I was reminded of James Baldwin recently when I read Polish set novel “Swimming In The Dark” by Tomasz Jedrowski. Here a copy of Baldwin’s second novel “Giovanni’s Room”, a suppressed text, is glued between the pages of another publication and has a significant part to play. Main character Ludwik also goes on to study Baldwin for his doctorate.
I said at the time I should re-explore this American author’s work. I haven’t read him since my final degree dissertation which was on the search for love in his works. A Classics book order I was doing for work in the library saw me adding this title, and, as a little perk, I decided I should be the first to borrow it.
It’s actually one of Baldwin’s titles I remember least yet in the 30+ years since my first reading it has become acknowledged (well, certainly in the introduction by Colm Toibin) as the “essential American drama of the century.” In fact, I had to dig out that dissertation from the loft (plenty of time for rummaging around up there at the moment) to see how much I referred to this in my work and actually I did quite a fair bit as the search for love is certainly a significant driving-force for these characters.
The most powerful of the characterisations on show here is Rufus, an African-American man who cannot fit into society because of his skin colour and sexuality. Attempting to do so leads to an abusive relationship with Leona a white, Southern woman. It’s not a spoiler to say that surprisingly early on in the novel Baldwin dispatches one of these characters in a suicide jump off George Washington Bridge and the rest of the novel explores their group of friends putting their lives back together.
They are an intense lot. Vivaldo, a white man, begins a relationship with Rufus’ sister; Rufus’ ex-love Eric moves back from a stable relationship with a man in France to the melting pot of New York and infiltrates the partnership of writer Richard and his wife Cass. It’s all very introspective with the characters seeming extremely self-centred which feels like it would have seemed more appropriate in the analytical soul-searching years of the early 1960s than it does today but there is great power and richness in Baldwin’s writing which made this a very welcome rediscovery. Toibin in his introduction compares him to Henry James and I can see where he’s coming from but I find Baldwin far more readable. This remains a very balanced, potent read. I will be fascinated to find out if the works which meant more to me than this when I first read them will continue to resonate as strongly.
Another Country was first published in 1963. I read the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition.