Jean Rhys, Expats & Books

Jean Rhys was an expat too. She married a shady Belgian character who was thrown in jail and she wound up living with Ford Maddox Ford and his wife in Paris, setting up the scene for her novel Quartet. I remember finding Jean Rhys. I remember finding her like I remember the first time I saw a woman I loved. I was in the FNAC in Madrid, on the fourth floor in the English section. It was a Penguin Classic, the kind you used to find all the time in bookstores in non-English speaking countries.

I had never heard of her. But I liked the cover of the book, the description, her life. She intrigued me like only a woman or a book can. I remember the first time a sat down with her in my small apartment near the Prado in Madrid. Like the first time we made love. I never found books like that when I was living in the States.

Now we have super bookstores and Amazon. But there was a time when acquiring books for the literary expat was an adventure and a delicacy. I lived in Cartagena, Spain. An old port town, decadent, punch drunk. The name comes from Carthage. It had been taken by Hannibal and the Carthaginians from the Iberians, than the Romans took it from them, and it had been a Phoenician port before all that. When you see the port of Cartagena from the hill above the city you realize how perfect a port it is, how the first Phoenicians to meander in must have felt very good. The place had history. But no book stores with English books. I would send away for the Penguin catalog to Madrid. I remember spending hours going through it, preparing and budgeting my meager teacher’s salary to pay for the books.

I had two luxuries, a New Yorker international subscription and my two times a year Penguin shipment. As an expat, wherever you are, there is a unique kind of loneliness. At home, wherever that may be, it’s impossible to feel that isolated. For some it must be terrible, but it never bothered me. As a writer, it may actually be a good thing to help one concentrate. Even when you find your fellow patriots, it seems different. You are almost forced together. Nonetheless, wonderful friendships can emerge from these forced encounters. The same way one embraces those books one finds in your native language, so one reaches for those fellow expats.

Writing a novel is special process that can only be understood if you have gone through it. The pain, the doubt, the moments of inspiration, the intimacy with the ideas and characters is something that is very difficult to explain. I have started four novels, and completed three. This week, I will begin number five. It always reminds me of the scene in The Great Escape when the Charles Bronson character draws a big circle in chalk, and puts a number in the middle, the number of tunnels he has begun, before breaking ground on the new tunnel. I think most writers would say that novels take years to form in their minds before the first word is written.

I will never forget the day I knew I was ready to write Cactus Land, my third novel. I had pondered the story for over 20 years, I knew how it would end, and I had an idea of how it would be structured, but I needed a “feel” or ambience. I went to see the film 28 Days Later, and having a drink after the film, I knew, that was the ambience I needed. Not that it is a great film; it’s a good, entertaining, modern version of the Night of the Living Dead. But something about the first few scenes were the gel my mind had been looking for. It is like cooking stew, there is a moment when the soup becomes stew, and that moment is very elusive.

I suppose the writer’s life must be lonely, and the writer must not only be able to support loneliness, he must seek it out. Maybe that is why so many writers become expats, because the special loneliness of foreign lands is the right tonic for writing. Many writers will tell you that talking about a story in progress is a big taboo. Maybe too many close friends and good conversations and the air would go out the writers balloon. For the writer, the reader is a mystery best left vague.

I was thinking recently about people I have been really close too, that I felt completely connected too. Unfortunately, not many came to mind. I few women that I was in love with, but unfortunately they didn’t feel the same connection I did, so I think in those cases the ‘connection’ was more imagined on my part. Writing must come at least in some part from a sense of isolation and marginalization. Could someone like Fidel Castro, who gives eight hour speeches, and is always listened to intensely by the throngs, ever write a good book? I doubt it.

Jean Rhys has just had a new biography written about her, The Blue Hour. She wrote several novels in the 20’s and 30’s than faded into obscurity, such a deep obscurity that many thought she was dead. In the 1950’s the BBC did a radio play of one of her works, and one of the actresses decided to try and find Mrs. Rhys. She found her hard at work on a new novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea, which became her seminal work. I haven’t read the new biography, only the reviews, and honestly, some of the intimate details of her life I wish I hadn’t come across. But we have had our affair, so to speak.

So now I will begin what hopefully will end in completed novel number four. At this point I always think this will be the last one, that somehow the story will capture all I ever want to say, which I suppose is a good thing to feel before one starts writing. And those elusive readers, where are they, who are they? Now, it doesn’t matter, if it did, I don’t think I would every get through writing. Now is time to be intimate with the ideas, with my loneliness and my craft.



  1. as an expat for 14 years living in barcelona spain, i identified with this piece, relating to the sweet & 'special loneliness of foreign lands'. i used to have the wanderlust somethin bad & never expected to stay put, but bcn kept me. feeling that feed disconnect from the states, stumbling upon new & worthy reading material is still just as delicate & delightful. so today (the lazy dreamy sunday after may 1st labor day), i somehow happened across this and other articles you've written, and too had an expat literary adquisition. thanks