Thursday, 24 December 2009

Cannonball Read 9: Another Country by James Baldwin

James Baldwin's Another Country is a sprawling novel that details the lives of a group of musicians, writers and artists in 1950's Greenwich Village. Thrown right into a cold New York City night, the story begins with urgency, as we follow the young Rufus Scott wandering the dark city streets, broke and broken. Baldwin immediately draws the reader in, setting us on a bumpy and often harrowing path exploring interracial relationships, extramarital affairs, bisexuality, as well as self delusion and its consequences.

Baldwin began writing the novel in Greenwich Village in 1948. He completed it on a kitchen counter in Istanbul in 1962. From Paris he had traveled to Turkey, arriving in poor health, depressed, and feeling that he had lost sight of his aims as a writer. Carrying with him an "unpublishable manuscript" that was "ruining his life", Baldwin claimed the characters simply wouldn't speak to him. On the brink of suicide, his novel had literally almost killed him. Taken care of by friends, away from his tempestuous life and relationships, he managed to conclude his 14 years of torment.

Reading Another Country is a frustrating experience. It is, rather understandably, uneven. The first third of the novel is its strongest, ranking with some of the best writing I have ever read. As a whole, however, it is muddled, and even infuriating in its failure to live up to its full potential. Often brutally honest in its exploration of relationships, willful ignorance and jealousy, it remains an intense and uncomfortably familiar read. In fact, I found myself completely obsessed with it when I was reading it, but almost felt it too heavy an emotional burden to pick up again after several hours away from it. It is the first time I have had such an intense and turbulent relationship with a book. I feel entirely serious (and quite ridiculous) stating that I had an almost romantic relationship with it. I love it despite it's flaws and feel quite terrible pointing them out publicly.

An imperfect work, yes, this may nonetheless be the most important literary discovery I've made in years. I hope others may value Baldwin's work as I have. Whether they do or not, I very much look forward to reading every word he has ever had published.

1 comment:

  1. Great review sir. If you're a fan of Baldwin there have been a couple of terrific biographies about him published in the last few years...he was a fascinating man.