Top critical review
A melancholy story told beautifully
on 7 April 2017
‘Quartet’ is the first, slim, novel by ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ author Jean Rhys. Published in 1928 it is its very different from its famous older sister which was not published until 1968. Semi-autobiographical, ‘Quartet’ tells the story of Marya, marooned without money in Paris after her chancer husband Stephan is jailed for theft. It is a novel about loneliness and vulnerability and where that can lead.
Marya is taken under the wing of the English couple, the Heidlers. They are spoken of as a unit, he is referred to as HJ, his wife is Lois. It is Lois who persuades Marya to move into the spare bedroom at their studio. HJ, she tells Marya, likes to ‘help people.’ But as days pass, Marya is drawn into their emotional and sexual influence. Not an accurate judge of character, Marya is let down but seems incapable of getting away. Visits to her husband in prison are fleeting and unsatisfactory, husband and wife face their own dilemmas and deal with them alone.
This is a melancholy story told beautifully. Marya is intelligent but weak, recognising she is trapped but unable, or unwilling, to extricate herself. ‘You see, I’m afraid the trouble with me is that I’m not hard enough. I’m a soft, thin-skinned sort of person and I’ve been frightened to death these last days.’ She tells her own story but there is often an observational feel almost as if she is standing to the side, commentating about someone playing herself. Some acute observations of other people are really just her transferring her own condition, her own sensibilities onto someone else.
I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition with an excellent introduction by Katie Owen, which sets this novel in the context of Rhys’ bibliography.
[Borrowed from my local library]