THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES By Jean Rhys Norton. 403 pp. $19.95 By Linda Barrett Osborne
WHEN Ford Madox Ford wrote a preface to Jean Rhys' sketches of life in Paris, The Left Bank, in 1927, he commented on her "singular instinct for form" and on her "terrific -- an almost lurid! -- passion for stating the case of the underdog." Rhys went on to publish four novels and, after a gap of 27 years, a fifth, in which she used these qualities to expose the misery, bitterness and vulnerability of a series of heroines wounded and betrayed by men. Two collections of stories followed, in 1968 and 1976, set in an earlier time. Again, they explore that terrain of loss and loneliness, of cheap cafe's, dilapidated, last-stop houses, and drab and soulless bedsitters that Rhys has made her own.
Now, seven years after her death, this collection gathers together all 36 of her stories, from the 1927, 1968 and 1976 collections, plus three newly published in book form. The result, as Ford suggested 60 years ago, is singular, an intense and disturbing reading experience. Formally, they are exquisite, whether very short sketches vivid with sentiment or pathos or longer pieces, rarely more than 20 pages, leading skillfully to the inescapable demonstration that the world regards indifferently, even cruelly, those who have fallen from luck or have breached convention. The passion of the stories derives from Rhys' empathy with her suffering characters, endowed with dignity even in their desperate isolation.
Her protagonists are young and old women and, very occasionally, men, but they all share the sense of being violently cut off from the ordinary concerns and companionship of living. In "I Spy a Stranger," for example, a woman who has returned to England after a long stay in Europe notes in her journal, "First impressions . . . An unforgiving sky. A mechanical quality about everything and everybody which I found frightening. When I bought a ticket fo the Tube, got on to a bus, went into a shop, I felt like a cog in a machine in contact with others, not like one human being associating with other human beings. The feeling that I had been drawn into a mechanism which intended to destroy me became an obsession." Like many of Rhys' characters, this woman is almost paranoid in her aversion to the people around her, who are stifling, suspicious, vindictive. They persecute her until she is eventually sent to a sanatorium because she has no place else to go. A last episode of violence precedes a calm detachment in the face of her fate. This pattern repeats itself in several of the stories set in England.
Rhys sets her stories in the places where she lived and fragments of her experiences frequently surface. The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a West Indian mother, she grew up on the island of Dominica. She came to England at 16, attended drama school and worked as a chorus girl, then lived for many years in Paris and, for a time, in Vienna. She spent the later part of her life in western England.
THE AGES OF her protagonists correspond to her age in each location. In "Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose," for example, a 12-year-old West Indian girl absorbs stories of lust and love from a retired captain and decides, when he leaves the islands, that she must be wicked -- why else would she listen? -- thus abandoning dreams of domestic bliss for a risque' future. In "Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers," a girl mourns the death of an eccentric Englishman who settled an isolated forest estate with his troublesome wife, arousing mistrust in the community.
These West Indian stories all deal with the themes of loneliness and cruelty, and they contain some of Rhys' most lyrical, melancholy passages. In "Temps Perdu," the narrator recalls, from a stolid, unfriendly English house, a Dominican estate of long ago: "The night . . . is full of things chirping and fluttering. The fireflies are out -- they call them labelles . . . it is at night that you know old fears, old hopes, that you know unhappiness . . . But when you have drunk a good tot of rum nothing dismays you . . . then you understand everything -- the sun, the flamboyance . . . the song about the white cedar trees . . . 'Why do the flowers last only a day?' "
The Paris stories are often the briefest, attempts to capture the atmosphere of Montparnasse, to describe a need for love and beauty. In "Illusion," an otherwise sensible Englishwoman keeps flamboyant dresses hidden in her closet. "In the rue de l'Arrive'e," a poor Frenchman is kind to a broke and despairing Englishwoman who concludes, "only the hopeless are starkly sincere and . . . only the unhappy can either give or take sympathy -- even some of the bitter and dangerous voluptuousness of misery."
"Vienne" portrays a young wife (Rhys was married three times) enjoying a wealthy life and observing the love affairs of her companions, until her husband's business failures force them to flee through central Europe towards an almost certain future of shabbiness. The tone is gay, but haunted by nostalgia and irony, and telling images trace their decline. Vienna is "hot sun, my black frock, a hat with roses, music, lots of music," but the road to Prague is "flat, grey and menacing," and the walls of their hotel "covered with lurid pictures of Austrian soldiers dragging hapless Czechoslovakians into captivity." Beauty is admired but perishable in these stories, except as a poignant memory.
The narrator of "Vienne" arrives back in England where "Temps Perdu" continues her story. England seems to represent for Rhys the untimate grayness against which her characters struggle to be themselves. Even the young ones, like the adolescent in "Overture and Beginners Please" who leaves the West Indies for a Cambridge boarding school, feel "the sky was the colour of no hope . . . Despair, grey-yellow like their sky." The older protagonists in the English stories are ridiculed and discarded by their neighbors, like Miss Veney in the powerful "Sleep It Off Lady," for whom a rat-infested shed becomes a metaphor for the fear and loneliness of aging in a hostile world.
Reading such stories as a group, so remarkably consistent in tone and theme, can be overwhelming. Yet it is precisely this intense immersion in experience that is the essence of Rhys' art. The force of her stories lies in the fusion of elegant prose with an uncanny penetration into the darker reaches of the soul. :: Linda Barrett Osborne is the author of "The Song of the Harp."