Thursday, January 18, 2007

# 94 Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

About ten pages into Wide Sargasso Sea, the 1966 novel by Jean Rhys, the centathlete realized he could literally hear the narrator, because he’d heard the pacing, tone and subject matter before—in the 1992 movie The Lover.

Jeanne Moreau, the French actress and singer, distinctively narrated off-camera as the elder personage of the Young Girl decades after the events on screen, channeling the “morning-after voice” of Marguerite Duras, who wrote the 1984 novel, L’Amant, on which the movie is based, about her childhood in Vietnam.

Some critics took issue with The Lover’s indisputably erotic emphasis through its exhibition of the prolific Hong Kong actor,
Tony Leung, and the exquisitely photogenic nymphet, Jane March, an 18 year-old English model with no prior acting experience. Roger Ebert, who liked the movie less than the centathlete did, thought it offered little more than “soft-core sensuality,” and he added:

“I wanted to know more. I believe true eroticism resides in the mind; what happens between bodies is more or less the same, but what it means to the occupants of those bodies is another question.”
At first blush, the complaint seems curious coming from an unblushing former B-movie practitioner like Ebert, who wrote the screenplay for the bawdy 1969 satire,
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, directed by skin-flick grandmaster Russ Meyer. His call for “serious” character development is a familiar refrain of dramatic and literature criticism, one the centathlete has never shared.

The centathlete has never “wanted to know more” about a book or film’s dramatis personae. Vividness or strangeness of environment, originality and intricacy of technique, expansiveness of perspective, and dynamism of plot all attract him more than the fullness of the characters. There are plenty—6.6 billion—of people; the centathlete doesn’t hinge his indulgence in a work of art on the envisioning of characters as virtual human reference-points. This seems a matter of taste and personality, though, and the way you interact or want to interact with books and with people may differ.

We could tear down many of the greatest stories ever told, such as those in the Old and New Testaments, or epics such as The Odyssey or Beowulf, or novels such as Animal Farm and Brave New World (both in the Top 100 list), for giving their heroes little inner depth. Furthermore, most of children’s literature and genre (mystery, sci-fi, etc.) fiction lacks “realistic” psychological complexity. Scrolling down beloved entries in the AFI’s greatest 100 movies (Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Some Like It Hot, etc.) suggests that this particular critical demand is applied rather selectively.

Still, many novelists themselves obey the impulse to know more, to great success. Gregory Maguire took The Wizard of Oz and wrote the 1995 novel, Wicked, a backstory-prequel based on Glinda's nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West. He said in
an interview:
“…I did think that because it is a familiar subject and people have a preconception they might be intrigued to follow and see whether their preconceptions hold any water. That's what I was intrigued in, too. They might feel the same as I do. Oh, the Wicked Witch of the West. Gee, we don't know much about her, do we? She wears black and she's kind of ugly; she doesn't seem to take care of her skin very well; but she's still interested in those ruby slippers. Why? There's a complication there. What is it? She always tells the truth. In the movie, the Wicked Witch might be scary, but she never lies.”
Three decades before Maguire, Jean Rhys complicated a one-dimensional witch. She took the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontё’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, and wrote a backstory-prequel that became Wide Sargasso Sea, as she
explained:

“When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester's first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I'd write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I'd try to write her a life.”
Like Bertha Mason, Rhys was a Creole, defined for her as a white European from the West Indies, having been born in 1890 in
Dominica, where she lived until she was 16. Her novel’s title refers to the seaweed-matted Sargasso Sea and the symbolic distance between the cultures on its opposite sides.

After going to school in England and working as a chorus girl, Rhys lived a bohemian life in Paris, where she wrote journals that were given to the novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged and taught her to write novels. In the mid-1920’s the two had an
affair while Rhys’s husband did prison time for embezzlement, making them—perhaps—the only amorously linked novelists of the Top 100 list. Each donned a pseudonym: Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams; Ford was born Ford Hermann Hueffer.

Rhys was an alcoholic prone to depression for much of her life, as was Duras (whose surname is also pseudonymal, chosen in honor of a town where the author’s father lived; she was born Marguerite Donnadieu). Their late, respective books, Wide Sargasso Sea (published when Rhys was 76) and L’Amant (published when Duras was 70) display an astonishing number of parallels; each could be described as the semi-autobiographical study of a white girl’s coming of age in a decaying, fraught colonial setting, featuring a brittle, unmaternal mother, a Catholic girls school, cultural clashes, and contentious conjugal negotiations that intertwine passion and wealth.

There’s a similarity of style too. Rhys’s writing has been
called “stunningly sensual and mellifluous yet pared-down and immediate.” Her unsentimental minimalism, a firm foundation for the hysteria and tragic conflagrations she depicts, incorporates physical curiosities such as a glacis, a glass-covered veranda, and frangipani, a flower exotic in appearance and name. (The repeated references to tropical flora calls to mind the bougainvillea that grows everywhere in southern Mexico in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, as well as the evocative wisteria that populates William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.)

Duras has been
described as a minimalist who, “…talks about the melancholy of love in a style so simple, so pure, so raw too, that you are marked by it for ever.” She was identified with the French literary movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Le Nouveau Roman (The New Novel), characterized by:

“…an austere narrative tone which often eschews metaphor and simile in favor of precise physical descriptions, a heightened sense of ambiguity with regards to point of view, radical disjunctions of time and space, and self-reflexive commentary on the processes of literary composition.”
Her screenplay for 1959’s
Hiroshima Mon Amour, so evident through the voice-overs, is fascinating and unforgettable. The film moves back and forth between the heroine’s life during World War II in France and 14 years later during a brief stay in Japan. Cinematic montage juxtaposes Nevers and Hiroshima, two small river-bordering cities that were and are nondescript relative to their respective countries’ capitals and other major metropolises.

Last year the centathlete toured western Burgundy with his future fiancée, at one point embarking on a canoe trip from Nevers down the Loire, ending at its confluence with the Allier. A persistent, robust headwind tripled the envisioned effort, doubled the allocated time, and halved the pleasure. On the return ride the van was shared with a group of local schoolchildren (maybe third-graders) who had also been paddling but experienced only fun, in light of their collective good humor. Over and over they yelped “Bus!” while giggling, indicating that they had given it a new meaning only they shared. Bus! Bus!

The centathlete also biked around the area, but not as demonstrably care-free as the character of She in Hiroshima Mon Amour first biked through Nevers, nor anywhere near as rigorously as She did ultimately, riding all the way to Paris (161 miles!) in two days (the terrain is flat, as seen by train, but still…).

Duras wrote and directed many other movies in addition to her novels, developing a multimedia perspective that Jean Rhys, 24 years her elder, never uploaded. If we take this sensibility—the emphasis on sensory perception; the flat, philosophizing commentary—and subtract a novelist’s skill and a confessor’s anguish, we get… the eye and voice of Terence Malick, the American director/screenwriter.

Before the 2005 release of Malick’s
The New World, Hwanhee Lee wrote that the director’s first three films:

“…are concerned with bringing cinema back to its humble origins, of presenting unmediated and uninterpreted reality, before its natures have split into different theoretical positions and approaches, such as the dichotomy between realism and expressionism, fiction and documentary, and the division of cinema into various genres and movements. Rather than merely paying homage to silent cinema, it appears to be a certain fundamental or primitive condition of cinema that he seeks, for most silent films are neither primitive, unmediated, nor uninterpreted presentations of reality.”
Interesting, to say the least, that Lee failed to mention Alain Resnais, the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour, as an obvious
influence on Malick…

Q'Orianka Kilcher, another exquisitely photogenic nymphet, and 14 when she was cast as Pocahontas in The New World, provided a more accessible, direct assessment of Malick, who hasn’t given an interview in more than 30 years:

“He was a really wonderful director. He allowed all the actors to fully immerse themselves in their characters and to bring the characters to life in their own way. He was a very spirit-of-the-moment kind of director. If he saw the wind blowing in the grass a certain way, he suddenly started filming it…We stayed pretty close to the script except that almost all the dialogue was cut out…”
Like Duras and Rhys, Malick
moved to France as an adult. There must have been something in le vin that spawned their mutually “elliptical” and “obscure” style.

Sipping a
Pouilly Fumé (produced a leisurely bike-ride beside the Loire north of Nevers), we’re not surprised to recognize that The New World, like Wide Sargasso Sea, portrays a young girl’s coming of age against a combative backdrop of colonialism, or that Pocahontas, like Annette Cosway (Rhys’s name for Brontё’s Bertha Mason), is fatefully taken to England by her older husband by boat…

But not by bike of course. And not by…Bus!


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