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Baldwin’s Paris

Most literature of Paris delivers a nostalgia of the lost generation of which Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were a part. Writers (more like writer-wannabes) think there’s something in Paris that confers on writing a special gleam. One literary figure often overlooked is James Baldwin.

Baldwin was only 24 when he arrived in Paris, with just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism—an escape that be believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.

Baldwin was introduced to me in college American literature class. Since then he has maintained a grip on my imagination. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room (one of my all-time favorite novels) the novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between the narrator, David, a young American ex-soldier, and a darkly handsome Italian barman named Giovanni. I was inspired in equal parts by the depth and style of Baldwin’s prose, and the fact that he, a gay black man had written so boldly and lived so openly at a time when there was such deep social hatred and opposition aimed at those of us who shared either Baldwin’s race or sexual identity, let alone both. What’s more, the fact that he had found a way to live and write freely in Paris made the city feel like an essential destination for me.

I usually have no agenda going in Paris, rather want to allow the city to appeal to my whim. Why not go on a little Baldwin trail this time, starting at the famous Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours on the second floor, drinking coffee and Cognac to keep warm while working on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain?

Baldwin

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To me James Baldwin is more American than any American writer during his time. While he creates the conscience of his race in his works, he refuses to allow that destiny to be shaped by an obvious plot in which being black could only lead to mayhem and tragedy. His being gay further complicates his role. He once said he cannot handle both issues in the same novel.

In an essay in 1960 called ‘Notes for a Hypthetical Novel’ he had mused on the white people he met in downtown New York in his early twenties:

In the beginning, I thought that the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong. It seemed different. I seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer. It seemed cleaner, it seemed more polite, and, of course, it seemed much richer from the material point of view. But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were. They wanted to be someone that they were not.

Thus is Baldwin: sharp, biting, and calm. In Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar, Colm Tóibín explores how the changing world impacted on the lives of people who kept their homosexuality hidden, and reveals how natural desire affected their works.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

My next read of Baldwin will be Go Tell It On the Mountain. “Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It On the Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

[504] If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

” When two people love each other, when they really love each other, everything hat happens between them has something of a sacramental air. They can sometimes seem to be driven very far from each other: I know of no greater torment, no more resounding void—When your lover has gone! ” (143)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a moving, painful story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, born Clementine Rivers, a 19-year-old girl in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin delineation of the young couple’s struggle against “the jaws of this democratic hell” (128) is a lambaste against America’s racial injustice.

Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody—if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve—and do serve, in ways that they don’t know—has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. (28)

Growing up like brother and sister, Tish and Fonny have sealed their fate long before they are coming of age. Perhaps they have saved each other by keeping one another off the streets. Fonny was “just about the only boy (Tish knows) who weren’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores.” (36) When this hysterical, ignorant woman, a part-time whore visiting New York City from Puerto Rico was raped by a black man that she couldn’t recognize in recollection, Fonny, who happened to be near the crime scene, was put up by the police as the suspect.

As far as our situation is concerned, baby, she was raped. That’s it. I think, in fact, that she was raped and that she has absolutely no idea who did it, would probably not even recognize him if he passed her on the street. I may sound crazy, but the mind works that way. She’d recognize him if he raped her again. (118)

At the baby’s imminent birth, the families set out to clear Fonny’s name, but not without obstacle and clash due to their religious difference and the obscene power of the DA office. As they face an uncertain future with no prospect of closure, the young lovers experience a gamut of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. I find it very ironic that they prefer to subject the baby to a world where you’re marked for not what you have done but just for your color. For Baldwin, the injustice of Fonny’s situation is self-evident, and by no means unique: “Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die,” Tish’s mother declares near the conclusion of the novel. Yet the novel is ultimately optimistic. It stresses the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority, especially between members of a family, which would probably not be experienced in happier times. That it is based on reality strikes readers as timeless.

197 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Under-appreciated Authors

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This week’s question: Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of.

This is a tough call. After reading some of your very loquacious responses, it occurs to me that I am always stuck at a question that everybody embraces with ready solicitude. One efficient method to tackle the problem is to go through the entire list of book reviews and seek out the authors who are generally overlooked or under-appreciated.

1I cannot help the coincidence: some the authors I’ll name are gay writers. Alan Hollinghurst writes beautifully about politics and day-to-day gay life. His debut The Swimming-Pool Library and Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty both embody a gloomy, sober, and functional underworld-full of life, purpose, and sexuality. None of Mikhail Bulgakov’s works, which are anti-Stalin polemics, were published during his lifetime; but this significant voice from the former Soviet Union is recognized and acclaimed by almost every Russian-speaking human being now. Although some readers regard John Banville as a mixed bag, his unreliable narration (and excessive use of obscure vocabulary) convinces me the measure of his force. Check out Shroud. The doubly minority-esque James Baldwin, African American and gay, is ridiculously under-read, under-appreciated, and overlooked. I recently re-read Giovanni’s Room My friend Rick has read a book by Magdalena J. Zaborowska that renders a multitextured reading of James Baldwin’s work in Istanbul. L.P. Hartley is almost unknown to most American readers until NYRB Classics re-published The Go-Between. He had led a very secluded life, avoided intimacy and didn’t have a partner. While he admitted his homosexuality, he tended his sickly mother, spent a lot of time in Venice, where he researched and wrote this novel. Dennis McFarland is adroit in staging family dramas and grappling with the dynamics of love and reminiscence in all their infinite depth and complexity. Re-discovery of Rebecca West is just overdue on behalf of the current generation.

[248] Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

“I was in terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. Sometimes, when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again. Then, when he touched me, I thought, it doesn’t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over. “[88]

Set in the 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room is a compact novel that is so dense in emotional nuances of a young American who is involved with both a woman and a man. While his girlfriend Hella travels in Spain, David becomes friends with Giovanni: they connect the instant they meet at a bar. Although Giovanni is very fond of David, but this doesn’t make the American expatriate happy or proud. Instead the liaison makes him frightened and ashamed. Relationship with a man is sordid.

Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven matters? . . . But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better–forever–if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe. [57]

Albeit David admits his love for Giovanni, he is holding on to the deceptive consolation that Hella would fulfill his social approbation. With a fearful intimation there opens in him a hatred, which love ironically spawns, for Giovanni, which is as powerful as his love. Giovanni’s Room reveals the spoken complexities of the human heart, toiled between private desire and public expectation. Beleaguered by the pain of one who is caught between desire and conventional morality, David betrays his heart’s feelings.

You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you–you are immoral. [141]

David keeps fighting Giovanni’s love by sanitizing what has happened between them instead of accepting for what it is. Although David has never lied to him, he has never allowed Giovanni to reach him. Even when he makes love to Giovanni, he treats it as if there is nobody there–he is afraid to wear his heart on his sleeves. He has always been hiding behind the lies that he becomes to believe. Giovanni’s Room is a story of death and passion in its excruciating portrayal of how tragedy justifies true love.

169 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Giovanni’s Room (2006 Review)

[186] Another Country – James Baldwin

anothercountry11“Vivaldo hoped that he was dreaming still. A terrible sorrow entered him, because he was dreaming and because he was awake. Immediately, he felt that he had created his dream in order to create this opportunity; he had brought about something that he had long desired.” [322]

Manhattan in late sixties. Beneath the radical liberalness that defines the time, Baldwin populates his diverse characters–straight and gay, black and white, into a world of racial consciousness. The first fifth of the novel tells of the downfall of jazz drummer Rufus Scott, who is with too much soul and yet too thin a black skin. He has been painfully mindful of Eric, his first male lover and an actor, who is caught in a strange bisexual masquerade. When Eric is gone, Rufus seeks consolation in and at the same time transmute his pent-up anger on his white mistress Leona, who is eventually committed to a mental hospital.

When Rufus is stuck up to the point of no point, when the overwrought young man cannot understand all the things that hurt him, he takes his life. Rufus’ friends, Vivialdo, a struggle novelist, his mentor Richard, and Richard’s wife Cass, cannot understand his suicide, but afterward they become closer and Vivaldo begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister Ida, which is strained by racial tension and Ida’s bitterness after her brother’s death. Meanwhile, Eric returns to New York after a stay in France where he met his longtime lover Yves. Eric returns to the novel’s social circle but is more calm and composed than most of the clique.

Halfway through the cumbersome reading it’s obvious that one’s willingness to ignore parts of reality that he or she finds unpleasant dominates. Vivaldo is perhaps the most affected by this tendency. He also denies his own bisexuality. He refuses to admit his attraction to Rufus. Eric is the novel’s most honest and open character. He admits that Rufus was an abusive person, that his affair with Cass is frivolous and that his love of Yves is genuine. This also makes him the book’s most calm and composed character and, only after a night with Eric, does Vivaldo see the world clearly. The circle of friends have merely been taking refuge in the outward adventure in order to avoid the clash and tension of the adventure proceeding inexorably within. As they plunge into communication in the form of sexual musical chairs, they are haunted by the terrors buried beneath the impossible social language of the time—sexual and interracial boundaries, which render their true feeling spiteful and fermented.

Despite all that is said, that he has nailed in his writing most of the white characters in the book refuse to admit the racial tension surrounding them, this is my least favorite of Baldwin up to date, ranked lower than Giovanni’s Room and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, reading more like pulp fiction that is redolent of entangled affairs. 336 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

There’s A Hero (If You Look Inside Your Heart…)

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

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My hero doesn’t shed blood in the war. Neither is he a veteran nor a F16 pilot. He doesn’t advocate for global warming, nor does he receives a holy message from Mount Sinai. He is someone in whom I identity myself–Giovanni in Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The novel explores the troubling emotions of man’s heart with unusual candor and yet with dignity and intensity. It delves into the most controversial issue of morality with an artistry. The most touching and absorbing thing is Giovanni’s unconditional love for David, whose fearful intimation opens in him a hatred for Giovanni that is as powerful as his love for him. This love for Giovanni has been meticulously suppressed, and is not recognized until the ineluctable separation, which compounds David’s scruple.

Going hand in hand with Giovanni is Maurice in Maurice by E.M. Forster. speaks the truth of the hearts of many who are stricken by the very stigma, shame, and fear decades later. It reassures us that assimilating to any normality, or abiding by any standards does not give us dignity. Instead dignity manifests itself and comes to engulf us without our knowing when we are at ease with who we are. What makes a profound impression on me about the novel is not the gay protagonist, but the inexplicable loneliness Maurice has to live and to persevere. Maurice seems to hold the key to trouble but deep inside he is rather a simple-lifer who searches for love and wants to be loved. It makes me realize sometimes there are maladies in life so strange that one has to pass through them in order to attain the true happiness.

Both Giovanni and Maurice, to me, are very courageous men.