If the earlier collection of stories by Robert Musil provides a lamentation on the loss of teleology, then this book is a kind of celebration of it, at least through the eyes of its protagonist.
Protagonist is such an important distinction in this novel, like many others, from the idea of a “hero.” It’s something I have to teach my students again and again. The protagonist is our focal point, not our hero. A protagonist can indeed be a hero, but it’s not required. We don’t have to like them, we don’t have to admire them, and we don’t have to want to be like them. But they are where our narrative gaze lies, and where the narrative tension lies. So even in novels where the narrator or protagonist is an objectively horrible person, the tension is what prevails. So we don’t necessarily “root” for Humbert Humbert, but he’s all we have. And his antagonist is not law and order, but Quilty, a man equally as depraved, but whose story we are not reading.
In this novel, we have such a protagonist. She IS sympathetic to be sure, but she’s not necessarily likeable, makes bad and self-destructive choices, and is a LOT to take. For herself, for us, and for those around her.
She is a down and out woman who decides that since she has nothing else to live for, she should drink herself to death. Except it’s not clear she actually wants to die. Instead, she lives through every single minute of the rest of the novel firing through every nerve of her body as fully and painfully as possible. It’s a fast and stressful read and at the end, you feel a sense of release, but an ever so temporary one.
I am stopping my Jean Rhys for the moment. She took a 30 year break, so I can take a few days off before I read the last of her novels.