Thursday, July 31, 2014

"That city which the people from heaven had made their home": Thoughts on Baldwin's "Another Country"

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was "Another Country" and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go -

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin's novel hand. (But only if it wouldn't be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance. 

I also remember her asking me if I'd read Another Country at the time and being embarrassed to say no, though my guilty student self may have invented that piece. I read Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room sometime in college. I think I read Giovanni's Room in preparation for my college year in France, knowing it was about ex-pats. I haven't read it since and I don't remember a lot of the plot, but I remember being devastated by it. I remember that the pages of the old paperback I'd found at my parents or grandparent's house fell apart as I read it, and how I tried to put them back together with scotch tape. When, after one move too many moves, I accepted that this particular copy had given up the ghost, I tore out a few pages and taped them on my dresser, the way writers do for inspiration, even though I never actually wrote at that desk. 

Since then, like a lot of people, I've spent more time with his essays, and had come to accept the line that they were his true form. After reading this piece about why Baldwin is taught less than he was, I recently made a vow to teach something by Baldwin in every one of my classes. I asked one class who had heard of him, and only one student had. ("I went to the Baldwin school," she told me, "We heard a lot about him. To the credit credit of that school, there wasn't a trace of irritation in her voice.) Until recently teaching him mostly meant teaching the essays, but as I've been teaching more fiction writing and literature classes, I wanted to revisit that. Last semester I did "Sonny's Blues" and a lot of them had read it before, thanks to its status as an anthology staple. I realized my mistake too late to fix it - and then I realized I didn't know his other stories, or how many he had. (One collection, as it turns out, Going to Meet the Man).  

So I decided to start remedying this by reading Another Country, Baldwin's 1963 novel, the next work of fiction after Giovanni's Room. I had a falling-apart paperback of this one also. I think I inherited from  my grandmother's library. I like to imagine her reading it as a forty-something faculty wife, when she looked like a happier Mona Sterling in her impeccable blouses and tailored skirts. Like a lot of the feminist books from later in the 60s I've been researching, the books packaging combines commercial hype and political import in a way that's almost impossible to imagine today. On the back, Granville Hicks intones "The book itself is, and is meant to be, an act of violence."  (It isn't, of course, and that Hicks thinks so - and thinks this is a selling point - would be another post in of itself).

As this cover illustration suggests, Another Country is first and foremost a New York novel. Like so many writers, Baldwin left the place he was from to write about it. The middle section takes place in Paris, but he didn't write it there either. Below the final scene, charting the arrival in New York of a character's French lover to New York and these "people from heaven," there's a dateline reading "Istanbul, December 10, 1961."  I happened to finish Another Country around the same time I read this New Yorker essay about Erich Auerbach, who famously completed Mimesis, a founding work of my original discipline of Comparative Literature, in Istanbul.  Auerbach was fleeing the Nazis; Baldwin was fleeing racism, fame, and all the things that make it as difficult to write in New York as it is to write about New York. He came at the invitation of his friend Engin Cezzar, and the photographer Sedat Pakay took amazing photos of him there. 

One of the many fascinating things about Another Country is the lost New York it gives us. Baldwin's group of writers, artists and drifting souls (there's no one central character, and a lot of fascinating misdirection around this), hang out mostly in the Village. Some characters like to go to Harlem for "tomcatting," as they put it. One white woman has run away from the south, fleeing an abusive husband who has taken custody of her children. Brooklyn is the place of childhood everyone runs away from. And much is familiar: everyone in the group is suspicious of the writer whose novel is having some commercial success, and everyone drinks too much. They hang out at Smalls.

Baldwin's characters are exiles of a different sort than Auerbach or Baldwin. They flee their isolation and  the repression of their families. They run headlong against the cruelties of the culture they come from, unable to treat each other better than they have been treated, but blessed or cursed with enough self-knowledge that compels them to keep trying. Their other country is their own, and Baldwin takes pains to render his own New York strange as well, as when we are given the city through the eyes of another exile, the actor Eric upon his return to France:
So superbly was [New York] in the present that it seemed to have nothing to do with the passage of time: time might have dismissed it as thoroughly as it had dismissed Carthage and Pompeii. It seemed to have no sense whatever of the exigencies of human life; it was so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities . . . The girls along Fifth Avenue wore their bright clothes like semaphores, trying helplessly to bring to the male attention the news of their mysterious trouble. The men could not read this message. They strode purposefully along, wearing little anonymous hats, or bareheaded, with youthfully parted hair, or crew cuts, accoutered with attaché cases, rushing, on the evidence, to the smoking cars of the trains. In this haven, they opened up their newspapers and caught up on the day's bad news. Or they were to be found, as five o'clock fell, in discreetly dim, anonymously appointed bars, uneasy, in brittle, uneasy, female company, pouring down joyless martinis. 
Geography and sex and ritual: Baldwin stirs them so that it is impossible to maintain our convenient fiction about which part of ourselves comes from an "external" society and which from "internal" desires. This, I think, is why their  jealousies, adulteries, and drunken rages seem large rather than petty. Sexual and racial repression is part of it, but I don't think this is just a case of "when nothing is permitted, everything matters." Hipster alienation and rebellion have become such a cliche it is startling to view characters for whom estrangement from their families and communities are a real, definitive rupture that could easily leave them destitute and isolated. At the same time, in New York they have the means to peruse their desires and realize what this does and does not do. It is one thing to parse out all we know or think we know about desire, repression and "the other," when we see Vivaldo, an Italian-American "unpublished novelist" from Brooklyn peruse Ida, an African-American singer whose brother is probably the person Vivaldo is actually in love with. It is another thing to try, as Baldwin does, to imagine what both such people think and feel as they undertake this doomed but sincere bond. Here is Vivaldo watching Ida perform:
She was not a singer yet. And if she were to be judged soley on the basis of her voice, low, rough-textured, of no very great range, she never would be. Yet, she had something which made Eric look up and caused the room to fall silent; and Vivaldo stared at Ida as though he had never seen her before. What she lacked in vocal power and, at he moment, in skill, she compensated for by a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. The quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does to so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms - while still eating them standing, nightly, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and gives life, and kills. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Reading Lydia Davis, "Can't and Won't"

A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. "To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation." Precisely.