Posted by: lisaparavisini | May 2, 2009

The Times Reviews New Biography of Jean Rhys

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The London Times has just published its review of The Blue Hour, the new biography of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini. As a biographer myself (I wrote a biography of Rhys’s friend Phyllis Shand Allfrey and am hard at work on a maddeningly complicated biography of Cuban patriot José Martí), I have a stomach-churning feeling about a book whose reviewer begins by asserting that . . .

“Few writers have made such a mess of their life as Jean Rhys. We should be grateful she did, otherwise we should not have her ­novels. They are all versions of her autobiography — not excluding her masterpiece, Wide ­Sargasso Sea, though it is disguised as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — and they all draw their power from the pain and rage she felt at the way people, especially men, had treated her. The thought of it never ceased to torment her, and it brought her close to madness. But she could not write about anything else. She is a classic case of the cruel price art exacts from life.”

Poor Jean Rhys. It strikes me as a disservice to her talent to reduce her searing commitment to her art to merely a confessional impulse. I have only read an extract from the new biography (see my post of April 25, “New Biography of Jean Rhys”), but there is plenty of evidence there, and in the details of the review, that Ms Pizzichini has concluded that there is no dividing line between Rhys’s life and her fiction. The incontrovertible fact is that there is such a line and we cross it at our peril as biographers. I have a queasy feeling about this…

You can, however, make up your own mind by reading the review at

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article6198031.ece


Responses

  1. I think you’re being unfair! To judge my book by its reviewer is to jump to conclusions that seem to me to be self-serving… I have found most of the reviews of my book quite depressing. They have over-ridden my empathetic approach with their own dismissive attitudes to the difficulties Rhys faced in her life. My book has been lost in the rush to judge Jean Rhys or for others more sympathetic to her, to claim her as their own.

    I admit to having an unusual approach to biography. I am not an academic and do not claim to be. I was much more interested in the atmosphere of Rhys’s life, the climate she carried around with her. It’s a more poetic approach and I can see why old-school biographers would find that challenging!

    • I can see why you would be dismayed by the reactions to your book on Rhys. I have had the opportunity to read it since I reported on the reviews, and I have to confess (regretfully since I found it very entertaining) that I agree with the reviews. I see that your approach is different, but it amounts almost to fiction and it is beset with errors, not only about Rhys’ life, but about the context in which her life unfolded. I can see how you would find that “old-school biographers would find your approach challenging,” but biography continues to be an academic pursuit, more concerned with truth than witih poetics. It is not its poetic writing I object, but the methodology, which would be fine if you called it something like a meditation on Rhys, but it is being marketed as a biography, and as such it requires some accuracy. It would require, for example, sorting out the names of places and people (St. Lucia is not a French island and the name of Rhys’s family estate is Geneva, not Genever). In this, I believe, your copy-editors have done you a disservice. I think as a biography it is a flawed book, although it is quite well written and rather gripping. Ultimately, however, in order to succeed, a biography has to be true to its subject, regardless of the style in which it is written, and your book reads as if you had imposed your own idea of Rhys on the portrait you offer of her, and adjusted the materials to your vision. Most particularly, you speculate about things for which there is not a shred of evidence and use her fiction as if it were autobiography. There is a clear difference between autobiographical and autobiography that you cross seemingly nonchalantly and there, I think, rests the problem I find with the book.
      I had not planned to write about my own feelings about the book, but felt I needed to defend us “old-school biographers” from the accusation of old-foggeyism in not fully appreciating your book. It is bound to do very well with the general public since it presents a rather alluring account of Rhys’ life. The fact that so many people will form their opinion of Rhys and her work from your book is to me a matter of regret. I would say, however, that my regrets do not extent to your writing talents, which are displayed in the book to great advantage.

  2. [...] I am hostile to her book [she made this clear in an exchange we had after an earlier post, see  The Times Reviews New Biography of Jean Rhys] I will only say that, regretfully, both reviews agree with the opinion I expressed about the [...]

  3. Professor Paravinisi is just dead wrong. My own review of THE BLUE HOUR will be posted in the next few days on the fifth part of my “Omoo” blogsite: http://www.omoopart5.blogspot.com.

    It’s a terrific biography. I have been influenced by and in admiration of Jean Rhys’s work for over 40 years, since it was first introduced to me, and Ms. Pizzichini’s impressionistic approach of course is anathema to The Academy, but an affinity with the subject seems to allow the author almost to channel Jean Rhys in much the same way as, say, Charles Olson did Melville, in CALL ME ISHAMEL.


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