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Special Section
Social Invisibilities

“Let Them Call It Jazz” by Jean Rhys: From Precarious to Ordinary Life

Sylvie Maurel
p. 183-197


L’article porte sur une nouvelle de Jean Rhys, “Let Them Call It Jazz” publiée pour la première fois en 1962. L’humble est une catégorie qui convient à la fois pour décrire “l’esthétique soustractive” (Tibi) des textes de Jean Rhys et les thématiques qu’elle affectionne : elle met fréquemment en scène des personnages vulnérables qui font l’expérience déshumanisante de la pauvreté et du mépris social. Dans “Let Them Call It Jazz”, une jeune Caribéenne s’installe à Londres en quête d’un avenir meilleur. À la fois trop visible et invisible, trop bruyante et inaudible, elle est soumise à une forme extrême de précarité. Jetée en prison, elle parvient, grâce à la puissance déterritorialisante d’une mélodie, à sortir de la précarité pour renouer avec la vie ordinaire (« le revers de la précarité », selon Guillaume Le Blanc) et « l’agir créateur ». L’itinéraire de Selina Davis la conduit de l’hypervisibilité et de l’invisibilité à la discrétion, l’art de la disparition selon Pierre Zaoui. L’humilité devient alors un style, modulation des normes qui permet au soi de se déployer dans l’espace social.

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1It would be fair to say that Jean Rhys, considered as a minor modernist for a long time and not the most prolific writer, is mostly remembered for her novels. Yet, apart from her five short novels and her unfinished autobiography, she wrote short stories all her life—quite many of them by Rhysian standards—and published no less than three collections of short stories in her lifetime, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off Lady (1976). Although her stories never went unnoticed, they have to this day attracted less attention than her novels: some of her short fiction is regularly discussed in scholarly articles but most full-length studies of Jean Rhys’s œuvre mainly focus on her novels, with passing references, if any, to her stories. In this sense at least, Jean Rhys’s low-key stories may be considered as humble, minor texts. Her correspondence also tends to present her short fiction as lesser fiction. About the stories that were to be included in Tigers Are Better-Looking, she writes in a 1959 letter: “[l]ooking at the book again I feel that most aren’t real short stories at all—more like unfinished novels or parts of a novel” (Letters 169). It is almost as if her stories were rough drafts which, abandoned in mid-sentence, had failed to develop into the supposedly more accomplished form of the novel. Moreover, while she was in the slow process of working on Wide Sargasso Sea, short story writing appears to have been an escapist activity taking her mind off the daunting task. About “Let Them Call It Jazz,” for example, the story discussed in the present essay, Jean Rhys wrote in a 1960 letter: “The other day I wrote a short story as a holiday. It’s called ‘They thought it was jazz’ and is not typed. A bit of a crazy story. For fun” (Letters 184). Incidentally, those recreational stories were also a welcome source of income for a writer who was in financial dire straits most of her life. Although they were by no means mercenary undertakings, the stories became, between the end of the Second World War and the late 1960s when Wide Sargasso Sea was eventually published, diminutive potboilers which earned her what she called her “runaway money” (Letters 211).

2Of course, Jean Rhys’s relation to short fiction was not merely dependent on writerly frustration or financial predicament. Her writing style, characterised by a great economy of means, is actually tailored to short fiction: her bare, uncluttered sentences and her predominantly monosyllabic words produce maximum effect with fairly little, although this “little” was achieved at the cost of obsessive, punctilious revision and ruthless trimming. Jean Rhys had a habit, developed under the aegis of Ford Madox Ford, of downsizing her novels and stories. In a 1960 letter to Francis Wyndham, for instance, she says that “Till September Petronella,” also included in Tigers Are Better-Looking, “was once a full length novel. Almost. I cut it and cut it. Was that right or wrong? Don’t know” (Letters 185). If some of the stories were, she felt, abortive novels, others emerged as more refined versions of a novel.

  • 1 This “subtractive aesthetics” (“esthétique soustractive”) is part of the economy of means that char (...)
  • 2 “Indeed, the term ‘humble’—from Latin humilis, ‘low, lowly,’ itself from humus ‘ground’—refers to t (...)

3Thus, Jean Rhys’s stories are often unassuming texts, sometimes written “for fun” in a self-effacing, minimalist style that cuts down on unnecessary expenses, stories which are clearly shaped by what Pierre Tibi calls “a subtractive aesthetics” (33).1 As such, they may already qualify as humble fiction but they also repeatedly focus on humble characters, a protean cast of paupers ranging from impoverished planters to unsuccessful chorus girls, to single, aging or sick women, in short a crowd of destitutes who are relegated to the margins of the world they precariously inhabit, whether it be the distant colony, the European capital or the small West Country village. The stories often relate failures, falls from social grace—topics that are consistent with the Latin root of “humble” which comes from “humus” for “ground”2—showcasing dispossessed characters who are exposed to social scorn and humiliation, characters who lead subtractive lives, penni-less and sometimes home-less down-and-outs. In Jean Rhys’s stories then, humble characters enjoy literary visibility and voice, where society and relations of dominance make them invisible and voiceless. To borrow from the title of Pierre Rosanvallon’s book, the collected stories form a “parliament of invisible people” in which humble voices make themselves heard.

  • 3 There is evidence in Jean Rhys’s letters that she started writing it in the late 1940s, dropped it, (...)
  • 4 In this passage, Nick Couldry is referring to Charles Tilly’s book, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: U (...)

4“Let Them Call It Jazz,” which is part of the collection Tigers Are Better-Looking and was originally published in The London Magazine in February 1962,3 combines several contributing factors in social relegation, poverty, gender and ethnicity, and exemplifies Nick Couldry’s observation that “inequality becomes particularly durable when two major categories (for example, gender and ‘race,’ or gender and class) are overlaid in everyday interactions” (124).4 The story rests on interesting paradoxes when it comes to the representation of precarious lives and the invisibility and voicelessness that are associated with them. The heroine, Selina Davis, is both hypervisible and invisible, loud and voiceless. I will start with a discussion of these paradoxes, and will then argue that, after her forced journey into precariousness and invisibility, the protagonist finds a way into discretion and ordinary life.

Hypervisibility as Invisibility

5Selina Davis is a mixed-race woman who lives alone in London, a humble seamstress who has come to the “mother country” to find a good job, only to realise that her handsewing is too slow for the fast-moving pace of the city: “[h]owever here they tell me all this fine handsewing take too long. Waste of time—too slow. They want somebody to work quick and to hell with the small stitches” (Rhys, Tigers 51). Running out of money, she is kicked out of her Notting Hill flat and is offered temporary accommodation in the basement flat of a dilapidated house out in the suburbs, in the margins of the metropolis, where her presence disturbs and angers her “respectable” neighbours.

6As a mixed-race girl in Britain, not so long after the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948, Selina Davis is one of Jean Rhys’s most conspicuous characters. She is in fact both conspicuous and invisible, conspicuous in the sense that her skin colour draws attention to her, and invisible in the sense that her very skin colour confines her identity within a racial stereotype, the self disappearing behind the ethnic other. She suffers from the kind of hypervisibility that Ralph Ellison famously defined as a form of invisibility in Invisible Man (1952). In her book about contemporary diasporas, Françoise Král explains the paradox as follows: “Ralph Ellison’s novel chronicles the trajectory of a black man who is aware that his ethnic conspicuousness consigns him to social invisibility in the eyes of white Americans with racial prejudices” (Král 19). In Le Parlement des invisibles, Pierre Rosanvallon makes the additional point that Ellison’s hero is invisible because people will not see him but also because they are incapable of seeing him: in Ellison’s own words, it is “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes” (qtd. in Rosanvallon 47). Thus, visibility is also dependent on available frames of recognition. As Nick Couldry puts it, “to be understood, acknowledged and recognized as a subject, ‘I’ have to satisfy certain ‘norms of intelligibility’” (120).

7In “Let Them Call It Jazz,” Selina’s ethnic hypervisibility colludes with economic deprivation to make her invisible and unintelligible. As Mr Sims, the shady man who provides temporary shelter, reminds her, money plays a very important part in the distribution of visibility and recognition:

“I don’t think so much about money. It don’t like me and what do I care?” I was joking, but he turns around, his face quite pale and he tells me I’ll get pushed around all my life and die like a dog, only worse because they’d finish off a dog, but they’ll let me live till I’m a caricature of myself. (Rhys, Tigers 49)

  • 5 Perhaps because the hidden agenda of this generous assistance is sexual exploitation. No such thing (...)

8Poverty, Mr Sims claims, makes one doubly invisible in that it reinforces the power of stereotypes (“caricature of myself”) and dehumanises the self (“die like a dog, only worse”). It also deprives the self of agency (“I’ll get pushed around all my life”). Selina’s existence proves Mr Sims’s admonition right. From the moment she leaves her Notting Hill flat, and partly because of Mr Sims’s helping hand,5 she engages in a process of social erasure and self-destruction. In the house which is no home, objectified by the dehumanising gaze of her neighbours and by her dependence on Mr Sims, Selina’s life comes to a standstill, and the young woman loses all capacity for productive action: she lives a life of waiting, of free-floating immobility, disempowerment and heavy drinking, against her better judgment, this “restless immobility [being] another paradox of the homeless condition” according to Georg Zipp (Korte and Regard 175). Selina gradually turns into a conspicuous but invisible outcast who no longer authors her life. Once in the suburbs, she is bound to be even more conspicuous, therefore even more invisible; as expected, her middle-class neighbours cannot take their eyes off her: they stare at her “as if I’m wild animal let loose” (Rhys, Tigers 47), see her as a black “tart” (54) and, at the end of a period of mounting tension culminating in violence, she is disposed of, sent to jail for being drunk and disorderly. Most of the story could therefore be described as a process of social erasure, metaphorized by Selina’s getting thinner and thinner, to the point of no longer recognising herself in a mirror: “there’s a small looking glass in my cell and I see myself and I’m like somebody else. Like some strange new person. Mr Sims tell me I too thin, but what he say now to this person in the looking glass?” (60). Locked up in jail, she is also a prisoner of the white gaze, becoming invisible in her own eyes.

9The story dramatizes the way in which precariousness—compounded by ethnicity—transforms an ordinary life into a ghostly one, hidden from view by the very society that produces this ghosting. As Le Blanc explains in Vies ordinaires, vies précaires,

  • 6 “Car il existe bien un statut social de la précarité : l’inexistence. Les précaires ne vivent pas h (...)

there is indeed a social status of precariousness: non-existence. Precarious people do not live outside society. They are not excluded but they are dispossessed of themselves by the society that produces them and keeps them afloat, one foot in, one foot out, thus creating the army of reserves that capitalism needs to prosper in an unlimited way. The dispossession of the precarious culminates in their being deprived of voice and face. (Le Blanc 19-20; my translation)6

10By the time Selina finds herself under lock and key, she has become faceless, and is surrounded by a spectral, faceless army of other precarious women. One of the girls waiting with her in a long line, for instance, seems to lose substance as she starts speaking to her: “She stop crying and start a long story, but while she is speaking her voice get very far away, and I find I can’t see her face clear at all” (Rhys, Tigers 58).

Loud Voicelessness

11In the same way as Selina is both hypervisible and invisible, she is both loud and, paradoxically, voiceless. Speaking in the first person in what sounds like Caribbean English or what Jean Rhys calls “a stylized patois” (Letters 197), she is endowed with a very distinctive narrating voice, and likes to sing at the top of her voice when she is drunk. As Kristin Czarnecki notes, Édouard Glissant once described Creole as “a blast of sound”; the trouble is that Selina’s neighbours are “unwilling to acknowledge her ‘blasts’ as legitimate language” (22). The story suggests that she is metaphorically inaudible and is gradually silenced as a result, establishing a link between precariousness and voicelessness, as Le Blanc does in Vies ordinaires, vies précaires:

  • 7 “À terme, la précarisation compromet l’enveloppe narrative du ‘soi’. Ce dernier est en effet envelo (...)

Ultimately, precarisation jeopardises the narrative shell of the self. The latter is embedded in a series of linguistic skills which disintegrate proportionally to the degree of precarisation to which it is subjected. What is undermined by the more extreme forms of precarisation is not only the possibility of addressing someone, but also the wish to gather one’s life into a life story that is indispensable to the arts of doing. (Le Blanc 107-08; my translation)7

12In “Let Them Call It Jazz,” Selina explains how, on many occasions, she has simply given up speaking up or back because nobody would hear what she had to say. When she is unfairly kicked out of her flat for example, she just packs up and goes without a word, feeling certain that nobody will listen to her grievances, no matter how abusive and dishonest her landlords may be: “Any complaint—the answer is ‘prove it.’ But if nobody see and bear witness for me, how to prove anything? So I pack up and leave” (Rhys, Tigers 44). When she is taken to court for breaking her neighbours’ stain-glass window, she tries to explain herself but, as often with Selina, she becomes too loud to be audible:

I want to tell him the woman next door provoke me since long time and call me bad names but she have a soft sugar voice and nobody hear—that’s why I broke her window, but I’m ready to buy another after all. I want to say all I do is sing in that old garden, and I want to say this in decent quiet voice. But I hear myself talking loud and I see my hands wave in the air. Too besides it’s no use, they won’t believe me, so I don’t finish. (57)

13As this quotation shows—as indeed the choice of a first-person narrator suggests—the precarious individual is not entirely voiceless but her voice is covered over by the “soft sugar voice” of her opponent, her respectable neighbour. In Le Blanc’s words,

  • 8 “Ainsi si l’absence de voix ne correspond pas à une absence de langage, elle atteste en revanche de (...)

if the absence of voice is not synonymous with the absence of language, it does, on the other hand, bear witness to ordinary language games redefined by the forms of language of the social institution on which the precarious depend, in such a way that their voices are ultimately made inaudible by the overlapping that the voices of others produce. To be voiceless, then, does not amount to being deprived of a voice altogether but to being deprived of an audible voice, including for oneself. (151; my translation)8

14In the courthouse scene, Selina has internalised her own inaudibility to the point of performing it herself, a process of self-silencing which Nick Couldry accounts for in a section about social and political misrecognition: “[t]he status of voice as achieved in politics depends, then, on becoming ‘visible,’ not in the sense of being physically seen—any more than voice itself, as we noted earlier, depends necessarily on being physically heard—but in the sense of being regarded as relevant to the distribution of speaking opportunities” (107). Being invisible, Selina is not recognised as a legitimate, therefore audible voice, even by herself.

  • 9 This form of oppressive accountability is also present in “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” “Good-bye Marcu (...)

15The institution of law enforcement is quite central to the story and the inaudibility of Selina’s voice in court is symptomatic of how, instead of being offered the possibility of giving an account of herself, she is just held accountable for trouble-making and for disturbing the hegemony of social norms. Here and elsewhere in Jean Rhys’s stories, precarious characters are deprived of voice or cannot give an account of themselves but are simultaneously held accountable by law and order, forced to speak or to explain themselves.9 What the story suggests is that Selina finds herself in a society where humanising forms of address have yielded to a type of accountability that “follows only upon an accusation or, minimally, an allegation, one made by someone in a position to deal out punishment if causality can be established” (Butler 11). Representatives of the norm coerce humble people into retributive accountability, a dehumanising defacement of the other: in court, Selina appears as nothing but a mixed-race troublemaker, cursing, singing and dancing in “obscene fashion” (Rhys, Tigers 56). The demonised other returns with a vengeance.

Ordinary Life

  • 10 “La précarisation est le revers de la quotidianisation. Si celle-ci attache l’homme à ses capacités (...)

Precariousness is the flip side of everyday life. If the latter attaches man to his capacities thanks to the incorporation of norms that ensure the visibility and legibility of each life in social life, precariousness, on the contrary, detaches man from his capacities through the decorporation of norms, making his capacities opaque and hardly usable. (Le Blanc 103; my translation)10

16Unexpectedly enough, in its last third, the story develops towards a reasonably happy ending. Once precariousness has run its destructive course, dissolving face, voice and creative action, the denouement—which is not entirely devoid of ambiguity—returns Selina to ordinary, liveable life. In jail, Selina first goes through a kind of symbolic death, not saying anything, not eating anything, not feeling anything, not wanting anything (Rhys, Tigers 59-60). Then, she hears an empowering song that awakens her from this social slumber and brings her back into the world:

It’s a smoky kind of voice, and a bit rough sometimes, as if those old dark walls theyselves are complaining, because they see too much misery—too much. But it don’t fall down and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. I don’t hear the words—only the music. (60)

  • 11 “L’interpellation bienheureuse produite par le ‘tu’ du clinicien fait surgir le ‘je’ dans une sphèr (...)

17Selina hears the song for the first time as she is going round in circles in the prison yard. Coming from an invisible source but very audibly broadcasting a message of hope and defiance—the song is known as the Holloway Song and it says “cheerio and never say die” (60)—it rather miraculously provides an alternative to social death and allows Selina to sound her own song—ultimately the story she tells in the first person. The Holloway song brings down walls and opens up a world of possibilities (“anything can happen” [61]) where Selina feels she can intervene. She starts eating again and retrieves her voice, articulating a short narrative of what happened to her: “[t]hen I’m hungry. I eat everything they bring and in the morning I’m still so hungry I eat the porridge. Next time the doctor come he tells me I seem much better. Then I say a little of what really happen in that house. Not much. Very careful” (61). The visit of the doctor, a figure of care in the repressive environment of the prison, now creates a scene of address which performatively produces a self with voice and agency: “[t]he felicitous address produced by the physician’s ‘you’ causes the ‘I’ to emerge in a narrative sphere that is, in itself, a performative scene” (Le Blanc 240; my translation).11

  • 12 In this particular section, Françoise Král is speaking about the invisibility and even spectrality (...)

18Thus, the Holloway song is a deterritorialising song that brings down walls, that is to say challenges the compartmentalisation of social space, whose “lines, invisible in certain cases, ground and validate the existence of certain people while condemning those who are stranded in unacknowledged avenues, between two countries and awaiting a new status as residents for example, to sink into oblivion” or to live invisible lives (Král 3).12 The song is an act of resistance that subverts the coercion of the prison and, beyond this, that of the dominant order embodied in language, the stereotypes, the injurious addresses, the retributive accountability which make Selina invisible and inaudible. The Holloway song can be regarded as what Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls a “counter-address” (15):

  • 13 “Il n’y pas d’interpellation qui ne suscite une contre-interpellation (de l’idéologie par le sujet (...)

there is no address that does not elicit a counter-address (of ideology by the subject it addresses). . . . Between the various addresses that constitute me as a subject, there is a certain amount of play, both space- and time-based—this amount of play is the breeding ground of my freedom and it is what enables me to counter-address. (15; my translation)13

  • 14 “[L]a vie ordinaire est puissance créatrice, ruse pour détourner le sens des normes et faire adveni (...)

19In Selina’s prison-cell and in the confining social world she inhabits, the Holloway song creates—or helps reveal—space in the criss-cross of norms that determines the self, introduces freedom and possibility, points to an escape route or a line of flight: it suggests to her that she can appropriate the norms and be creative with them, from within them. In other words, it shows her the way to ordinary life as Le Blanc understands it, that is to say a life in which the self can be creative and cunning enough to bend norms and produce new sustaining ones: ordinary life is “a creative force, a craftiness that reroutes the meaning of norms and makes new ones emerge”; “ordinary life is like poaching inside the forest of norms” (Le Blanc 20, 44; my translation).14 After her release for example, Selina is able to have a normal conversation about the weather with a woman at the station (“I know what to say and everything go like a clock works” [Rhys, Tigers 62]), and she is later able to secure a job by lying about her work experience (“I lie and tell them I work in very expensive New York shop. I speak bold and smooth faced, and they never check up on me” [62]). She now has enough resourcefulness to make her own creative way “inside the forest of norms” while staying within normative frames of recognition. Interestingly, her new job consists in altering ready-to-wear dresses; in other words, she is now possessed of the marketable skill of adjusting general, collective patterns to particular bodies (63).

  • 15 “C’est une expérience au milieu et auprès des êtres et des choses, qui exige de déposer toute souve (...)
  • 16 “[T]oute résistance sérieuse et modeste a toujours commencé par l’acceptation d’une certaine clande (...)

20One way of accounting for Selina’s development would be to say that she manages to convert hypervisibility, invisibility and humiliation into discretion, the art of disappearing according to Pierre Zaoui. Discretion is a form of self-effacement that should not be mistaken for self-denial or selflessness; it is a temporary experience of withdrawal that opens the self to others and to the possibilities available to ordinary life: “it is an experience in the midst of and close to beings and things which requires the laying down of all sovereignty in order to open oneself to the legally unlimited possibilities of anonymous life” (Zaoui 135; my translation).15 As well as being one of the conditions of dissent—“[A]ll serious and humble resistance has always begun with the acceptance of a certain clandestinity, that is, the art of hugging the walls and of keeping a low profile, the art of discretion” (17; my translation)16—discretion is more or less the opposite of the non-chosen invisibility of the precarious; it is a humble form of visibility or invisibility that allows the self to navigate the social world safely, positing and resulting in a more peaceful and symmetrical form of relationality. In Zaoui’s words, discretion is a way of “letting the world be” (91), a turn of phrase which brings to mind the title of the story, taken from the ambiguous ending. At a party, Selina whistles the Holloway song, and one of the guests “jazzes it up” on the piano:

I say, “No, not like that,” but everybody else say the way he do it is first class. Well I think no more of this till I get a letter from him telling me he has sold the song and as I was quite a help he encloses five pounds with thanks.
     I read the letter and I could cry. For after all, that song was all I had. I don’t belong nowhere really, and I haven’t money to buy my way to belonging. I don’t want to either. . . .
     Now I’ve let them play it wrong, and it will go from me like all the other songs—like everything. Nothing left for me at all.
But then I tell myself all this is foolishness. Even if they played it on trumpets, even if they played it just right, like I wanted—no walls would fall so soon.
     “So let them call it jazz,” I think, and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.
     I buy myself a dusty pink dress with the money. (Rhys, Tigers 63)

  • 17 On the cultural hybridity of jazz music and its signalling “the transformations of postwar English (...)

21The transformation of the Holloway song into jazz at the close of the story may be read as a final act of deprivation: Selina feels she is being dispossessed of her own transformative song, now commodified by and reterritorialised as mass entertainment. From this perspective, “‘[s]o let them call it jazz’” could be interpreted as a bitter dismissal of dominant discourse and, because the phrasing implies an abdication and delegation of the power of naming, it could be seen as the final surrender of the precarious self to the silencing and invisibilising of the dominant order. In addition, jazz music, very popular since the interwar period, owes much to “foreign” influences and yet has been incorporated into mass culture, an ironic counterpoint to the treatment to which Selina, herself a cultural hybrid, has been subjected.17 The cruel irony is probably not lost on her. However, after her initial despair, Selina shifts to a more detached, almost indifferent mood which alters the meaning of her words: in the last analysis, “So let them call it jazz” may express a temporary withdrawal of the discreet self and a discreet rather than resigned acceptance of the jazzy version, as long as the original meaning and the emancipatory power of the song endure. Far from being an admission of defeat, her discreet withdrawal preserves the private space of the self (“That won’t make no difference to the song I heard”) while accommodating the collective space of others: Selina, as Zaoui puts it, “lets the world be.” A token of her newfound discretion is the “dusty pink dress” she treats herself to with the five pounds. The subdued colour signposts her entry into discretion, while the new dress marks the recovery of social visibility and viability. The “dusty pink dress” is a metonymy for the humble but empowering style which Selina achieves at the end and which protects her from social annihilation.

  • 18 Kristin Czarnecki studies Selina’s patois in the context of dialect usage during the modernist peri (...)

22Jean Rhys, Helen Carr argues, “writes in the voice of the disempowered” (44). In “Let Them Call It Jazz,” this voice speaks patois, a dialect which is immediately perceived as “culturally inferior or low-class, the common English perception of patois” (Czarnecki 21). Thus, Selina Davis speaks in the voice of the humble but this humble idiom is not the language of disempowerment in this story, nor does it simply perpetuate debasing stereotypes.18 It is part of Selina’s humble style, her modulation of standard English—Le Blanc defines style as “the modulation of norms” (44). This is perhaps where the humble, the ordinary and the minor modes cross paths. Not unlike Selvon’s in Lonely Londoners (1956), analysed by Lecercle (9-10), Jean Rhys’s imitation of the minor dialect of Caribbean immigrants effects a “becoming-minor” of standard English (Deleuze and Guattari 27). It is minor in the sense that it is spoken by a community of immigrants but also in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the word:

The first characteristic of minor literature in any case is that in it language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization. . . . The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. . . . The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, magnified, because a whole other story is vibrating within it. . . . The third characteristic of minor literature is that in it everything takes on a collective value. . . . literature finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation. (17)

23Flouting the grammaticality of standard English—the idiom of Selina’s oppressors in the story, landlords and landladies, white neighbours, law enforcement—the minor or humble dialect subverts linguistic and social power structures and sounds the “blasts” or the “counter-address” of a humble but audible, creative voice through which other voices make themselves heard.

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Zimring, Rishona. “Making a Scene: Rhys and the Aesthete at Mid-Century.” Jean Rhys: Twenty-First-Century Approaches. Eds. Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Moran. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2015. 40-58. Print.

Zipp, Georg. “Life on the Streets: Parallactic Ways of Seeing Homelessness in John Berger’s King: A Street Story (1999).” Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain. Eds. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014. Print.

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1 This “subtractive aesthetics” (“esthétique soustractive”) is part of the economy of means that characterises the short story, according to Pierre Tibi, a genre which makes the most of silence and of the implicit (33).

2 “Indeed, the term ‘humble’—from Latin humilis, ‘low, lowly,’ itself from humus ‘ground’—refers to those who are low in rank, quality, or station, who are unimportant and obscure” (Brasme, Ganteau, Reynier 11).

3 There is evidence in Jean Rhys’s letters that she started writing it in the late 1940s, dropped it, and worked on it again in the late 1950s (Jean Rhys, Letters 66).

4 In this passage, Nick Couldry is referring to Charles Tilly’s book, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: U of California P, 1998).

5 Perhaps because the hidden agenda of this generous assistance is sexual exploitation. No such thing is explicitly represented in the story but the reader learns through the neighbours’ hostile voices that Mr Sims has previously kept other “tarts” in the house: “‘At least the other tarts that crook installed here were white girls,’ she says” (Rhys, Tigers 54).

6 “Car il existe bien un statut social de la précarité : l’inexistence. Les précaires ne vivent pas hors de la société. Ils ne sont pas exclus, mais ils sont dépossédés d’eux-mêmes par la société qui les fabrique en les maintenant à flot, un pied dedans, un pied dehors, et en créant ainsi l’armée de réserve dont a besoin le capitalisme pour prospérer de manière illimitée. La dépossession de soi culmine dans la privation de voix et de visage du précaire.”

7 “À terme, la précarisation compromet l’enveloppe narrative du ‘soi’. Ce dernier est en effet enveloppé dans une série de compétences linguistiques qui se désagrègent en fonction de la précarisation subie. Ce qui est miné par les formes extrêmes de la précarisation, c’est non seulement la possibilité de s’adresser à, mais c’est également le vœu de rassembler sa ‘vie’ dans un récit de vie indispensable aux arts de faire.”

8 “Ainsi si l’absence de voix ne correspond pas à une absence de langage, elle atteste en revanche de jeux de langage ordinaires redéfinis par les formes du langage de l’institution sociale dont dépend le précaire, de telle sorte que sa voix est finalement rendue inaudible par le recouvrement que produit la voix des autres. Être sans voix, c’est alors se trouver non dans l’absence de voix, mais dans l’absence d’une voix audible, y compris pour soi.”

9 This form of oppressive accountability is also present in “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” “Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose” or “Fishy Waters,” included in Sleep It Off Lady. I discuss this further in another article (see Maurel).

10 “La précarisation est le revers de la quotidianisation. Si celle-ci attache l’homme à ses capacités par l’incorporation des normes qui assurent une visibilité et une lisibilité de chaque vie dans la vie sociale, la précarité, au contraire, détache l’homme de ses capacités par la décorporation des normes, rendant les capacités opaques et guère utilisables.”

11 “L’interpellation bienheureuse produite par le ‘tu’ du clinicien fait surgir le ‘je’ dans une sphère narrative qui est, en elle-même, une scène performative.”

12 In this particular section, Françoise Král is speaking about the invisibility and even spectrality of migratory movements nowadays but the invisible lines which compartmentalise space and categorise certain lives as invisible ones were already dividing the social space of the 1950s in which earlier migrants such as Selina Davis landed, and are more generally relevant to the social relegation of precarious people. See in particular chapter 5 of her book (“Nation Building and Home Thinking” 133-52).

13 “Il n’y pas d’interpellation qui ne suscite une contre-interpellation (de l’idéologie par le sujet qu’elle interpelle). . . . entre les diverses interpellations qui me constituent en sujet, il y a du jeu, à la fois topique et temporel—c’est ce jeu qui fonde ma liberté et me permet de contre-interpeller.”

14 “[L]a vie ordinaire est puissance créatrice, ruse pour détourner le sens des normes et faire advenir de nouvelles normes”; “La vie ordinaire est comme une série de braconnages à l’intérieur de la forêt des normes.”

15 “C’est une expérience au milieu et auprès des êtres et des choses, qui exige de déposer toute souveraineté pour s’ouvrir aux possibilités en droit illimitées de la vie anonyme.”

16 “[T]oute résistance sérieuse et modeste a toujours commencé par l’acceptation d’une certaine clandestinité, c’est-à-dire l’art de raser les murs et de ne pas se faire remarquer, l’art de la discrétion.”

17 On the cultural hybridity of jazz music and its signalling “the transformations of postwar English culture through the literature and popular music of a new wave of immigrants, beginning with the Windrush Generation,” see Zimring (41).

18 Kristin Czarnecki studies Selina’s patois in the context of dialect usage during the modernist period and explains that “African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance deliberated over dialect and often eschewed it in their works for fear of propagating base stereotypes. . . . dialect often confined black writers within an exotic, folksy, or humorous framework, contrary to the principles of racial uplift outlined by W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, wherein African Americans would gain an entrée into mainstream society through a black aesthetic founded on sophisticated cultural accomplishments” (23).

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Sylvie Maurel, « “Let Them Call It Jazz” by Jean Rhys: From Precarious to Ordinary Life »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 183-197.

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Sylvie Maurel, « “Let Them Call It Jazz” by Jean Rhys: From Precarious to Ordinary Life »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 25 juillet 2024. URL :

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Sylvie Maurel

Sylvie Maurel is a senior lecturer at the university of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. She specialises in British literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. She published a book and a number of articles on Jean Rhys. She has also published work on Daphne du Maurier, Ian McEwan and A. S. Byatt, as well as contemporary rewritings of fairy tales.

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