Wednesday, March 16, 2011
905. Quartet by Jean Rhys
Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
Edition: Penguin 20th Century Classics 1973
When Marya Zelli's husband, Stephan, a Polish art smuggler, is arrested, Marya is invited to move in with Heidler, a middle-aged and seemingly respectable art dealer, and his wife Lois. But life with the Heidler's is not to be refuge she expects; Heidler makes Marya his mistress with the connivance of his wife, and the three of them live, unhappily, together. On his release from prison, Stephan finds out about the affair and rejects Marya, as does Heidler who will not share Marya with another.
Quartet had a really strong first chapter that set the scene for the story really well:
• What does Miss de Solla start to say about the Heidler s and doesn't finish? (p10)
• What sort of person is a man who lays his hand on the knee of a woman he barely knows? (p13)
• What sort of relationship do the Heidlers have? (p13)
One good thing about reading is how it holds up a mirror to your preconceived ideas and prejudices. One very definite prejudice I had reflected back to me is the contrast between my dislike of formulaic, happily ever after Hollywood movies and my laziness when it comes to understanding books. But I had to work with Quartet: I read the novel twice and floundered; I researched the plot so I could follow the sequence of events and that helped; and then I read a couple of reviews ... and only after reading and rereading the reviews could I get closer to understanding the constant thread of women’s submission to, and dependence on, men that runs throughout the story. And it's the level of dependence by women (both Marya and Iris), the damage it creates and their unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for themselves that really perplexes me.
When I first read the novel I thought Marya’s life with Stephan was a comfortable one. Stephan petted and loved her, and offered her what she wanted: "He told her that her arms were too thin, that she had a Slav type and a pretty silhouette, that if she were happy and petted she would become charming. Happy, petted, charming - these are magical words. And the man knew what he was talking aobut, Marya could see that." (p16) But I only understood later how the life she enjoyed through her passivity, recklessness and laziness were dangerous; she surrendered her right to understand her partner and play a role in her destiny with terrible results; being left destitute and without support when Stephan is imprisoned. Her gilded cage is, in reality, a mirage.
True to form, however, Marya turns to another man, Heidler, despite not loving or even liking him. And he's not the “prince” Stephan was: "[Stephan was]... a very gentle and expert lover. She was the petted, cherished child, the desired mistress, the worshipped, perfumed goddess. She was all these things toStephan - or so he made her believe. Marya hadn't known that a man could be as nice as all that to a woman - so gentle in little ways." (p20)
But put quite simply ... Heidler was a pig! They'd barely met when she found his "... huge hand lay possessively, heavy as lead, on her knee." (p13) And his seduction of Marya, if you could call it a seduction, is brutal; only a man sure of himself could tell the woman he wants to sleep with that his wife has "... gone away to leave us together ...", and that his wife knows (p56), and that he's making his move on her before someone else gets in first: "I've been watching you; I watched you tonight and now I know that somebody else will get you if I don't. You're that sort." (p57)
And it's not that Marya loves him or can't see what he's like. On more than one occasion Marya says Heidler is not handsome, a good lover or nice. She says to him: “You’re abominably rude and unkind and unfair. And you’re stupid in a lot of ways. Too stupid to realize how unfair you are.” (p72) She also knows that she should leave him but it’s clear as you read that that won’t happen: “I ought to clear out.’ But when she thought of an existence without Heidler her heart turned over in her side and she felt sick.” (p89). Sick because she fears losing him or sick because a life without the safety net of a man seems unthinkable? The answer seems obvious.
Marya’s acceptance of the Heidler’s offer to live with them makes her dependent on the husband and wife in a way she never was with Stephan; not only is she dependent on them for financial support but she becomes part of the struggle between them as Lois submits to Heidler ( Lois says: "I give him what he wants until his mood changes. I found out long ago that that was the only way to manage him." (p52)), but in return she seeks power over her husband in response to his humiliation of her with other women. I think it’s pretty clear that Lois reluctantly assists Heidler with his philandering and this eats at her: (she hids behind "... a drooping felt hat which entirely hid the upper part of her face" (p12), she looks out on the workd through suspicious almost deadened eyes (p12), and the repeated references to Marya that she must keep their living arrangements a secret (Heidler tells Marya that: "Of course, she'll [Lois] be furious if anybody knows." (p70)). But most damaging of all is her anger directed at Marya: she speaks badly of Marya when Heidler is absent but when he is present she is amiable towards her.
While women's inability to live their life without a man is understandable in a Psychology 101 sort of way (and I don't mean in a denigrating way because it happens all the time), what feels worse in the entire book is Marya’s inability to find a safe place away from the Heidlers. When the Heidler’s take Marya into their home she's imprisoned from the beinning: she's given: “a little room which smelt clean and cold. Striped gray and green curtains hung straightly over the long windows” (p44). But a bedroom should be a refuge, and it's clear that this will never be the case for Marya who cannot escape Heidler: “Your door is open because I come up every night and open it. Then I look at you and go away again”. (p57)
Bleak huh? I'm just glad it’s not my world.