Friday, November 16, 2012

James Baldwin

I stumbled on James Baldwin by accident. More than 20 years ago. So I neither knew nor cared about his politics or his sexual orientation. All I knew after 30 or 40 pages into his novel Giovanni’s Room was that I’d found a gifted writer. That last detail – the writing quality – is all that matters to me when selecting what books to read. Now, 20 years later, a Wikipedia search reveals all kinds of curiosities about the writer, nothing that changes my impression of his stellar writing ability, but certainly details that must’ve been hardships for him growing up in Harlem in the 1950s. I say ‘hardships’ but it might be just as valid to say ‘catalysts’ for his works. African-American, gay, a Pentecostal preacher who later rejects faith yet never quite affirms atheism, recognizes that religion both influenced his writing and inspired some African-Americans to defy oppression, and yet embraces a lifestyle religion condemns, and so on. As conflicted as his life must’ve been, so are his characters.  

Giovanni's Room is one such example. It reads like both a published confession and an exposé about the societal fringes of Paris in the 1950s, where, incidentally, Baldwin lived for a number of years. In the novel, gigolos are commonplace and desperate people barter for companionship. David, the protagonist, meets Giovanni on something akin to a dare and realizes he has only repressed the homosexual urges he thought he’d outgrown. His letters to his father in Brooklyn don’t generate the sympathy or the financial aid he hoped they would, so David borrows money from Jacques, a middle-aged gay who fancies young boys.

David rarely writes to his betrothed Hella, and when she eventually returns from Spain to be with him, she doesn’t know about his relationship to Giovanni. David eventually breaks it off with Giovanni, sending Giovanni into a quiet rage, later manifested when he kills his gay employer, Guillaume, who’d asked for sexual favors in return for his employment.

Although Hella is more than willing to help and comfort him, David tries to deal with his ambivalence alone. He fails and Hella discovers his infidelity. This makes her mistrust and even despise him. So David finds himself alone, guilt-ridden and haunted with the vision of Giovanni being taken from this world by the executioner's blade.

The Fire Next Time is essentially two substantial essays, exceptionally expressed and stirring. What he describes and the remedies he proposes are both heart-wrenching and insightful. I recently saw him on an old black & white video debating William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University. His eloquence and commentary were poignant throughout. Incidentally, the title of this book derives from a line in a Negro spiritual:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water but fire next time

Lastly, the Baldwin novel Another Country, as with Giovanni’s Room, is well written but tragic – no real hero, just reckless lifestyles and subsequent regrets. Simple joys lay interspersed throughout an otherwise sad promenade of people struggling with themselves, their races, racism, and their relationships with one another. Yet these moments don’t account for much, generally happening only after that reckoning day when the affair is exposed or confessed to or the suicide demands reflection of those who knew the deceased.

I paid a buck for this particularly old paperback copy at a local used bookstore, later learning this was a “Thirteenth Dell printing – April, 1965”, (five months before I was born). It appeared in mint condition, but once I brought it home, its stalwart shape and sheen turned out to be a mere façade. The yellowed pages, brittle and as dry as expired flour, cracked and broke like frozen butterfly wings. By chapter three, the cover, or the sail as I prefer to think of it, tore away. I grabbed the Scotch tape and did the best I could to extend the vessel’s journey. Yet rounding the Cape of the Final Stretch, as we find Eric naked in his rented garden, watching his lover Yves emerge from the Mediterranean spray below, with my curator-like devotion, I caught the back cover dangling from the spine like a broken rudder and set the boat, capsized fashion, on the top shelf of my closet, where it shall remain a fragile relic of a regrettable chapter in American History.   

I should note that about five particularly graphic sex scenes are contained herein, three of which are homoerotic, namely between men. I generally don’t care for sex scenes, and while Baldwin goes well beyond the mechanics of the act and writes just as much about the mess swimming in the participants’ heads (and I might add in a piercing and emotionally moving way), there were moments when I was tempted to skim. Still, if I run across anything else by Baldwin, I’ll grab it. He’s that good. But I’ll test the copy for durability before heading to the checkout counter.  

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