Over seventy years after its ill-timed publication in 1939, Good Morning, Midnight remains both contemporary and a cult work, despite Rhys’s resurrection in the sixties as one of the great modernists. The pitch-black story of Sasha Jensen and her flight from sanity and society in late 1930s Paris is so modern and artless as to seem experimental. The novel bears little mark of its era, save for cultural references. The spare, stylistic, nihilistic prose flashes like a switchblade and reads like it was written yesterday.
The world wasn’t ready for a novel about a banal, seedy and terrifying life lived outside the edges of society, marinated in alcohol and anti-English sentiment. Such stuff was (and is) the preserve of the anti-hero, not heroine.
Sasha is a broken soul, functioning as a “sane, dry, cold automaton” rather than a survivor. Her decision to take a fortnight in the city of her youth - Paris - to dry out from a boozy suicide attempt seems an odd one when there are ghosts round every corner, but we gradually realise this is where her rare sacred moments of happiness occurred. Yet this is no longer the ‘City of Light’ but a place heavy with ennui and disappointment: every smoke-fugged café is awash with wolves. Sasha no longer believes in a future (“only this blackness, changing faintly, slowly”), living instead in a perilous present with hope and hate dwelling side by side in her heart. During the novel, the battle is fiercely fought between the two.
Sasha reduces life to its essentials but finds herself the unlikely focus of a young gigolo who believes her a wealthy woman because of her old fur coat (“the last incongruity”) and her expensive looking blonde cendré dye job. The relationship between them crystallises Sasha’s experiences and highlights how she’s lost the ability to spot a kindred soul, so absorbed is she in her own loneliness and despair. The ugly ending to their relationship is partly Sasha’s doing, when she rejects the Gigolo’s obliquely proffered olive branch.
Despite Sasha’s self-destruction and violent inner rage, she is impossible to dislike. Only the rare few who have never felt beaten, humiliated, afraid, small and ultimately, defiant, will see nothing of themselves in her. She is an open book, and invites us to hate her, but we can’t: she is worldly and weary yet clings to the touching and childlike belief that a new hair colour, new stockings and a dress will make everything alright (“… must get on with this transformation act of mine”), and that the anesthetised feeling of hope that comes from hard liquor is real. She wilfully acknowledges her failure in every aspect of life that society values: marriage, motherhood, work, respectability, success and wealth. A sad anachronism in an era before non-conformism was valued, Sasha cries out on behalf of the underdog, particularly during the Kafkaesque passage describing her absurd, blackly comedic employment in a fashion house, where her boss (“Mr Blank. You who represent society…”) humiliates her. She hides in an empty store cupboard and cries “…for myself, for all the fools and all the defeated… all the sadness of this damned world.”
Though this is Rhys’s blackest novel in an already downbeat oeuvre, it is, ironically, her funniest: Sasha has nothing but humour and hope. She even finds levity in the disastrous failure of her “sane, sober” fortnight: “Well well well… what an amusing ten days! The last performance of What’s-her-name and Her Boys… Positively the last performance.”
The fly in the ointment here, ironically, is how Rhys’s novel highlights the irrationality of her own belief in the innate badness of the English. She has her Gigolo say, “You know the proverb ‘Unhappy as a dog in Turkey or a woman in England’?” to highlight this, but Sasha is treated no better by the non-English villains of the piece, and it doesn’t sit too neatly with the fact that Sasha, an Englishwoman herself, is still capable of empathy. It may also be difficult to understand feminist claims made for the book, but Sasha’s downward spiral is surely partly the result of a society that forced women to be dependent. But while Sasha is passive and sad in her deeds, she is angry and vengeful in her thoughts. Ultimately, this sad, raw book is not about women, failure, Paris and the dark valley of the 1930s: It’s partly about the death of love and partly about humanity writhing – but surviving, just - under the jackboot of ‘civilised’ society.
A.L. Kennedy, author of Original Bliss and Day: “Her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions is chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving.”
Guardian: “In Rhys’s hands, every cheap hotel room, every passing encounter in a café or brasserie, becomes haunting.”
Amazon.com: “An unforgettable portrait of a woman forced to confront her inevitable loneliness and despair.”
Incurable Logophilia: “Like a swansong – desperate and beautiful and bleak and disturbing.”
Powell’s Books: “Lingers long in the mind after the book has been closed.”