Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rereading Classics - Another Country

It's not bad enough, is it, that every day we read reviews of hundreds of books we just HAVE to get our hands on? When will we ever have time to delve into them all? Add to that the conundrum of all those glorious old classics one wants to revisit and Houston, we have a problem! At my library I have an end of aisle display for classic literature and the fact is, as soon as I put an Edith Wharton or a Henry James face out in its plastic receptacle, it's gone in 60 seconds. Readers are hungry for great literature.

Because of this I've decided that I, too, must return now and then to the novels my mother offered, to whet my appetite for reading so many years ago. I recently read a review of The Cross of Redemption, a collection of essays, reviews, and speeches, not previously compiled in one volume, by the author James Baldwin. I can only read one or two of these at a time because they are so powerful, so honest, and ultimately, so heart breaking in their timelessness, that I despair. Will change ever come to America?

My interest in Baldwin then progressed to one of his novels if, that is, I could find one in our downloadable books catalog. I often have difficulty finding much in the way of literary fiction in either our downloadable audio or ebook collections - a valid reason why I may have to splurge on a Nook (cheap classics) even though I love my Sony.

Another Country is read by the perfect narrator for the material. I fell for Dion Graham's voice while listening to some George Pelecanos, but his rendering of the Baldwin material is on a whole new level. The sensuality (and sexuality), the anger, the pathos, even the slightly off key singing of Bessie Smith, bring a depth to the novel that I might not have garnered from a straight reading.

As you may know, this book was published in 1962. I was in eighth grade, living in a Norman Rockwell type small New England town. Whatever I learned about the civil rights movement, the violent struggle for equality that was plaguing the South, was likely formed by osmosis, listening to my parents discuss and argue over the news before dinner, but before too long my consciousness was raised and I've been learning ever since.

The title Another Country is most apt for several reasons. Baldwin writes so movingly about characters who are angling to escape the boxes that society forms for them. Blacks forced in shackles from their own countries now find themselves in "another country," one in which they are disrespected and thus lose self-respect.
Gay men and women from all over the states come to New York City where they hope to fit in and find "another country" where they can be welcomed. Women are just beginning to chafe at the domestic "country" that they've been assigned to and are on the cusp of breaking out.

Rufus, a black jazz musician, is the catalyst for all the action in this tragic novel. A man who doesn't seem to fit in either the gay or straight world, he runs with the artists, writers and musicians who form their own country in 1950's - '60's NYC.

But Rufus is filled with the rage that comes from being promised a bill of goods that isn't forthcoming, similar to the anger that's now festering again just under the surface of our society. This rage informs his love affair with Leona, an old soul, a Southern white girl whose husband and child are lost to her. The reader gets that this relationship is doomed from the start but I was still devastated at the bleakness of Baldwin's vision.
Rufus kills himself, Leona's family consigns her to an institution, and this is only the first chapter.

All of the future action revolves around the way in which Rufus's death impacts his friends, family and former lovers. We learn that men and women were equally attracted to Rufus and that fact is a particular problem for Vivaldo, an aspiring writer who takes up with Rufus's younger sister Ida. Is it Rufus or Ida that he wants? Does he have the will to maintain this bi-racial relationship at a time when the gossip in this ostensibly "liberal" town could make or break his aspirations?

And what about Ida, a talented, ambitious singer who sees prejudice and hatred in the eyes of the musicians when she appears at the Harlem jazz clubs with her white lover. The racial divide has never loomed so large but Baldwin writes so beautifully, so thoughtfully that I can barely stand to put this audio down.

Other countries are discussed; France, Spain, where these misfits can maybe make a life free from the curious looks, the judgments, the innuendo that follows those whose dignity is disallowed. I've read that Baldwin himself found salvation in the south of France where he died in 1987. Yet today, in 2010, the Senate failed to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell and our black president is presumed to be from "another country." And this is why the classics will always speak to us.

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