Another Country is James Baldwin’s third novel, and is is quite a bit longer than Baldwin’s first two, maybe even longer than both of them combined. It’s interesting to me that it basically covers a lot of the same ground that his essays of the time do, but does so in the language of fiction. The reason that’s interesting to me is that other authors I’ve dealt with, when they wrote fiction, and when they wrote essays, the two seemed more divergent, like they were just wearing two different hats. Somehow Baldwin has really found two ways to come at the same themes, in a way that allows one very naturally to supplement the other.
Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:
And the summer came, the New York summer, which is like no summer anywhere. The heat and the noise began their destruction of nerves and sanity and private lives and love affairs. The air was full of baseball scores and bad news and treacly songs; and the streets and the bars were full of hostile people, made more hostile by the heat. It was not possible in this city, as it had been for Eric in Paris, to take a long and peaceful walk at any hour of the day or night, dropping in for a drink at a bistro or flopping oneself down at a sidewalk cafe–the half-dozen grim parodies of sidewalk cafes to be found in New York were not made for flopping. It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Anyone who, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lived in New York in exile–in exile from the life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself.
The issues of race, nationality, sexuality, and the kind of interpersonal interdependence that’s at the root of the first three, all come in for extended consideration in Another Country. It’s a story of a cluster of 7 bohemians in New York in the late 50’s, and moves around from Harlem to the Village to the Lower East Side, to Paris and also rural France. I’m having trouble really extracting concrete meaning from the novel. I read the whole thing, I was definitely absorbed with it in a very compelling way as I read it. Its evocation of both scene and character were particularly effective, even if the plot was pretty minimal. In this way it reminded me of an early Virginia Woolf novel, Night and Day.
I also read the first half of it while I was in France (the Loire Valley and then Paris), which created some resonances I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. There is a profound intimacy about this book that makes it difficult to write about – the language in which it traffics is not readily translated into critical observations, at least not for me. It’s a little bit like if you were trying to describe a romantic relationship you had with someone, to a third person. How much could you really tell them? The feel of the thing would be very distant, and you could only hack around the edges by sharing more objective facts about the two of you.
Here are some of the objective facts: at the novel’s center is the story of Rufus, a black musician, and his sister Ida (a singer). Each of the other white characters – Richard, the successful if less-than-artful author, Cass, Richard’s almost deliberately upper-middle-class wife, Vivaldo, an Italian-American who is a struggling though perhaps more ambitious writer, Eric, an actor and wayward soul, and Yves, Eric’s French boyfriend, all connect to each other through Rufus.
But the really original character here, is Ida. She emerges towards the end of the book, sort of like Greta Conroy emerges in Joyce’s “The Dead.” The reader is apt to see her as less significant until she begins thinking and speaking to them more and more. There are a set of dialogues between her and Vivaldo (the two are together for much of the book), that, though they engaged in the vexed question of what it means to be black, and what it means to be white, in America, somehow do so in a way that is both edifying and fictionally compelling. Vivaldo keeps groping for colorblindness-type explanations, and Ida keeps insisting that race is involved in ways he can never understand. I was going to try to track down some quotations from the inside of the book to demonstrate this, but they’re all sort of out-of-context-sounding; it’s hard to do anything other than tell you they’re there.
One of the core aspects of Ida’s personality is her repeated insistence that the white people are all encased within a dream they are loath to admit the existence of. She never explains herself fully on that point, just lets them know every so often. Most of them, being good white liberals, don’t quite want to hear that.
And all the above doesn’t also let you know just how much sex and romance is in this book. Something Baldwin insists upon in several of the essays is just how much of a sexual dynamic is embedded within American racism, and this book tries to capture that. All of the central male characters are bisexual, which also allows for dimensions of exploration on this front that are really hard to chase down.
But that’s okay. This is a swirling, complex, yet extremely intuitive work of fiction – one that owes a lot to Dostoevsky’s Demons (or, The Possessed), a book which is jokingly alluded to, when we learn that Eric is to be in a Hollywood film adaptation, and is to play Stavrogin. The power of Another Country (like in Dostoevsky’s novel before it) lies not in the extraction of certain morals and lessons, but in the phenomena is fictionalizes, and in the reader’s experience of them, as an exercise in the development of empathy on Baldwin’s part.
The “lesson,” such as it is, is disarming simple:
“What,” asked Cass, unexpectedly, “does one replace a dream with? I wish I knew.”
Mr. Nash laughed, then stopped, as if embarrassed. Idea was watching her–watching her without seeming to watch. Then Cass sensed, for the first time in her life, the knowledge that black people had of white people–though what, really, did Ida know about her, except that she was lying, was unfaithful and was acting? and was in trouble–and, for a second, she hated Idea with all her heart. Then she felt very cold again, the second passed.
“I suppose,” said Idea, in an extraordinary voice, “that one replaces a dream with reality.”
Everybody laughed, nervously. The music began again. She looked again toward the dance floor, but those dancers were gone. She grabbed her drink as though it were a spar, and held it in her mouth as though it were ice.
“Only,” said Ida, “that’s not so easy to do.” She held her drink between her two thin hands and looked across at Cass. Cass swallowed the warm fluid she had been holding in her mouth, and it hurt her throat. Ida put down her drink and grabbed Ellis by the hand. “Come on, honey,” she said, “let’s dance.”