The narrator of “Good Morning, Midnight” is a woman who has renamed herself Sasha and lives a desultory existence in a shabby little apartment in Paris. She spends the day going to cafes and bars, but must be careful which ones she chooses because some she’s not welcome in some anymore or feels too embarrassed to visit others again. Casual conversations with strangers at nearby tables often end in open sobbing or private tears in the lavatory. She appeals to friends in England for money and walks around in an expensive fur coat which is a remnant from a happier time. Disconsolate, lost in memories, contemplating suicide and paranoid that men want to take advantage of her, she drinks her evenings away or retreats into her apartment. The reader doesn’t know at first what’s brought her to this bleak existence and it seems equally mysterious to Sasha herself: “I am asking myself all the time what the devil I am doing here. All the time.” But over the course of the novel scenes from the past gradually emerge leading to a rough picture of how her life became so broken. This extremely dark eloquently written novel is a fascinating portrait of someone clinging to life by her nails and reveals a quietly desperate layer of society.
Experiencing Sasha’s account of her daily life it’s almost alarming how close the reader is drawn into her consciousness. Reality becomes subtly distorted so even inanimate objects like the room she lives in or the mirrors in public toilets speak to her and mock her. People seem wary of her realizing how tormented she is by her appearance. But she refutes that her sombre exterior adequately shows who she really is: “it isn't my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil on the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily?” She expresses how the way we present ourselves preened, adorned with stylish clothing and wearing smiles is the real artifice which hides internal strife. It becomes her mission to cover her grief through this method and it becomes a personal mission to get a chic haircut and buy a new hat. Having made herself presentable she meets and makes dates with a pair of Russians and a mysterious man named Rene. She’s also drawn further into memories of her past and an intense romance/marriage she had with a man named Enno. The disappointment, strife and grief accompanying these thoughts of the past flood her present leading her to reason “No, life is too sad; it’s quite impossible.”
As gloomy as Sasha’s life is there is a cruel humour which is threaded throughout the novel. Trips to the cinema make the drama of life seem bitterly ironic and lead her to fits of hysterical laughter. She recounts how hopeless she was in jobs, particularly working in a clothes shop. Her nervousness doesn’t allow her to speak up when she should and leaves her helpless to the mockery of her employer. Again she projects her feelings into inanimate objects even expressing jealousy about how beautifully presented and frightening a group of porcelain dolls in the shop are: “I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.” Gradually over the book I began feeling a sense of liberation in the narrator’s unrelenting bleakness and frustration over her beleaguered situation.
Sasha reasons that people’s optimism for the future despite life’s tragedies is based on a falsehood: “It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…” With a wry sense of humour, she feels it’s only through our capacity to forget or bury virulent emotional response that makes life bearable. However, she is someone who can’t bury or cover her loss because it keeps rising to the surface of her consciousness. There’s a strange comfort in knowing that private sorrow which can haunt you throughout the day is shared by someone else. Sasha also realizes she is not alone in her pain as she meets others whose lives have fallen into ruin or a woman named Lise who actually hopes for another war so that she might be killed.
The ending of this short, compact novel makes an interesting contrast to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Sasha cries “Yes” like Molly Bloom. However, instead of this being an affirmation and welcome of the various joys of life, Sasha’s “yes” invites degradation and destruction into the guarded personal space she’s created. Early on she states “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that's all any room is.” but after failing to meaningfully reconnect with the pleasures in life she invites those wolves inside. Because of the novel’s overwhelmingly solemn content, it’s probably not surprising that some people assumed Jean Rhys committed suicide after publishing “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939.
After a decade of steadily producing four novels and short stories, she withdrew from the public eye and didn’t publish anything else until more than twenty five years later. It was only in 1949 when a theatrical presentation of “Good Morning, Midnight” was created did someone manage to track Rhys down by placing a newspaper advertisement. This renewed interest in her writing reinvigorated Rhys to finally produce more work. It’s interesting to consider if this hadn’t occurred and “Good Morning, Midnight” remained as her final mostly-forgotten novel because the publication of Rhys’ final tremendous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” seems to have cemented a place for her in the literary canon. Yet “Good Morning, Midnight” is an extraordinary piece of modernist literature which artfully aligns the reader with the consciousness of a traumatized individual and powerfully deals with psychological issues in a revelatory style of writing. I’m grateful it wasn’t forgotten and it’s wonderful that a new Penguin Pockets edition has ensured that this fascinating novel is still read.
You can read an opening section from “Good Morning, Midnight” - www.pocketpenguins.com/good-morning-midnight
I’m delighted that Jessica Harrison, Senior Commissioning Editor for Penguin Classics, answered some questions I asked her about this exceptional novel.
What made you decide to include “Good Morning, Midnight” in the new Pocket Penguins series over her other novels such as “Wide Sargasso Sea” which is arguably her best known novel?
With this series, we wanted to shine a light on some of the books from the Classics list that we love but other readers might not have discovered yet. We also wanted to include a range of voices from different cultures and places. Many people have read Wide Sargasso Sea, but haven’t yet encountered any of Rhys’s other brilliant works, and Good Morning Midnight is a great place to go next.
After “Good Morning, Midnight” was first published in 1939 Jean Rhys didn’t publish another book until 1966. What might have led to such a gap in her literary output?
Rhys’s life was very difficult for many years. Having lived in Paris and moved in literary circles, she moved in 1939 with her husband to Devon, and drifted away from the publishing world. Over the next two decades, she suffered from health problems, her second husband died and then her third husband was imprisoned for fraud, which meant she followed him from prison to prison as he was moved around. It wasn’t until 1958 that she was rediscovered by the literary world. Diana Athill then became her editor, and was hugely important in encouraging her to complete Wide Sargasso Sea over a period of many years. By the time the book was published and became so famous, Rhys was an old woman.
Do you think of “Good Morning, Midnight” as continuation of Rhys’ first three novels or does it stand entirely on its own?
I think it’s definitely a continuation in many respects. Sophia Jansen is clearly another iteration of the heroines of the first three novels – the desperate, rootless woman Rhys returned to obsessively in her work. By this stage, though, Rhys was fully in control of her material and style, and able to render Sophia’s situation more vividly and acutely than ever before.
Rhys was conversant with other writers of her generation and she’s now loosely grouped among modernist writers of the early 20th century. What stylistic elements of “Good Morning, Midnight” group her in that category of literature and does the novel stand apart in any way?
For one thing, Rhys is a great writer of the city and of walking the city, like other modernists such as Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Richardson. Her focus on the subjective and psychological experience of her characters could also be seen as typically modernist. But she is always her own writer, and I doubt she herself would want to be grouped with any one movement or category. When you read anything by her – be it one of her short stories, her novels or her brilliant unfinished autobiography Smile Please – you immediately know you’re in Rhys-land and nowhere else: a world of shabby hotel rooms, unsuitable love affairs, hunger and alcohol that is always beautifully rendered in her understated prose style.
Reading “Good Morning, Midnight” now some of its themes and content still feel quite shocking. For instance, the way it powerfully confronts issues about suicide, alcoholism, social anxiety, post-partum depression. Do you think these issues are any less risqué now than at the time of its first publication?
I think these themes are much less shocking today than they would have been in 1939, especially in a novel by a woman. But what still has the power to shock today is Rhys’s brutal honesty, and the uncompromising way she confronts these issues. No matter how painful the subject, the writing always feels so truthful you can’t look away.