james baldwin’s another country

September 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

By all accounts this is a book I should despise. If it were written by another author I probably would have hurtled it across the room about a third of the way in. 350+ pages summed up in a few sentences would go something like this: sad people sleep with each other, and then they talk about it at length in their distinguished Manhattan lofts/artistic hovels/crack dens of sin and misery. MORE SEX OCCURS, much of it tortured and sad. There is an effete, hurting Parisian boytoy whose name is Yves. Yes, his name is actually Yves. Intermittently, a kitten pokes its head in. When it does it is the most hopeful thing to have happened in hundreds of pages.

All facetiousness aside, I am still glad to have read this book. My problem with Giovanni’s Room was that it was extremely one-note — you know the sounds that whales make when they’re on the hunt for a light lunch of krill or looking for lady whales to nail? it’s really beautiful and eerie and soulful and it makes you cry because all that ineffable beauty of nature disturbs the crystalline silence at the center of your soul? but then it goes on, and on, and eventually it starts to sound like someone with an inexhaustible supply of energy and oxygen blowing lustily on a broken foghorn? and damnit, after five hours, it’s really starting to hurt your ears? — that was Giovanni’s Room by the time it had gotten to its end. Another Country is done up from a broader palate, and I think the book benefits from it. For one thing, there are more things that the characters can be sad about. Artistic failure and the difficulties of interracial love being just two items, among multitudes. For another, it treats its relationships with something approaching optimism — Ida and Vivaldo, Eric and Yves. The last two make me go all dewey-eyed, holy shit. I’m glad the novel ended on an uplifting note for them.

Baldwin’s writing continues to wow me. It is heavy and dramatic and constantly breaking off pieces of its soul to exhibit, bleeding, on a little cushion. This may not sound like a pleasant time, but actually I derive a lot of pleasure from reading Baldwin’s sentences on a line-by-line level! Powerful stuff. And his control of rhythm is, as previously mentioned, intoxicating.

“Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world’s experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare.”

and

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life.”

As well, there are scenes in here that I won’t easily forget. In all likelihood I’ll probably end up cannibalizing them for future fic. Rufus, cold, in the streets, being bought a sandwich by a stranger. Ida at the microphone, seizing the audience by their throats with her voice. Vivaldo thinking about young brother-like boys he’d like to jostle across the bottom. And Yves and Eric at the train station was the single most stirring moment in the book to me.

One thing that I find noteworthy here is the way that Baldwin’s writing style blots out the voices of his characters, except in cases of dialogue where they come through unfiltered — Ida’s is especially distinctive. The effect is strange: I can’t tell Cass apart from Rufus apart from Eric apart from Vivaldo. In fact, there were several times when I thought I was reading from Eric’s point of view only to discover that it was actually Vivaldo who had just picked up the phone, put it down, lit a cigarette, walked to the rain-beaded window, gazed mystically out. I don’t think I’m the only reader to encounter this problem. It’s interesting, and relevant, because I think I might have a tendency to do the same — to get so wrapped up in my natural voice that I sacrifice the character’s mode of thinking and feeling in favor of propagating my own. When this book didn’t work for me it came down to this, I think — there’s little to distinguish this person from that one, and Baldwin’s naturally very vigorous, emotional narration doesn’t help, in fact it actively hurts the reader’s ability to differentiate between characters. Apart from some distinguishing traits — this one’s a woman, that one’s black, they’re straight, and by that, I mean bisexual — they’re all uniformly unhappy. They all sleep with each other. And that’s all I got.

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