Am on my third Baldwin novel now… Another Country. So powerful. And so wonderful to read, because he is such a truly great novelist. This is literature, folks.
But it is also social commentary that partakes of the sharpest insight, the most unflinching eye, the truth most clearly spoken. This exchange between Vivaldo, the best friend of jazz musician Rufus, and another friend, an older white woman, is – especially for 1962 – profound:
[Vivaldo] “I know I failed him, but I loved him, too, and nobody there wanted to know that. I kept thinking, They’re colored and I’m white but the same things have happened, really the same things, and how can I make them know that?”
“But they didn’t,” she said, “happen to you because you were white. They just happened. But what happens up here [Harlem] happens because they are colored. And that makes a difference.”
The story reveals much about the social sources of the demons that plague “mixed-race” relationships of all kinds, but it is of such fierce artistry, such depth of understanding, that it reveals much of what is in our hearts that plagues all our relationships. This is Rufus and Vivaldo talking:
[Rufus] “What do you want — when you get together with a girl?”
“What do I want?”
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“Well,” said Vivaldo, fighting panic, trying to smile, “I just want to get laid, man.” But he stared a Rufus, feeling terrible things stir inside him.
“Yeah?” and Rufus looked at him curiously, as though he were thinking, So that’s the way white boys make it. “Is that all?”
“Well,” — he looked down– “I want the chick to love me. I want to make her love me. I want to be loved.”
There was silence. Then Rufus asked, “Has it ever happened?”
“No,” said Vivaldo, thinking of Catholic girls and whores. “I guess not.”
It is violent, dark and sometimes painful to read, for it grabs you by the heart and shakes! But it is a deep and beautiful story of the human condition.
Baldwin is at times prescient, as in these sentences early in the story:
The great buildings, unlit, blunt like the phallus or sharp like the spear, guarded the city which never sleeps. Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen — for the weight of this city was murderous — one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.
I’m only about a third of the way through it, but I will finish soon. I can hardly stop reading.
Giovanni’s Room was also intense and poignant, the story of a young American in Paris running from his American-ness, his oppressive father, his own nature, his love of boys… hiding in a loveless relationship and destroying everyone around him in the process.
Though fully the realism that Baldwin excels at writing, the Giovanni’s Room also has elements of existentialism, especially in his descriptions of the room itself, of the emotional and physical space it becomes, as well as in descriptions of the city and its people.
I highly recommend reading Baldwin for enjoyment, for broadening one’s vision of American literature, and for his deep insights into humanity and society.