Nearly 40 years after her death, Caribbean-British writer Jean Rhys made her presence felt in Paris during an international conference devoted to her work, held at the famous Sorbonne university.
|Phillips reads from his novel about Rhys.|
The aim of the June 21-23 meeting, titled “Transmission Lines”, was to bring the two “sides” of Rhys’ work together: the modernist / European one and the colonial / postcolonial / Caribbean one, said Kerry-Jane Wallart, a professor at La Sorbonne and a member of the organizing committee with her colleagues Juliana Lopoukhine and Frédéric Regard.
“The problem was that (A) scholars did not interact with the other team, which seemed a shame, as academese can petrify, and, conversely, can be much invigorated by new angles and concepts,” said Wallart. “And (B) that this produced an odd dichotomy between Wide Sargasso Sea and the rest of the work.”
Rhys is known for her minimalist, avant-garde style in early books such as Quartet (based on her affair with the writer Ford Maddox Ford in Paris and published in 1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. But her greatest acclaim came for Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 when she was in her mid-Seventies.
This “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre garnered her fame - after many had assumed her dead - and both scholars and readers developed an intense curiosity about a life that began in Dominica in 1890 and took Rhys from the Caribbean to England, with several stints in Paris. Along the way, she was a showgirl and a model, often facing poverty and depending on unreliable lovers.
Some scholars prefer to focus on her first body of work, while others see Wide Sargasso Sea as a “postcolonial” chef d’oeuvre, with the other novels in a different category.
“But Wide Sargasso Sea is also a modernist novel, and you find traces of an in-between / estranged / unstable other / postcolonial identity in all texts, including the letters and the autobiography,” Wallart wrote in a note about the conference. “That’s why it was important to get all sides talking.”
Although Paris features extensively in Rhys’ storytelling, “no one had ever organized something on her in France, which is a country where she lived and wrote”, said Wallart.
When the conference organizers issued an initial call for papers, they were “completely taken by surprise” at the response.
“The number of scholars answering the call for papers was much unexpected (for someone whose last texts date back to the 1960s). It might have seemed that everything had been said in the 1980s and early 1990s, but apparently Rhys insists (on attention),” Wallart said.
|Conference organizers J. Lopoukhine and K-J Wallart.|
“We see so much in her work about the migrant who can’t be read by the society around them,” said Helen Carr, a retired professor from Goldsmiths, University of London.
“The way some people look at migrants as non-humans, it seems to me that this is a moment when we need to re-read Jean Rhys in terms of what’s happening today and to realize how important her work has always been,” Carr added.
For researcher Floriane Reviron Piégay, Rhys made “coherent art out of a shapeless life”. Piégay discussed the many biographies of the writer, quoting the maxim that “you can never trust anyone blindly when it comes to telling someone else’s life”.
The biographies about Rhys in fact generated heated discussion, with the writer’s granddaughter Moerman declaring that many of their assertions were “screamingly inaccurate”.
|The conference logo: "Transmission Lines".|
Phillips, the conference’s guest speaker, read from his novel during the event, including at the renowned Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, telling listeners that he was not particularly “interested in facts” and had no desire to write a biography.
He said he thought that Rhys was “hugely underrated as a writer, particularly because she’s a woman”, and the novel seems an attempt to pay homage to someone whose work he admires.
“People are more interesting than facts,” said Phillips, who prefers Rhys’ early books to Wide Sargasso Sea.
Throughout the conference, Moerman for her part insisted on pointing out what she saw as nonfactual elements in different presentations. (She told SWAN that the conference wasn’t her “cup of tea” as there was “an awful lot of talking about people who’ve talked about Jean Rhys”).
|One of Rhys' early novels.|
“My not entirely unrelated interest is in the recurring critical classification of Rhys’ work in terms of either/or; black/white; creole/European; Caribbean/continental literary tradition; modernist/postcolonial," O’Callaghan wrote in her paper.
“Rhys and her work have been transferred from camp to camp over time, and the issue of where they belong shows no sign of being resolved,” she added, before examining how race has played a part in the debate. (Interestingly, there were no black scholars presenting papers at the conference.)
In the end, the divide on Rhys’ work may matter little to readers and to students themselves.
“When I read Wide Sargasso Sea, I never thought about Jean Rhys’ race,” a former student told O’Callaghan.
“What moved her instead”, according to O’Callaghan, “was the ‘pervasive unbelonging that is experienced by many different kinds of people in the Caribbean’.” - SWAN