Miranda Seymour

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On Monday 8 April the LRB in partnership with MUBI screened ‘Quartet’ at the Garden Cinema as the latest in a series of events exploring the art of literary adaptation. Miranda Seymour, Jean Rhys’s biographer, spoke about it beforehand.

In Merchant Ivory’s 1981 adaptation of Jean Rhys’s first novel, Quartet (1928), Alan Bates and Maggie Smith play a predatory expatriate couple, H.J. and Lois Heidler. Their vulnerable and volatile young victim, Marya Zelli – Isabelle Adjani won an award at Cannes for her performance – is forced to take refuge with the couple after her husband, Stephan, given a touch more pathos than menace by Anthony Higgins, is arrested and sent to prison at Fresnes, outside Paris. Marya visits the prison weekly, to the Heidlers’ baffled irritation. Pierre Clementi plays a porn photographer in an oddly entertaining sex scene that was added to the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, perhaps to add a bit of heat to the sex that is intimated, but almost never directly witnessed, in Rhys’s novels.

Visually, the film is gorgeous; perhaps a little too much so. We spend a lot of time in impeccably styled Parisian brasseries like Le Select, listening to sultry music or watching chorus girls bump bottoms and shake their breasts for a bored and largely indifferent group of wealthy tourists. These scenes play a minor part in the novel, where the focus is on the confined spaces which heighten the sense of Marya’s entrapment.

In the movie, the restaurants create a world in which the unlikeable and appearance-conscious Heidlers can ‘collect’ Marya (Heidler lives by collecting and selling works of art), present her as their trophy and display their ownership of her. Heidler places a heavy hand on Marya’s knee under a dining-table at their first encounter (as in the novel); Lois (as in the novel) pats Marya’s hand, arranges her hat and frock for a portrait-painting session, and reminds her (constantly) of her indebtedness to them.

One reason that second-rate fiction often makes wonderful films is that it seldom requires the screenwriter to consider what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. Rhys, a strikingly interior writer, presents a problem which even Jhabvala can’t resolve. It takes a truly remarkable actor to represent the thoughts behind the words. Adjani isn’t offered an opportunity to make the attempt. It’s a shame. I’d like to have seen her speaking the lines that Jhabvala bizarrely gives to one of the Heidlers’ hangers-on, Guy Lester, but which Rhys put into Marya Zelli’s mind:

Love was a terrible thing. You poisoned it and stabbed at it and knocked it down into the mud – well down – and it got up and staggered on, bleeding and muddy and awful. Like – like Rasputin. Marya began to laugh.

Rhys always emphasised the gap between herself and the remarkable loners she created: ‘I,’ she always insisted, not quite truthfully, ‘was never a victim.’ But there are other, more significant differences between Rhys and her characters.

Rhys, though it’s easy to forget, was both extremely well-read and fiercely ambitious. (A giveaway line in Quartet, also used in the film, has Lois Heidler comment that her husband is ‘always picking up some young genius’.) Marya, bewitching though Adjani’s luminous presence makes her, can’t even dance or sing well enough to be a chorus girl. There’s no indication that her doomed predecessor in the Heidler’s spare room (another character introduced by Jhabavala for no clear reason) was any more gifted.

Rhys herself was a genius, and Ford Madox Ford, on whom Heidler is based, recognised it in the late autumn of 1924, when an unknown writer, Ella Lenglet, gave him a short story called ‘Vienne’. He published it, with Rhys’s new pseudonym, picked by Ford himself, in the final issue of the Transatlantic Review, which appeared at the end of the year. Rhys’s husband, Jean Lenglet, was arrested for embezzlement that same month, triggering her fateful decision to accept an offer from Ford and his partner and financial supporter, the artist Stella Bowen, to live with them in a ménage à trois.

As in the novel and film, there were visits to a rural retreat (at which, in real life, Bowen painted, Rhys wrote stories and Ford acted as her editor and chief critic, while also completing Parade’s End). As is faintly reflected in the novel, Ford and Bowen found Rhys’s temperament too hot to handle and hustled her off to the South of France in the summer of 1925. But the actual break between life and fiction came after the end of Rhys’s affair with Ford (whom she did love passionately, for a while) and Lenglet’s escape to Holland.

The novel ends weakly, with Marya trying to prevent Zelli from murdering Heidler and dying herself when Zelli knocks her down. In the film, Marya survives to see Zelli being driven away with another woman before she allows herself to be led to a bedroom by Zelli’s sinister friend from prison.

In real life, Lenglet was sent to prison again for a week in the autumn of 1926 after threatening to shoot Ford. (It seems likely that Bowen reported him.) Ford, having discreetly arranged with Bowen to pay Rhys an allowance from ‘a friend’, went to America. After writing a florid and self-congratulatory introduction to Rhys’s first collection of short stories, The Left Bank: Sketches and Studies of Present-Day Bohemian Paris (1927), Ford arranged with a publisher for her to translate Francis Carco’s short, violent novel, Perversité. The translation was published early in 1928, but – through no fault of Ford’s – his own, far more famous name was emblazoned on the cover as the novel’s sole translator. Rhys was outraged and unforgiving.

Later, acknowledging that Ford had published her, promoted her, introduced her to Cape and to her first agents in the UK and the US, Rhys regretted the ‘malice’ in her portrait of Ford (né Hueffer) as H.J. Heidler. At the time, writing her first novel in Holland in close collaboration with Lenglet, Rhys did not hold back on her sense of having been exploited and betrayed.

Published in the UK by Chatto as Postures (a nervous Cape found the material too risqué) in 1928, Quartet acquired its enduring title when Paul Revere Reynolds, the American agent found for Rhys by Ford, sold it for a good price to Simon and Schuster. Reviews were admiring but, as so often with responses to Rhys’s work, qualified by a sense of discomfort at her honesty and the squalid world over which – unlike the Merchant Ivory team – she refused to throw a veil of glamour.

If you weren’t able to attend the screening you can watch ‘Quartet’ by signing up for thirty days free on MUBI.