Just two foreign single women getting drunk in Paris: femininity adrift in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and The Dud Avocado (1958)

Photo 30-06-2017, 1 41 08 PM
Source: author’s own copies 2017

Sasha Jansen and Sally Jay Gorce are the quintessential flâneuse in the birth city of the flânerie, Paris. They represent two sides of the flâneuse’s emotional inner landscape; aimless, lonely, and morally suspect on the one hand, freewheeling and liberated on the other. As single women, they defy the expectations of women in the city of love. They are elusive to love; Sally Jay is a happy bed-hopper, Sasha walks listlessly into crummy hotel rooms with shady men who promise only temporary love. They are a few decades late after the first generation of flânerie but they cannot escape the mark of marginality that comes with walking in Paris free from matrimony or responsibility as Hannah Arendt describes succinctly:

What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society – strolling, idling, flânerie – Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, ever since the Second Empire the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but of all those who have gather about them because they could not be integrated either politically – being homeless or stateless – or socially. Pg. 174, Men in Dark Times

The two women are the semi-autobiographical protagonists of two novels, Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys and Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy, who undertake events drawn from the novelists’ lives, created from a place of ‘write what you know’. Both women are not natives to the city. Sasha is English but has become estranged from her origins in England by virtue of a divorce and death of her child. In Paris, she can reinvent herself, gaining employment as a sales assistant. Like Sasha, Sally Jay seeks fame and fortune in Paris through establishing a career in film and theatre. Paris is also an escape for Sally Jay from a protective family in provincial America.

Born Elaine Rita Brimberg in New York City in 1921, Elaine Dundy grew up under the thumb of her tyrannical father who forbade her to leave New York. Undeterred, she saved enough money for a trip to Paris where she hoped to start her acting career. The career was not to be as Dundy herself concedes when she then moves to London as she watched others rise to great cultural heights and, for the men she knew, become the iconic Young Angry Men of the 1950s. After the birth of her daughter Tracy (who has recently published a book on her parents) Dundy’s ambitions in film and television were finished. Then a career in writing came a-calling.

Dundy and Rhys were born into affluence and whose creative lives were significantly shaped by highly influential male literary types; Dundy by her husband the leading theatre critic of the day Kenneth Tynan and Rhys by her erstwhile lover and benefactor Ford Madox Fox. In fact, their literary careers were said to be spurred by the men. The Dud Avocado, Dundy’s first novel, was written at the behest of her husband. Typical of sexist assumptions about women’s creative abilities, he didn’t think it would amount to much beyond being written. For Tynan would be deeply resentful of Dundy’s critical success following the publication of the novel. ‘You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress’ he said to her angrily. Yet appraisals from other famous men flowed in, the great comic Groucho Marx said it made him ‘laugh, scream and guffaw’. Who said women couldn’t do comedy? Gore Vidal offered his word of encouragement, “You’ve got one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go” while Ernest Hemingway praised her book for having characters who “all speak differently” unlike, self-deprecatingly, his own.

When we are introduced to Sally Jay Gorce, pink-haired and dressed in an evening dress in the morning because all of her day wear is in the laundry, it is too easy to think: quirky and adorkable. Easily compared to Holly Golightly, Sally Jay embarks on a metropolitan adventure to run away from a dull American life and a mission to be an actress. Her French is good enough and she gravitates towards other elite Americans in Paris. The meaning of ‘dud avocado’ only becomes apparent in the end of the novel when [spoiler alert!], our witty heroine corrects a would-be paramour on the nature of the ‘Typical American Woman’. Full of misfired charm, he creepily described the typical American woman as having ‘a hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing’ like an avocado and ‘so green – so eternally green’. Well, having a mind of her own she won’t meet his expectations then. She resigns to simply being a dud avocado as she sips her cocktail.

Good Morning, Midnight also makes a reference to the protagonist’s state of being although in Sasha’s case it is derived from a poem by fellow depressive Emily Dickinson:

Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?

Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!

We first meet Sasha in her crummy hotel room in Paris, a new base from which to rebuild her life. Curtains are always drawn and she needs sleeping tablets to sleep. The streets of Paris and her daily routine of regular places to eat for lunch, dine, and then have a drink provide a much needed respite. In Paris, she is ‘saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’ (pg. 4), an image of a woman who has pulled herself out of a wreckage of a failed marriage and death of a child and struggling with mental health.

Regarded as ‘too depressing’ when it was first published, Good Morning, Midnight had been her fifth novel and precedes Rhys’s best known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the radical prequel to Jane Eyre’s ‘mad woman in the attic’. Before the fame of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys lived in obscurity but with an ambition to belong to the upper echelons of literary society. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island in what was then the British West Indies, Rhys is now known primarily as a ‘postcolonial’ writer before such a term was de rigueur, before notions of class, race, and gender became an inescapable framework from which to intellectually appreciate her output.

A white creole who schooled in Cambridge where she was an alleged victim of racism, Rhys lived a life troubled by alcohol abuse and financial difficulty. Biographers and critics have noted with surprise that Rhys was able to gather the discipline to write fine books despite her chaotic life without emphasising that many men in literature lived similarly precarious lives. That Rhys was a woman, somehow not white enough, a single mother, and that she clung to men for monetary support (a biographical detail that seems to suggest feminist failure) meant that her literary output seemed improbable and against the odds. Like many women after her up to this contemporary moment, her novels mirrored her life. As writers of semi-autobiographical fiction, they enjoy the privilege of (re)writing the self yet cursed by voyeuristic prurience of readers who seek out thinly-veiled self-confessionals of troubled women.

Paris eventually gets the better of Sally Jay who, by the end of the novel, grows to despise the city after she loses her passport and failing to make a breakthrough in film or stage; ‘God, how I hated Paris. Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough’ (pg. 234). She had indeed looked at it long enough and decides to pack up and return home where she becomes a librarian and meets her happy-ever-after lover. But Sasha Jansen does not leave Paris, not least physically. She exits the buoyant promise and ebullience of the city and retreats psychologically into herself and submits yet to another man who will dominate and perhaps rape her. In fact in the closing pages of the novel, we are not certain that an actual man has come for her in her hotel bedroom or the ghost of past lovers who haunt her desolate inner chamber.

Despite her preferred theme of downtrodden women, Rhys, who died in 1979, currently enjoys a feminist literary legacy and fame that came too late for her, as she notes with irritation following the success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The Dud Avocado would live on to be a modern fairy tale for single women long after Kenneth Tynan threatened to divorce Dundy if she wrote another book. She continued to write and divorced him in 1964, Dundy writes victoriously in the 2007 republication of the novel one year before her death in 2008. The two novels represent something about women who have not only the privilege to travel abroad but also the relative freedom to become the protagonist – and indeed antagonist – of their life story. Women writers draw from their own lives – as much as men do though they are accused less often of this literary misdemeanor – because writing allows the rewriting of one’s life story when things do not turn out the way we want to.

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2013: Let’s celebrate the banal

In the last three years, this blog served mainly as a repository of my writings. But this year, I’m going to attempt something different; I’ll begin to post photos of my cooking and the less than artful snapshots of my life on this blog. Perhaps at times, if I am feeling reckless, I may even write something more personal, reflections on my life as a person-academic-feminist. I am neurotically private about the publication of the more personal details of my life online so these may be less frequent than I will initially envision. I will still publish articles and bits of research here. But I thought posting pleasures of the banal will ‘humanise’ the tone of this blog and hopefully, the author herself.

Will be back very shortly!

It’s a been an experientially short week (you realise there are too few hours in a day when you have tons to do!): started my job lecturing sexuality in Southeast Asian cinema last week, insisted on having a social life however sad, and curating Feminist Week on Loyar Burok this week. I noticed that I haven’t written a thing for the month of October, but this will be sorted with very soon. Stay tuned, my lovelies!

This is an opportunity for you to delurk and say hello

Most times when I write I have an imaginary audience in mind, an audience whose intelligence I would hate to insult. But if I want to be really honest, I would say that blogging is actually one big lonely exercise of making oneself feel rather important and soliloquies  – a kind of shrine to oneself – which is why I want you, Dear Reader out there, to delurk. Take a moment from lurking and reveal yourself, wave, say hello, share a bit about yourself, share what it is that brings you to this blog and what keeps you coming back. In return, you can ask me questions about anything.

Really, anything.

The joys and sorrows of writing

Truman Capote: The archtypal writer look

I often feel the compulsive need to write (though much of the product of that compulsion remain unpublished) to channel anger, frustrations, anxieties, but very rarely I write about joy or when I am overjoyed. Joy is to be enjoyed in the moment. I take pictures instead. Writing is a therapeutic process, and the miracle of creation is when one’s thoughts take form on a blank page. But it is a miracle not without its pains. The following are some useful quotes by some great wordsmiths about the joys (and often sorrows) of writing:

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.
(Vladimir Nabakov)

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
(Truman Capote)

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it.
(Jules Renard, “Diary,” February 1895)

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
(Toni Morrison)

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood.  I’d type a little faster.  (Isaac Asimov)

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.
(Franz Kafka)

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
(George Orwell, “Why I Write,” 1947)

Writing is a struggle against silence.
(Carlos Fuentes)

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
(Alexander Pope)

What is the writing process like for you?

Hello to new readers and long-time followers!

One of the smaller joys of blogging is knowing that you have regular readers who are interested in what you have to say on often rather disparate topics. The disparate part is really interesting to me, because every newly-minted post can be a wildcard (hence a turn-off for some who like predictability; but that’s so not you, dear reader). And so it takes real interest in the blogger and how she writes that brings readers back for more. Am I patting myself on the back more than I should already? Maybe. But yeah, this is a warm Hello to my new and regular readers and here’s to another exciting and hopefully more prolific year! Cheers!

By yet another fluke I am nominated for the Brass Crescent award again!

I was nominated for best Southeast Asian blog by the lovely Brass Crescent selection committee two years ago, and here I am again nominated for the same category this year! Yay, me. As much as I am thrilled and humbled, I am surprised. I was going through some life-changing events in the last two years and my blogging had suffered greatly for it. I love to write, critique, and share with readers stuff people do not talk or think about. That is what I do and what I intend to do in whatever shape or form for as long as I can. Thank you, whomever you are who has nominated me! And oh yes, vote for me please!