1. Before reading Quartet
I only knew one of Rhys's novels: Wide Sargasso Sea
, her last big work. Quartet
, published nearly forty years earlier, is her first, already featuring some of the recurring themes of her writing, typical reactions and reflections of her characters, a peculiar type of heroine and - most importantly, perhaps - classification of people into two categories: the sensitive, obsessing victims and the cruel, thoughtless survivors (this changes in Wide Sargasso Sea
, to some extent.)
Much has been said about the composite heroine of Rhys's writing - seemingly, her early novels all feature one woman and her ups and downs (mostly downs) in the interwar underworld. She is weak - pretty, but losing her looks fast in adverse circumstances, petted or dumped by men, sensuous and weak-willed, dependent on men for emotional and financial sustenance, and on alcohol for forgetfulness when things go bad. (I know this is rather a remote connection, but somehow I couldn't get rid of the thought that Marya from Quartet
is poor man's (or woman's) Madame Olenska, a tragic figure to whom things simply happen.)
Both Marya and Antoinette of Wide Sargasso Sea
are weak, languid, sensuous and doe-eyed - yet, pushed to the very edge of their resistance, they contemplate - or are capable of - violence:
'One of these days just when she's thought of something clever to say about me for her friends to snigger at, just when she's opening her mouth to say it, I'll smash a wine-bottle in her face.' Quartet
She smashed another bottle against the wall and stood with the broken glass in her hand and murder in her eyes. Wide Sargasso Sea
2. Marya seems to be separated from the world of the survivors, 'hard' men and women, by her sensitivity- - or their lack thereof:
There was a young fox in the cage at the end of the zoo - a cage perhaps three yards long. Up and down it ran, up and down, and Marya imagined that each time it turned it did so with a certain hopefulness, as if it thought that escape was possible. Then, of course, there were the bars. It would strike its nose, turn and run again. Up and down, up and down, ceaselessly. A horrible sight, really.
'Sweet thing,' said Miss Nicolson.
3. Rhys wrote about intoxication, obsession, and depression the way other writers write about food, art, and sex. She knew, intimately, how alcohol works. Marya drinks to be able to stop thinking obsessively about the man he loves, or the bleak future that awaits her with no money to support herself. Offended and broken, she thinks:
'I must get drunk tonight. I must get so drunk that I can't walk, so drunk that I can't see.'
4. Marya is a creature of the city; sent to Cannes - 'to recuperate' ater an affair - she writes to her lover:
'I am horribly unhappy. I'm simply going mad here. ...I'm being tormented...'
When, very drunk, again, she interprets the sounds of the sea as the sounds of the forest, this is a sign of her mental decay (and a foreshadowing of the stifling, lush greenery of Wide Sargasso Sea
The croaking of frogs came in through the open window and, very faintly, the sound of the sea. Then it was not the sound of the sea, but of trees in a gale. Dark trees growing close together with thick creepers which hung down from the branches like snakes.
5. The edition I read - Penguin Classics - has a very informative introduction by Katie Owen, which is a good key to the body of Rhys's work, as it mentions some of the themes and imagery she frequently relied on - abysses and precipices, the victim and the victor, caged animals, masks.