Jean Rhys is one of my all-time favourite writers, which is odd to say when you consider I didn’t read her for the first time until very late on. I work in libraries and we’ve always got copies of Wide Sargasso Sea kicking around but I never thought to pick it up. A couple of years ago I went to house sit for a friend of mine in Cambridge and picked up After Leaving Mr Mackenzie from her bookcase. I caned it in an hour, fell head over heels, and read everything Rhys ever wrote in the space of about two months afterwards. I love the bleary-eyed poeticism of her work, the lip curled into an arch sneer, eyebrow raised in mockery at the futility of it all as the gin goes down and the fag smoke fills the room; the way her stories are suffused with a despair so deep and apathetic it can barely even be arsed to feel sad anymore; it simply is, just as it was, and always shall be. In a similar way to so many of Elliott Smith’s lyrics, there’s a sense of being out of step not just with everyone else and the world around her, but also completely, irreconcilably out of step with herself. It’s the story of my life but I’ve never seen it articulated with such unflinching clarity.
Her writing really touches me where it hurts, and there are very few writers I can think of – if any – that I connect with on such a profound emotional level. This one’s so short it’d probably be called flash fiction these days, although it was written a century ago, way before that term entered the lexicon. The title refers to a typically Rhysian dark night of the soul, in which the protagonist ponders Le Saut dans l’inconnu and the various ways she may go about it, before signing off with the exasperated impotence that characterises so much of her work. “Ridiculous, all this. Lord, I am tired. A devil of a business…..” Wonderful stuff.
First published in The Left Bank, Jonathan Cape, 1927. Currently available in the Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics, 2017