The US edition of Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour is now available and reviews of the book appeared this weekend in both the New York Times and the Washington Times. Since Ms Pizzichini believes 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 book’s main flaws.
From the New York Times:
Sure enough, this is a biography that accentuates the negative. Handily achieving the level of caricature, it turns Rhys (1890-1979) into a weeping, helpless, passive, shivering, fragile creature who, through some miracle of duality, managed to produce mesmerizingly potent work. But the figure on Ms. Pizzichini’s page is made of quivering blue Jell-O. And as a biographical study “The Blue Hour” has major weaknesses of its own. Vaguely researched, unannotated, barely illustrated, stingy with Rhys’s own words and full of heavy-handed paraphrases, it tries to make up in tear-stained empathy what it lacks in depth. . . . If it does nothing else, “The Blue Hour” will endear Rhys to a whole new generation of neurasthenic college students, even if Rhys believed that women were most appealing as victims. She once turned from her mirror and offered an appraisal of her doomy mystique that is wiser than anything this biography has to offer: “Found drowned.”
From the Washington Times:
It is not until the very end of “The Blue Hour,” in the author’s note, that Ms. Pizzichini reveals how “illuminating” it had been to examine Rhys’ manuscripts housed at the British Library. “The pages were stained with grease, sweat and face powder. Each word had clearly earned its place on the page.” How much stronger this biography would have been if its author had allowed herself to examine the process of Rhys’ literary creations.
And herein lies my criticism. With little primary material of Rhys’ life to be had, the temptation to take liberties is paramount. The British writer Hermione Lee has spoken of the challenges all biographers face when confronted with gaps of material. She dealt with some of those when writing about the life of Virginia Woolf.
In “The Blue Hour,” readers must take a leap of faith that Ms. Pizzichini has given us a life as she says her subject saw herself. There are no footnotes giving us any indication from which autobiographical fragment, letter, novel or short story the biographer has borrowed from in which to form her statements.
For the New York Times review go to http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/books/25masl.html?ref=books (if this link takes you to a registration request for the NYT, either register—it’s free—or google the title of the article, which will bring you to the review).
For the Washington Times review go to http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/may/24/books-blue-hour-life-jean-rhys/