Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin: Previous Condition

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 15

I had got to the point where I resented praise and I resented pity and I wondered what people were thinking when they shook my hand. In New York I met some pretty fine people; easygoing, hard-drinking, flotsam and jetsam; and they liked me; and I wondered if I trusted them; if I was able any longer to trust anybody. Not on top, where all the world could see, but underneath where everybody lives.

James Baldwin is an incredible writer as I’ve found out reading through much of his fiction. “Previous Condition” is no different as he examines the current life of Peter, a black actor trying to make his way in New York City.

The central plot point involves Peter being discovered living in a room rented for him by one of his friends. A room where African Americans are not allowed to live. He’s told to leave before the police are called – so he does.

Baldwin graphically and easily displays his writing ability in showing the reader the frustration, the humiliation, the helplessness, the mistrust and even the hatred Peter feels for not just the land lady kicking him out but for his society as a whole.

Peter’s Jewish friend (who rented the room for him) and his Irish American girlfriend both are able to listen to Peter and empathize but they don’t seem to be able to help him.

This story is included in Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man. I read it when I selected the Queen of Hearts for Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin: This Morning, This Evening, So Soon

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 10

James Baldwin’s short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” begins with the black American musician nameless narrator having lived in Paris for twelve years married to a Swedish woman with whom he has a young son. And he also happens to have recently starred in a film by an acclaimed French director.

Then we get more and more characters and layers and flashbacks and jumps forward in time and think: when and how is this going to get wrapped up? It doesn’t – except for the fact that underlying all of it is the narrator’s racial identity and the influence of American racism to his life, character and family.

In addition to this unusual way of telling this story, I can’t help appreciating it for the usual brilliant Baldwin writing as in this description of the narrator playing music for a white audience:

Under cover of the midnight fiction that I was unlike them because I was black, they could stealthily gaze at those treasures which they had been mysteriously forbidden to possess and were never permitted to declare.

This story is included in Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man. I read it when I selected the Jack of Hearts for Week 10 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin: The Outing

Deal Me In 2021 – Week 8

Something about James Baldwin’s short story “The Outing” reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile only it would be more like “Salvation on the Hudson”. There’s no murder and not really any mystery but there are numerous characters with numerous back stories all riding up the Hudson River on a tour boat for a church outing.

The adults all seem to have this church thing down while the teenage boys aren’t so sure they want to be like their supposed role-models.

Yet their bodies continued to change and grow, preparing them, mysteriously and with ferocious speed, for manhood. No matter how careful their movements, these movements suggested, with a distinctness dreadful for the redeemed to see, the pagan lusting beneath the blood-washed robes. In them was perpetually and perfectly poised the power of revelation against the power of nature; and the saints, considering them with a baleful kind of love, struggled to bring their souls to safety in order, as it were, to steal a march on the flesh while the flesh still slept. A kind of storm, infernal, blew over the congregation as they passed; someone cried, ‘Bless them, Lord!’ and immediately, honey-colored Sister Russell, while they knelt in prayer, rose to her feet to testify.

It’s interesting that Baldwin’s sympathies are mostly with the teenagers but he doesn’t completely right off the adults even if he doesn’t hesitate to emphasize their periodic hypocrisies. Baldwin at least appears to understand that the church had a cultural impact that had some benefits even if he “outgrew” some of the specifics in the same manner in which the teenage boys in the story might be.

This story is included in Baldwin’s collection Going To Meet The Man. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2021 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In list here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin

Hall Montana, the narrator in James Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head, tells this story with all the joy and all the rage I’ve come to expect from Baldwin’s novels. He weaves both of these emotions together in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily recognize one or the other but knows that both are embedded deeply into not just Hall but Hall’s family and friends, too.

The novel begins with the death of Hall’s gospel singer brother Arthur which allows Hall to recount the story of both of their lives. The brotherly love between Hall and Arthur is in the forefront of the novel and provides the bulk of the story’s emotional appeal. Secondary, but no less important, are the relationships between Hall and two different women and the relationships between Arthur and two different men. These relationships still powerfully support the bond between the brothers.

As in other Baldwin novels, gospel music lyrics get interspersed throughout the story. While the imagery in these songs adds both depth and atmosphere to the novel, it doesn’t turn it into a religious story. At the same time, Baldwin doesn’t erase the potential impact of the beliefs behind the music. Ultimately, Hall plows through a ton of emotion and a ton of reflection to come to his conclusion:

…how could we sing, how could we know that the music comes from us, we build our bridge into eternity, we are the song we sing?

Posted in Fiction

Another Country by James Baldwin

During a scene in James Baldwin’s Another Country, Vivaldo Moore gets high on a New York City rooftop with some people he just met and makes this observation:

The sky looked, now, like a vast and friendly ocean, in which drowning was forbidden, and the stars seemed stationed there, like beacons. To what country did this ocean lead? for oceans always led to some great good place: hence, sailors, missionaries, saints, and Americans.

Amidst a group of friends in Greenwich Village, Harlem and Paris, France, Baldwin lays bare the racial and sexual landscape of late 1950’s New York City which isn’t really that much different from the America of today.

In smokey bars, bistros and bedrooms, these characters have some of the most honest and viscerally raw conversations I’ve read in a long time – its an honesty that cuts so deep its difficult to not feel the pain of everyone regardless of race, gender and sexuality.

The rocky interracial relationship between Vivaldo and singer Ida Scott is interspersed with music from Bessie Smith’s blues to Mahalia Jackson’s gospel of which many of the lyrics talk of a better place than these current situations which is possibly where the title of the novel comes from. They are all looking for another country where differences don’t tear people apart.

Whether this country is physically geographical or spiritually in another realm is scattered throughout the characters’ conversations and Ida’s singing. Both concepts are brought together at the novel’s end when Eric’s French boyfriend, Yves, lands in the Big Apple:

…even his luggage belonged to him again, and he strode through the barriers, more high-hearted than he had ever been as a child, into that city which the people from heaven had made their home.

The novel references numerous song lyrics of which one is “Up Above My Head” written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe:

Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
Up above my head, I hear music in the air
I really do believe, I really do believe there’s a Heaven somewhere…

Check out Rhiannon Gidden’s amazing version of this song right here. And also check out Baldwin’s amazing and highly relevant novel.

Posted in Fiction

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

At the end of James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, David, the white American protagonist/narrator comes to a spiritual conclusion of sorts:

I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.

From what exactly is David trying to find redemption?

While he lives in Paris, he develops a relationship and moves in with Giovanni, an Italian bartender, while his fiance is away in Spain. He lies to both of them, and perhaps to himself, setting in motion a tragedy that ends with the execution of Giovanni.

One can look at the story line and determine that David wasn’t at fault in the legal sense but the spiritual guilt gnaws at him right up to the novel’s end. There is a part of Giovanni’s death that doesn’t get carried away from David by the wind – neither the winds of change nor the winds of time.

The guilt of a white American plays center stage in this novel pushed to full literary force by Baldwin’s incredible writing:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either,or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

Maybe Baldwin, himself, is one of these heroes.

Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin: The Rockpile

James Baldwin’s short story “The Rockpile” was the story I wanted to read for my birthday last month; however, it took longer than I expected to get a copy of Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man. I finally got it and I figure better late than never.

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“The Rockpile” involves the same characters from Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On the Mountain. In that novel, character’s are given their own sections for their story or point of view that tie together in the present time. In this short story, we also get varying points of view but because it’s not a novel, the narration jumps between characters and an author of Baldwin’s caliber makes these jumps work.

The sense of family dysfunction comes through loud and clear as each member old enough has some sort of resentment, some need for forgiveness, some need for redemption:

And she found in his face not fury alone, which would not have surprised her; but hatred so deep as to become insupportable in its lack of personality. His eyes were struck alive, unmoving, blind with malevolence – she felt, like the pull of the earth at her feet, his longing to witness her perdition.

Whether anyone actually finds what they need isn’t known to the reader – at least not in this story.

Posted in Books in General

Anniversary the Third!

Today is the third anniversary of Mirror with Clouds!  It’s been an interesting, informative and all around great three years and I’m looking forward to year #4.  It’s become my anniversary tradition to post some of my favorite quotations from the past year – so here they are!

These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold.  They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world.  Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere.  With a lantern I inspected them more closely.  Such worshipful venerableness of aspect!  Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells.  I no more saw three tortoises.  They expanded – became transfigured.  I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.

– From Herman Melville’s “The Encantadas” (a reference to the tortoises found on the Encantadas, also known as the Galapagos Islands)

 

In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.

-From Ernest Hemingway’s “Ten Indians”

 

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

-From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

 

He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt.  The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love.  Anything he looked at too long could bring it on.  Bishop did not have to be around.  It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk.  If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise.  It was completely irrational and abnormal.

-From Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away

 

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

-From James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

 

And then Trout, with his wound dressed, would walk out into the unfamiliar city.  He would meet his Creator, who would explain everything.

-From Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

 

 

Posted in Short Stories

James Baldwin: Sonny’s Blues

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For Week 46 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, I drew my final wild card.  I selected another story from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

To me, this story is one of the more emotional ones I’ve come across in a while.  I read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain earlier this year and was blown away by the gut-wrenching passion in his style.  That same passion comes through loud and clear in “Sonny’s Blues”.

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The story starts with the narrator reading in the newspaper about an incident involving drugs and his younger brother, Sonny.  It doesn’t take long for the reader to determine that the older brother is the “responsible” one, an algebra teacher, and the younger one is the musician and perhaps not so “responsible”.  Baldwin perfectly captures the complexity of the brothers’ relationship and the older brother’s distress over the newspaper article:

I was scared, scared for Sonny.  He became real to me again.  A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra.  It was a special kind of ice.  It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.  Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.

The story contains some of the more devastating aspects of the brothers’ family background. Most of it, though, revolves around the older brother’s frustration with the choices of the younger brother.  In some cases, the choices could just be bad choices.  In other cases, they could be the result of Sonny’s artistic temperament or maybe the lack of understanding on the part of his family for that temperament.  What does it cost Sonny to be an artist? His health, his sanity, his soul?

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

An amazing aspect of this story is Baldwin’s ability to get inside the heads of both of these brothers.  It makes me wonder which character Baldwin related to the most.  The mind of an artist and the struggles that take place within that mind is a fascinating topic to me.  I think this story has now taken the spot of favorite for the year.

Posted in Books in General

Classics Club: Favorite Literary Period

The monthly meme question at The Classics Club for March happens to be the question I submitted so I thought I would take a stab at answering it:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

It’s not difficult for me to pick my favorite literary period.  In coming up with a list of my favorite books, by and large, they fall into the category of “Early Twentieth Century”.  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London always come to mind when determining favorites, as do J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesteron, Evelyn Waugh and John Steinbeck.  Recently, I’ve discovered Willa Cather and Edith Wharton – while Cather could be included in favorites, the jury is still out with Wharton.   And I can’t forget Margaret Mitchell and her one great novel.

I don’t know who decides which years “Early Twentieth Century” encompasses but I would ask to be allowed to include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor in this period, as well as James Baldwin, whom I just read for the first time last week.  These authors all published something in the 1940’s and/or 1950’s which I will still include as “Early” even though several of them continued publishing into the “Later Twentieth Century” and in some cases into the “Twenty First Century”.

Why is this time period my favorite?  That’s the more difficult part of the question to answer.  In some respect, it’s simply that these were the authors I read when I first discovered literature during the summer before 10th grade.  They were the first authors I read when I discovered that there was something more to reading than just an exciting plot – that there was something about the words chosen and the way they were put together.  But one could learn this with any literary time period.

I think another reason would be that from my historical perspective, the “Early Twentieth Century” is on the edge of the old and the new.  It’s far enough in the past to be intriguing but yet close enough to the present to see direct connections and influences to the world in which I live.

Just curious, do you have a favorite literary period?