Yellow Paper,’ Stevie Smith.
  14. “... a jewelry box in which a strand of Mary’s dishwater-blonde hair lay bedded on cotton.” ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ Jeffrey Eugenides.
  15. “I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid.” ‘The Good Soldier,’ Ford Madox Ford.
  16. “It took Brody’s eyes a moment to adjust, but then he saw the fin—a ragged brownish-gray triangle that sliced through the water, followed by the scythed tail sweeping left and right with short, spasmodic thrusts.” ‘Jaws,’ Peter Benchley.
  17. “It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea.” ‘Under Milk Wood,’ Dylan Thomas.
  18. “Officer, officer there they go— / In the rain, where that lighted store is! / And her socks are white, and I love her so, / And her name is Haze, Dolores.” ‘Lolita,’ Vladimir Nabokov.
  19. “They reached the carriage-drive of Toad Hall to find, as the Badger had anticipated, a shiny new motor-car, of great size, painted a bright red (Toad’s favorite color), standing in front of the house.” ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ Kenneth Grahame.
  20. “The afternoon was perfect. A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.” ‘The House of Mirth,’ Edith Wharton.
  21. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ William Shakespeare.
  22. “The restaurant to which he took us was a theater people’s one, not very far away, and filled with gentlemen in fancy waistcoats just like himself, and with girls and boys like Kitty, with streaks of greasepaint on their cuffs and crumbs of spit-black in the corners of their eyes.” ‘Tipping the Velvet,’ Sarah Waters.
  23. “Then she hitched up her skirt and some layers of stiff white petticoat and began to draw on a pair of peacock-blue stockings which I had given her.” ‘A Severed Head,’ Iris Murdoch.
  24. “You wouldn’t be able to decorate out a table in afromosia teak veneer, an armchair in oatmeal tweed and a beech frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat? ” ‘The Caretaker,’ Harold Pinter.
  25. “He then explained to me that it was commonly believed that on a certain night of the year—last night, in fact, when all evil spirits are supposed to have unchecked sway—a blue flame is seen over any place where treasure has been concealed.” ‘Dracula,’ Bram Stoker.
  26. “Suddenly the restaurant seems far away, hushed, the noise distant, a meaningless hum, compared to this card, and we all hear Price’s words: ‘Raised lettering, pale nimbus white...’” ‘American Psycho,’ Bret Easton Ellis.
  27. “Conrad now surveyed the pod room with a horrible clarity. It was a foul gray chamber inhabited by grim organisms in yellow felony pajamas who arranged themselves in primitive territorial packs.” ‘A Man in Full,’ Tom Wolfe.
  28. “As far as a man seeth with his eyes into the haze of distance as he sitteth on a place of outlook and gazeth over the wine-dark sea, so far leap the loudly neighing horses of the gods.” ‘The Iliad,’ Homer.

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From the Cloakroom, at the Booker

October 20, 2011 | by

Julian Barnes by Ross MacGibbon.

For the real action at this year’s Man Booker Prize, you had to hit the cloakroom. For much of the evening, along with correspondents from all the major newspapers, I was sequestered in a large room in the palatial spread of the Guildhall. It was only when I ventured downstairs that recognizable faces attached to tuxedos and evening gowns began to drift in from the dinner. I ran across one former winner, dreamily improvising at an invisible keyboard while explaining how relieved he was to belong to what he called the great continuity of the prize; a well-known literary editor roamed the corridors, warily peering from right to left in the manner of a displaced meerkat; and Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, was huddled against a wall, unusually hushed by the seashell allure of her cellphone. Read More »

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