Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Isn’t There - #23

STORY: "Who Knows What's Up in the Attic?" by Jean Rhys


BASICALLY: An older English woman receives an unexpected visit from a handsome Dutch acquaintance and for a little while, feels something like hope. Then the relationship breaks apart--or she sees it for what it really is--and the world closes in on her again. Like most Rhys stories, the whole thing is subtle, despairing, and at least partially autobiographical.

If you are the kind of person who wants her characters described and their motivations explained and the action to be grandiose, then Jean Rhys is not for you. As for me, I think she's marvelous. (And if you're a writer, you should read her anyway, just to see how she does what she does.)

Subtlety is Rhys's game. She wields spare dialogue to create emotional flux, but she never spells anything out. In this exchange, for example, the unnamed female protagonist is getting to know a slight acquaintance, a Dutchman named Jan, who has come for an unexpected visit. 

"You know," he said, "I admire my uncle. When I was quite a little boy and my mother died he really brought me up. That was in Indonesia. My father is an artist. I have some pictures of his that I like very much and I like him. But he is too – too soft. That is not a good thing."

"I suppose not."

"My uncle is not so." He took a case from his pocket and handed her a small photograph. "That is my uncle."

The uncle looked a bit on the sly side to her.

"I see what you mean," she said.

"And this is my father."

"You are like him."

"Yes I know. And I am fond of him. I feel affection for him but he is not – how do you say – forcible enough."

What actually happens during this dialogue? Not much. On the surface, we learn a little bit about the man from Holland, and that's about it. But there's still a tautness between the short lines that creates tension. The woman tells him he's like his father (or looks like him) just after Jan disparages his father as "soft." She thinks of the uncle as looking "sly," a highly specific term that nonetheless has a certain ambiguity—but she doesn't say anything about her thoughts to Jan. Ideas are being presented, displayed, admired; Jan and the protagonist are engaged in some kind of dance. And then a little later, this: 
At the door he turned. "We recognized each other, didn't we?"

She didn't answer. She thought: yes, I recognized you almost at once. But I never imagined that you recognized me.

The consciousness Rhys creates is composed almost entirely of incompletion, of things asserted only in thought or only in speech but never in both—always there's a silent gulf between the two. It is only natural, then, that the characters in Rhys's story should also break apart as they become aware of the divide that looms between them.


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