Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"No Country Really Now": Modernist Cosmopolitanisms and Jean Rhys's Quartet

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"No Country Really Now": Modernist Cosmopolitanisms and Jean Rhys's Quartet

Article excerpt

  My father was Welsh--very. My mother's family was Creole--
  what we call Creole. My great grandfather was a Scot.
  As far as I know I am white--but I have no country really now.
  --Jean Rhys, Letters (172)

  As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country.
  As a woman, my country is the whole world.
  --Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (109)

The stories of cosmopolitan modernists have become all too familiar. Early twentieth-century writers were displaced by the disintegration of traditional communities wrought by war, colonialism, or modernization; they fled suffocating families or heteronomativity and sought new aesthetic communities or worldly experience in scintillating European capitals. Their strikingly peripatetic lives continue to fascinate academic and nonacademic audiences alike, who savor modernist literature's salacious escapades, globetrotting characters, spate of languages, and sometimes exotic, often international settings. In recent years, however, a resurgence of cosmopolitan theory has initiated a reconsideration of the relations between modernism's long-recognized internationalism and its presumed cosmopolitanism. (1) These reconsiderations cast a new and at times discomfiting light on the unrestricted mobility and international encounters celebrated in high modernist texts, revealing cosmopolitanism's unspoken privileges. As Janet Lyon has observed, "modernism is almost always about cosmopolitanism"--its promises, its actualities, and more often, its failures. For modernists, as for us, cosmopolitanism is less an accomplished fact than an evolving ethic and perhaps an unattainable ideal. From this perspective, modernist novels often serve as cautionary tales of unsuccessful, botched, or exploitative cosmopolitanisms. Jean Rhys's Quartet is one such novel. Grappling with the contradictions and failures of transnational sociability, Rhys interrogates the privileges of the very kind of Parisian expatriatism that has come to be seen as the quintessential modernist experience and testifies to the restrictions imposed on cosmopolitan mobility tor women and ethnic minorities.

As such, Quartet provides a case study for competing models of modernist cosmopolitanism as Rhys exposes the privileged forms of cosmopolitanism enabled at the imperial core by colonial expansion at the periphery. Drawing on theories that delineate the connections among imperialism, the city, and modernist form, I use Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting" to trace the relationship between cosmopolitanism and metropolitan modernism. After establishing this context for Rhys's own literary cosmopolitanisms, I look at how imperialism complicates romanticized notions of modernist internationalism. Rhys deftly correlates British imperialism and metropolitan modernism with flawed, exploitative cosmopolitan practices, and exposes forms of international engagement dependent on British hegemonic control. To critique this metropolitan form of cosmopolitanism, she turns its own narrative tools against it. I argue that Quartet uses the narrative techniques of representing deep interiority developed by metropolitan writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson but directs attention away from metropolitan perspectives toward those denied access to its privileges due to nationality, sexuality, gender, and class. Rhys's autonomous bohemian protagonist, Marya Zelli, finds herself progressively controlled by the national codes imposed by the British expatriate community that surrounds her lover. H.J. Heidler, and his wile Lois. Using free indirect discourse--a narrative mode important to high modernism--to localize narrative through Marya's perspective, Rhys shows that deep inferiority is unavailable to particularized subjects interpellated by metropolitan normative demands. Not only does her novel serve as an interrogation of metropolitan perception, it also offers a new model of nonappropriative cosmopolitan subjectivity. …

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