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FICTION : THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES by Jean Rhys; introduction by Diana Athill (Norton: $19.95; 374 pp.).

March 08, 1987|Carolyn Wakeman

The hauntingly autobiographical short stories of Jean Rhys create a compelling self-portrait. Born and reared in the Caribbean, she was sent back to England, the idealized setting of her adolescent fantasies, only to be plunged into the intimidating and inhospitable world of Cambridge's Perse School, "where the sky was the color of no hope." Treated as a colonial, an outsider, and sharply disillusioned, she drifted, as do her characters, from an acting school and temporary work in a chorus line to a procession of Bloomsbury bed-sitting rooms, Montparnasse cafes and wartime Viennese hotels, resigned increasingly to a journey without destination. Momentary encounters with men kindle brief sparks of hope, flurries of preparation, but later give way to disappointment, renewed loneliness and an eroding sense of defeat.

Weakness, vulnerability, failure, so authentically detailed, are leavened, and at moments all but erased, by the resolve to round the next corner and get on with the task at hand. "I'm destroying my feminine charm," remarks one character decisively as she tears up an elegant evening suit; "I thought I'd make a nice quick clean job of it." Confides another, "I felt regret when it came to taking off my lovely pink chemise, but I could still think: Some other night perhaps, another sort of man." Few of Rhys' Englishwomen possess the self-assurance of Estelle, "the French girl who . . . walked the tightrope so beautifully, not even knowing she was walking it." But still they savor life's small pleasures, indulgences and moments of defiance--a stubborn beam of yellow sunshine, taffeta dresses no longer worn, a prisoner's unquenchable song--and find in the memory of times past a way to alleviate the present grayness.

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