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on 13 November 2002
Quartet was Jean Rhys' first novel. It is the story of Marya, a British expatriate living in Paris in the early part of the 20th century. She is acutely self-conscious and yet utterly incapable of changing her life to achieve happiness. Her life revolves around two men: Stephan, her vague Polish husband and HJ, a married British ex-pat who is extremely social and active in the arts. Marya's life has been pared down to essentials: dining, drinking, reading and waiting for her husband to return. When she finds Stephan has been unexpectedly arrested her attachment to him is disturbed. Craving affection and financial security, she desperately attempts to discover why Stephan has been arrested and how she can stay in contact with him. However, she quickly takes up with HJ and his wife, Lois. Her emotions become dangerously tangled between the two. Meandering through defeat after defeat entirely unsatisfied and pining for the money to pay for her rent and a glass of brandy, she ultimately has to face the consequences of her love affair. Marya is vaguely dissatisfied and compulsively tragic. In her life which closely parallels Rhys' own, she finds no remission for the terribly existential fact of life.
In this novel Rhys subtly satirizes her affair with Ford Madox Ford and the life she led with him in Paris. This time of great artistic innovation is reduced to the bare facts of the debased livelihood of the expatriates: their drinking and intertwining sexual affairs. Rhys is unremittingly spare in her emotional honesty. Her prose are hollowed out just as the main character's personality is hollowed out. There is nothing tender about this fictitious recreating. It is brutal, just as Rhys' vision of life. Emotions seep out in sporadic bursts and the rest is contemptuously smoking a cigarette and watching passers by. But the gaze of Marya's is incredibly telling. Her feelings are projected outward onto the people surrounding her. A man or woman witnessed walking by or sitting on the opposite side of a café will inhabit the emotions Marya does not allow to pool inside her. In this way, Rhys fiction is a strong precursor to Alain Robbe-Grillet's because of the intensely violent subjectivity of the character's perception of the world. The solemn nature of novel evokes powerful feelings of sympathy and sorrow.
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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]
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'Quartet' was Jean Rhys' first full-length novel, originally published in 1928, following on from her collection of stories 'The Left Bank' and, like most of Rhys' writing, is strongly auto-biographical. Set in Paris during the 1920s, the heroine of our story is Marya, a young English woman in her late twenties, who is married to Stephan, a Polish exile and 'commissionaire d'objects d'art'. Stephan, who does most of his business in cafes, tells Marya that he acts as an intermediary between Frenchmen who wish to sell, and foreigners who wish to buy, but when he is arrested and imprisoned for theft, Marya realizes that despite Stephan being a gentle and expert lover, her initial impression of him as a secretive and unreliable liar, was not very far from the truth. Left on her own, without money or any real friends, Marya, in a 'beautiful muddle' resorts to selling her dresses to the formidable Madame Hautchamp, the patronne of the cheap hotel she and Stephan have been staying in, but Marya soon realizes that she will need to do more than sell a few clothes to survive. Enter Hugh and Lois Heidler, a sophisticated and older English couple, who seem to take pity on the attractive and wide-eyed Marya, and offer to take her under their wing. However, their offer is not an entirely altruistic one, and as Marya becomes caught up in the complex life of the Heidlers, she finds her sense of reality diminishing, but can she find a way out?

Based on the author's relationship with Ford Madox Ford, and rich in the atmosphere of a decadent Paris, with its cafes and bars, and with some evocative descriptions of Montparnasse on the Left Bank, with its narrow streets full of 'shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat shops... and gaily painted ladies', this debut novel makes for involving and enjoyable, if poignant, reading. Jean Rhys is widely acknowledged as a writer ahead of her time, and she was a brave author who tackled themes that others might have avoided or merely alluded to; she was, in addition, unafraid to use her own life experiences to inform her writing, which accounts for the feeling of authenticity in her work. Although as a debut novel, this book does not have the perspicacity of her later work, and the ending is not entirely satisfying, it is an absorbing, sometimes disturbing account of a young woman's struggle to survive in difficult circumstances, and is a very worthwhile read. And if you do read and enjoy this book, then do try: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (Penguin Modern Classics) which I think is even better. Recommended.

4 Stars.
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on 8 April 2012
This book manages to be so many things at once. It has a classy, sophisticated surface and style that seems to mask the desperation and helplessness of the main character, Marya. Set in bohemian Paris in the 1920's, it is filled with images of smoking chorus girls, endless glasses of brandy in seedy bars, eating in restaurants every night and people living in hotels. I loved that aspect of the text as it really evokes the time perfectly and subtly.

However, what is even more striking about this text is the depiction of this world as a dangerous and dark time to be a woman without money or family. You are isolated from the community if you do anything considered to be improper, yet how can you behave properly and make any money? Marya's husband is an enigma from the start, and seems to be untrustworthy and ruthless judging by an early story he tells about Napolean's sword. When he is imprisoned, Marya is left absolutely destitute and to the mercy of a couple who take her in and impose upon her what they believe is an acceptable way to act, revealing the cruelty that underpinned the 1920's French society.

It is also a feminist novel, showing the helplessness, and perceived helplessness, of women in Marya's situation, of whom there were thousands. Poor and without connections, they could be used by the wealthy for their own pleasure, or by men for other pleasures, without any way to protect themselves. Then, if they did act in a way deemed 'unseemly' they were extradited from society and snubbed by anyone who might be able to help them. So what can they do? Become prostitutes? Marya, who finds herself in a similar situation, feels desperately unhappy and depressed, yet can tell no-one of her troubles due to societal convention. It has been argues many times that there is an element of autobiography here, as Jean Rhys and Ford Maddox Ford were said to have had a similar arrangement, but who knows where art ends and reality begins? It is just a great novel and leaves you with a lot to think about.
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'Quartet' was Jean Rhys' first full-length novel, originally published in 1928, following on from her collection of stories 'The Left Bank' and, like most of Rhys' writing, is strongly auto-biographical. Set in Paris during the 1920s, the heroine of our story is Marya, a young English woman in her late twenties, who is married to Stephan, a Polish exile and 'commissionaire d'objects d'art'. Stephan, who does most of his business in cafes, tells Marya that he acts as an intermediary between Frenchmen who wish to sell, and foreigners who wish to buy, but when he is arrested and imprisoned for theft, Marya realizes that despite Stephan being a gentle and expert lover, her initial impression of him as a secretive and unreliable liar, was not very far from the truth. Left on her own, without money or any real friends, Marya, in a 'beautiful muddle' resorts to selling her dresses to the formidable Madame Hautchamp, the patronne of the cheap hotel she and Stephan have been staying in, but Marya soon realizes that she will need to do more than sell a few clothes to survive. Enter Hugh and Lois Heidler, a sophisticated and older English couple, who seem to take pity on the attractive and wide-eyed Marya, and offer to take her under their wing. However, their offer is not an entirely altruistic one, and as Marya becomes caught up in the complex life of the Heidlers, she finds her sense of reality diminishing, but can she find a way out?

Based on the author's relationship with Ford Madox Ford, and rich in the atmosphere of a decadent Paris, with its cafes and bars, and with some evocative descriptions of Montparnasse on the Left Bank, with its narrow streets full of 'shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat shops... and gaily painted ladies', this debut novel makes for involving and enjoyable, if poignant, reading. Jean Rhys is widely acknowledged as a writer ahead of her time, and she was a brave author who tackled themes that others might have avoided or merely alluded to; she was, in addition, unafraid to use her own life experiences to inform her writing, which accounts for the feeling of authenticity in her work. Although as a debut novel, this book does not have the perspicacity of her later work, and the ending is not entirely satisfying, it is an absorbing, sometimes disturbing account of a young woman's struggle to survive in difficult circumstances, and is a very worthwhile read. And if you do read and enjoy this book, then do try: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (Penguin Modern Classics) which I think is even better. Recommended.

4 Stars.

Please Note: I have two copies of this novel - the American Norton edition and the Penguin edition. Although the American edition is very attractively presented, the Penguin edition Quartet (Penguin Modern Classics) has an interesting and helpful introduction, which you may find useful if you do not know the author's work.
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My first Jean Rhys' book was Wide Sargasso Sea, set in the Caribbean and ending in England. I was duly impressed. Therefore, even though the ground has already been fairly well-plowed, that is, expatriates in Paris in the `20's, I decided to try another of her works, also, supposedly, largely autobiographical.

Marya Zelli, a young Englishwoman, of a "chorus line" background is doing her own version of "down and out" in Paris when she decides that a marriage to a Polish émigré might be both prudent and useful, though passionless. He is a "wheeler-dealer" sort; she refuses to ask the relevant questions, which are answered for her when he is carted off to jail. Again, without resources, she is an easy "mark" for an established English couple, he of licentious inclinations (quelle surprise?), but what is a bit surprising is the facilitating attitude of his wife. And Marya finds herself a pawn in their game.

The novel is tightly written, fast-paced, with the twists and turns of a mystery novel. As an example of Rhys' prose, consider this description of a room in the Hotel du Bosphore which looked down on Montparnasse station: "An atmosphere of departed and ephemeral loves hung about the bedroom like stale scent, for the hotel was one of unlimited hospitality...the wallpaper was vaguely erotic-huge and fantastically shaped mauve, green and yellow flowers sprawling on a black ground...It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession of petites femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir vivre and all the rest of it."

When Zelli's husband finishes his term in prison, and returns to his wife, the novel's pace quickens to its somewhat surprising climax. Sure, maybe it was just me, but the bleak lives of these dysfunctional people, without any redeeming graces, eventually grated enough that I was glad the short novel was finally over. Not for the fun-read, or inspirational crowd. 4-stars.
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on 31 August 2015
It's a pity Penguin couldn't be bothered to proof read the text of this book properly: there are quite a few literals, despite the fact that it's been around for ninety years. Mind you, it doesn't feel like a ninety-year-old novel, it reads like the very best of modern chick-lit, similar in theme to some of Rhys's later works, the best of which is `Good Morning, Midnight'.
`Quartet' though is written in the third person rather than the first, and as such is a bit less involving, less focussed: we get the story through the eyes of the main character most of the time, but occasionally it shifts to someone else.
There's no real plot as such, just a kind of snapshot of a sad life; a young British woman adrift in 1920s Paris, unsure where she belongs, marries a rogue who soon ends up in prison, penniless, becomes involved with another man, drinks to shut out the misery ... all told with beautiful sparse prose and totally convincing realism, no doubt because, like all her work, this is very much an autobiographical story.
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on 27 July 2013
When I was younger this was one of those books I wanted to read. But had forgotten all about it. Recently television has been bringing out dramtised versions of this era. That is why I bought and read it.
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on 6 June 2001
A 20's modernist novel which could be set in our days. Couldn't put it down until I read all of it. A book which contains powerful characters and a (quite) surprising ending. I recommend it to readers who like psychological insight into post WWI attitudes.
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VINE VOICEon 28 September 2012
I was shocked by this Penguin Classic. Not by the description of life in 1920s Paris but by the whopping £12.99 price tag. It's just a standard, slim paperback! Perhaps I am out of touch.

As for the novel itself, the evocation of Paris bohemian life as experienced by a young English woman is wonderful. However, I lost interest when the heroine is seduced by a married friend in what is the major plot point. A married man wanting an affair? I think she was the only one surprised.
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