Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jean Rhys and the "alienation of smells"

We don't have A-levels in Italy, so I can't really say this was part of the English A-level exam, but in this way you understand what I'm taliking about (for my Italian readers, this is "la seconda prova del liceo linguistico"). It's a wonderful passage about a woman coming to England from the West Indies and talking about her first impressions on the country.

It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feelings things gave you deep down in yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy. I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold. Sometimes I would shut my eyes and pretend that the heat of the fire, or the bed-clothes drawn up round me, was sun-heat; or I would pretend I was standing outside the house at home, looking down Market Street to the Bay. When there was a breeze the sea was millions of spangles; and on still days it was purple as Tyre and Sidon. Market Street smelt of the wind, but the narrow street smelt of niggers and wood-smoke and salt fish-cakes fried in lard. (When the black women sell fishcakes in the savannah they carry them in trays on their heads. They call out, “Salt fishcakes, all sweet an’ charmin’, all sweet an’ charmin’.) It was funny, but that was what I thought about more than anything else – the smell of the street and the smell of the frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patient standing outside the surgery next door, and the smell of the sea-breeze and the different smell of land-breeze.
Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together.
After a while I got used to England and I liked it all right; I got used to everything except the cold and that the towns we went to always looked so exactly alike. You were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same. There was always a little grey street leading to the stage-door of the theatre and another little grey street where your lodging were, and rows of little houses with chimneys like the funnels of dummy steamers and smoke the same colour as the sky; and a grey stone promenade running hard, naked and straight by the side of the grey-brown or grey-green sea; or a Corporation Street or High Street or Duke Street or Lord Street where you walked about and looked at the shops.
Southsea, this place was.

From Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

Some thoughts: Despite the fact that this book was written in the 1930s it is still very relevant. I had the same impression of "being born again" when I went to the United Kingdom for the first time. Everything was different, but it was not the exciting difference that you feel when you are on holidays abroad, because the difference is in your everyday life. The thing you notice the most is that the smells are different and the colours as well. The character of the novel perceives England as grey and cold, something that is very true. I wonder if English people think that their country is grey and if yes, why in the world they aren't doing anything to change it! Coming from Italy, I noticed this change in colours from the bright blue of the sky and the blinding white of the houses to the grey of the sky and the gloomy colours of streets and houses. These differences in the colours, smells and perception of your body have the capacity to make you feel happy or sad. It is difficult to adapt to a different country, where people behave differently, have other interests, other habits and other opinions on many topics. Stereotypically as it may seems, for me England smelled of a room that hasn't been aired, of fried food and curry, whereas Italy smells of freshly-baked bread, coffee and fresh tomatoes (which doesn't mean I hate England, but that I came to "like it all right"). Indeed, sometimes being in England felt like a dream and sometimes Italy seemed like a distant - but yet familiar - dream. Do places in England look alike or is it only in the perception of foreigners? There was always a little grey street and always rows of houses with chimneys and a High Street where you looked at the shops. This could come from my diary. I have the feeling that nothing has changed since the 1930s about the perceptions that foreigners (or immigrants if you prefer) have of England. Of course, the sense of "alienation" is something that cannot change, because when you move to another country you don't have all your friends and family and you don't understand what's happening around you, while people do things in that way, etc. But there is something more in this passage: the same alienation of smells that I felt.

Jean Rhys is also the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre. It is the story of the mad wife of Mr Rochester, who as you might remember is from the West Indies, like the author. The novel begins with the memorable sentence "They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, 'because she pretty like pretty self' Christophine said".

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