1By the time I was twenty-four I had decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem – which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print than it was in life – and I packed my bags and went to France, where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.” James Baldwin’s frank declaration in Notes of a Native Son (2) begins a narrative of his adventures, misadventures, and reflections about living in France before he had authored the body of works that would eventually identify him to the French as a great American writer who “honored France with his presence” (Nouvel Observateur 81). Baldwin came to love France and the French: “I can tell you this,” he said twenty-nine years after his arrival in France, “each time I leave France, I understand why I live there. There is something in the French character that makes me feel more comfortable than any other place in the world. Perhaps I find that with the French, who are my friends, a frankness, a sense of disrespect for things which are necessary for my life” (Quotidien de Paris).
2Fast forward. Two years before his death in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in France, I met James Baldwin, in Atlanta, Georgia, while on a speaking tour. Was Baldwin aware of the French response to him and his works? The next day he took the time with this writer to reflect on the French response to his works and other African-American authors living in France. Dressed in an almond colored short-sleeved shirt and brown pants, Baldwin’s easy smile as he descended the stairs at the house of his friend, the imminent Dr. Richard Long, only slightly dispelled the intimidating presence and barely cast aside a previous warning by thosethat knew of the interview that he might be difficult. His powerful speech the day before to an animated overflow crowd starkly contrasted to the intimate setting of that day amid African-American art speaking of elegance and identity.
3One year after suffering a heart attack, Baldwin looked well. Placing a cup of tea on the table, he answered some of my questions as rapidly as the passage of the TGV. He arrived in France with no knowledge of the French language and no means of financial support. No official reception awaited him as there had been for the author, Richard Wright, who as a guest of the French government, found himself surrounded by reporters.
4Baldwin was left alone to create his space, which he admits was one of his reasons for leaving the United States. At other times, he paused after the question excusing himself for not having a ready answer. Many questions forced him to jog his memory, like how did a young unknown author like himself find a reputable publishing house in France to publish the novels that he had either finished or written in France, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room.
5The laughter filling the room after Baldwin recalled certain details about his reception in France very quickly turned the formal interview into a conversation between friends. The matter of his reputation and reception by French critics had captured his attention. He confessed that he had never thought of it at all. He was often flattering: “You know more about me in France than I do.” He listened intently to my analysis of the French intellectuals’ reading of his first novel punctuating the air with “uh huh’s.” To Baldwin, the French press received his first novel with, in his words,
- 1 The quotations appear here for the first time and are not included in “The Baldwin Interview” in Th (...)
a certain amount of accuracy, that is they did not take it as a petit nègre folklore exercise. It was taken as a serious attempt to present a universal religious experience. In a sense, it afforded the French some clue to the Black American personality. Until the Second World War, the image of Black Americans held by the French was one disseminated by Hollywood. They knew Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. They didn’t understand Richard [Wright] at all. That is not an overstatement. The American G.I. changed that image. In that context, Mountain was very useful to the French. What was happening in the United States in the fifties was very mysterious to the French1.
6His exit from France in 1957 to join the civil rights movement left gaps in his memory about the French reception of his works in the early years. We exchanged laughs again as he explained why he wanted to join the movement in the fifties. “My Algerian friends were getting their asskicked by the French so I thought I would go home and get my ass kicked by the Americans.” By the end of the interview, French phrases interrupted or completed the English ones: “C’est ça je n’étais pas assez engagé,” he said seeming to agree with the position taken by members of the Black Arts movement about the nature of his political position. After posing for several Polaroid shots and giving me his address in France, this uncommon and gifted novelist and essayist said good-bye.
7Baldwin lived in France intermittently from 1948 throughout the fifties and sixties, bought a home there in the seventies, and died in France in 1987. When Baldwin, his biographers, and many of his American critics discuss Baldwin’s nearly forty-year relationship with France, they tell only half of the story. The other half of the Baldwin story in France is examined in my book, The Critical Reception of James Baldwin in France, which documents by decades the French critical response to Baldwin’s writings, proof that while living there Baldwin did not go unnoticed by the French. The examination remains incomplete, however, for it lacks an analysis of If Beale Street Could Talk. In this paper I analyze the critical comments by the French of the novel, completing therefore the international focus of Baldwin’s work in my book. Moreover, I will compare the French critical reception with the reception by critics of the United States. The question that this paper will attempt to answer is, “Is there is one American literature for the Americans and one for the French?”
- 2 Quoted by Ketu H. Katrak in Black American Literature Forum, vol. 20, no. 4 (winter, 1986) p. 454.
8Published in France in 1975, two years after the US publication date, If Beale Street Could Talk was Baldwin’s first novel in six years. With good reason, David Leeming, Baldwin’s latest biographer, calls If Beale Street Could Talk Baldwin’s “prison parable, a fictionalization of his prison concerns during the 1968-69 period and the natural illustration and culmination of his long meditation on psychological emotion, and intellectual imprisonment” (323). Very briefly, in the novel the love of two young people, Clementine “Tish” Rivers, a perfume sales clerk pregnant with the baby of Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, a sculptor, undergoes a supreme challenge when Fonny is accused falsely of the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Because a white policeman revenges himself from an earlier humiliation by Fonny, the young sculptor is imprisoned. With the help of his family, he is released. Afterwards, Tish gives birth to their child. About his fifth novel, James Baldwin acknowledges to an interviewer in France, “For every novel that I write, I am afraid. I try something, which makes me doubt my capabilities as a writer. I know also that I have been lucky” (Le Clec’h 9). To his brother, David, he admits to have written “the strangest novel ever” (Leeming 321). More to the point, Baldwin declares: “To try to tell the novel from the point of view of a pregnant woman is something of a hazard. I tried to avoid it,but she’s the only one who can tell the story”2. In a large measure, Baldwin’s introspections inform the French and American criticism of If Beale Street Could Talk.
9For some French critics, Baldwin did in fact write a strange book; however, the focus of the French critics is neither on narrative voice nor point of view. For them Baldwin had evidently moved away from the fiery tone of his book of essays, The Fire Next Time:
His tone has changed since The Fire Next Time. The repressive American system no longer appears to him impossible to crack as is shown with the presence of two whites, one hostile and the other favorable to those oppressed because of their skin color. Courage and hope reside in this bitter-sweet, tender and passionate book with a profound realism without hypocrisy nor complaisance (“Littératures anglo-saxonnes” 209).
10Jacques Cabau echoes, “Baldwin is doing something different. Instead of resignation or revolt, the victims confront, demand justice and win. If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a moving celebration of love... It is love better than revolt that cuts an opening in the repressive American system” (70).
- 3 For an analysis of the French reception of Notes of a Native Son, see my book, The Critical Recepti (...)
11Between 1970 and 1975, five of Baldwin’s books were published in France the last one being If Beale Street Could Talk. His first four works: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, No Name in the Street, Rap on Race and Notes of a Native Son from which the critics extracted Baldwin’s views on race and racism essentially allowed the French intellectuals and critics to continue with vigor the discussions of the sixties of the US’s sociopolitical issues. Parenthetically, Notes of a Native Son presents a special case of reception in France as a result of the vigorous discussion. Published in 1955 in the United States Notes would not have been published in France at all in 1973 without the inquiry of the French desirous to read the work that writers of the Black Arts Movement attacked virulently3.
- 4 G. J., “James Baldwin If Beale Street Could Talk”, Heures, 1975.
12Notably therefore, in the early years of the seventies leading up to the publication of If Beale Street Could Talk in France, French critics and intellectuals engaged in intense political dialogue with Baldwin about life in the United States between Blacks and Whites. If Beale Street Could Talk, “a beautiful love story,” was seen as a departure from the central issue of racism that figured prominently in his previous writings, thus the critics’ reference to strangeness, directly or implied. “Love, courage, hope, and hate are strangely mixed”4. The reader is cautioned by another reviewer,
- 5 All references to (Bobia) are included in the annotated bibliography in The Critical Reception of J (...)
13“If Beale Street Could talk proves that Baldwin has put water in his wine. Not that he denies his origins, nor that he ceases to preach armed revolt to his brothers of Harlem, but he clearly chooses another way, a love story.” Ending with this comparative compliment of Baldwin as a talented storyteller, the critic reminds the reader of the American tearjerker film of the early seventies, Love Story. “His multiracial ‘love story’ is better than Eric Segal’s” (Playboy). Le Clec’h agrees, “the core is the protest against the social and political system that persists in reducing the black man to an inferior condition” (9). Hélène Dury declares, “This love story is told with great sensitivity. With a mixture of love and anger, the novel is a reminder of the daily trials of Black people. Some Whites still do not consider Blacks human beings. If Beale Street Could Talk is a book of combat and illustrates the immense talent of Baldwin” (Bobia 131)5.
14Being European, some critics failed to understand Baldwin’s orientation and perspectives as a writer which two critics, André Marissel and Jacques Cabau, explained. André Marissel writes: “Being the son of a minister, Baldwin’s temperament is religious rather that political. Without the actual experience of urban blight, one might read Baldwin as one would read a European populist novel or one similar to Les Misérables. The French reader and critic remain at a distance from the environment of the novel” (Les Nouvelles littéraires 6). Cabau’s observes: “Baldwin returns here to religious sources, the most authentic of the Black American tradition.” Also Cabau in a large measure continues the substance of the discussion by the French critics in their examination of Notes of a Native Son that is they oppose the work to the writers of the Black Arts Movement. Cabau states: “Harlem’s ‘poetry of the street,’ its violence and its tenderness are a part of the setting compatible with Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Chester Himes rather than Malcolm X. Leroi Jones and Malcolm X fetter themselves within the confines of negritude. Baldwin wants to ‘cure all America’” (L’Express 70).
15In their analysis of the novel, the French critics do not doubt Baldwin’s capabilities as a writer. In fact, they find him to be a fine storyteller frequently noting, however, an incongruence between content and style. Though not seen as negative, this incongruity is described by many as strange.
- 6 January 11, 1976.
- 7 August 29, 1975, p. 11.
- 8 “If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin”, L’Aurore, November 27, 1975.
16In the critics’ analysis of Baldwin’s style in the novel, comments concerning the African-American musical form, the blues, dominate the discussion, but the French critic offers little details. “This novel evokes the ‘blues,’ a bitter-sweet and moving mixture where hope is always present” (Gheorghiu). The reviewer of La vie du rail “finds a resonance ofthe Blues in the work”6. In the international newspaper, Le Monde, one reads, “The art of Baldwin is that he writes in the style of the Blues”7. Finally, Henri Collard notes: “Baldwin has written here a beautiful book in good taste and no false notes. It is as successful as some of those old blues” 8 . Occasionally, a reviewer stereotypes in his description of Baldwin’s lyrical style. Blacks, he writes, have an extraordinary gift for “expressing with intensity and finesse human feelings with song and musical instruments.” Even so, this statement has less a stereotypical impact than when a reviewer of Go Tell It on the Mountain remarked that the novel offered a “troubling mixture of religion and sensuality which seemed to belong to the art and nature of Black people” (Bobia 19).
17Curiously, the French neither associate the title of the novel to the last line from an old W. C. Handy blues, “And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street Blues,” nor to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the home of the blues. In the reception of other works of Baldwin, the French often referenced not only style but the title of Baldwin’s works to specific African-American musical forms like the spirituals, or jazz. One answer may be that many French critics described Harlem as the exotic ghetto of New York. Since the story actually takes place in Harlem, they did not seek to connect the story to Beale Street.
18While one might compare Baldwin criticism in the United States along racial lines, reviews that suggest for lack of a better term an African-French response are too scarce to establish a pattern. Nevertheless, the critics’ remarks show no appreciably difference from other French critics although Ambroise Kom in one of the earliest academic studies of Baldwin’s works, “Pour une littérature comparée du monde noir,” neither talks of love story nor musical style. “In the United States, efforts of integration of Black people would make one believe in the evolution of the Black American towards the stature of citizen in all aspects. In If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin brings to the stage the freedom that the American justice system permits when it is about warning Blacks” (40). Two reviews that appeared in journals with an African orientation unequivocally praise the work. Salim Jay seems to understand the perspective from which Baldwin wrote when emoting in Afrique littéraire et artistique, “For the first time in fourteen years, tears came to my eyes after reading a book” (Bobia 132). And in Top Africa, the reviewer praises James Baldwin for writing one of his best books ever (Bobia 133).
19In the seventies, the critical reception of If Beale Street Could Talk in France undoubtedly owes much to the reception of Baldwin’s workspublished in the early seventies and sixties. And to the fact that by the seventies, “Baldwin’s reception had developed into a fairly stable tradition” (Bobia 49). The French critic wanted Baldwin to continue writing the kind of works that gave them a window to race relations in the United States. What Baldwin wrote in the novel was to them another depiction of how racism permeated all aspects of the life of Blacks in the United States. Overall, the French critic accepted the novel as a fine example of the talent of James Baldwin and ranked If Beale Street Could Talk among Baldwin’s finest works.
- 9 The latest of which is Benoît Depardieu’s doctoral thesis, « L’économie de la fonction paternelle d (...)
20Since the seventies, If Beale Street Could Talk retains a presence in France in academic studies both at the high school and university level9. This presence eventually led to the distinction of France and not the United States as the site of the adaptation of the novel to the screen: the film debuted on December 9, 1998 as A la place du coeur, a “comédie dramatique” that takes place in Marseilles. In the synopsis provided by Allociné, there are two obvious changes: one in Fonny’s name and another in family context:
The popular districts, the Baumettes, the sea...
Workers, men, women, children…
21Clementine, called Clim, has always been in love with François, called Baby. They decided to get married although he is only 18 and she hardly 16. But Baby is accused of raping a young woman. Bébé, Black and adopted, meets up with a racist police officer. The accusations land him in prison. Clementine visits him every day in prison. But one day she does not call him Baby as usual. It is because she has something serious to tell him. She is pregnant10.
22Having no first-hand knowledge of the film’s reviews, I am unable to respond to questions such as, “Do the reviews note the film as an adaptation of Baldwin’s work? Are comparisons made between the film and the novel?” The reviews available at the Allociné site by film critics of publications such as Le monde and Libération (who liked the film) may or may not be complete. In an interview on the internet for Écran noir Guédiguian relates, “I said in reading this novel that this would be my first scenario. In fact, it was going exactly in the direction of my work at the moment.... When I read Baldwin... I had the impression that it wasa book that I had written. It is an absolutely irrational impression.” Robert Guédiguian realized Baldwin’s dream11. To what extent Segal’s successful film influenced Baldwin’s dream of making a film of his love story makes for interesting musing. David Leeming discusses Baldwin’s unproductive explorations for film possibilities in California and the missed opportunity after Joseph Losey expressed a strong interest in filming both Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk “Unfortunately, scheduling and then Losey’s death would preclude a collaboration that both men had looked forward to for many years” (317, 328).
23The critical reception of If Beale Street Could Talk in France demonstrates the enduring presence of James Baldwin in France. It will be interesting to observe new directions of the novel such as the one presented by Guédiguian.
24In the United States If Beale Street Could Talk, published on October 12, 1973 stayed on the best seller’s list seven weeks. As Baldwin saw it, “The American press received my novel well. Finally a James Baldwin who was not bitter. What the press did not want to see was the presence of two Whites introduced a rift in the oppressive American system” (Le Clec’h 9). In reality the reviews were mixed. On the negative side, Thomas Edwards in The New York Review of Books found that the story was “not believable” and “scattered throughout with untruths” and “contradictory”. He adds, “To read If Beale Street Could Talk... as accurate social drama seems to me virtually impossible... I can’t care as much as I want about Fonny and Tish unless the system that victimizes is described in a way that I can recognize” (37-8). John Aldridge in The Saturday Review/World berates the novel for the same reason, finding the vision of racism “simplistic”. “It is extremely sad,” he continues, “to see a writer of Baldwin’s large gifts producing in all seriousness, such junk” (24). Anatole Broyard in the New York Times according to Leeming, “disliked the book to the point of derision, denouncing it as badly written white-bashing” (Leeming 326). In American Writers a critic accuses Baldwin of being too sentimental. The conclusion according to him “is willed not affirmative”. He likes the “brilliant individual scenes,” finds the book to be a “powerful indictment of urban corruption and racism.” But he finds that the “novel fails to live up to its artistic potential” (Unger 60).
25On the positive side, Ivan Webster in The New Republic finds the novel “a major work of black fiction” (25). Jerry H. Bryant states, “... no one can take from him his greatest achievement, the poetic interpretation of a new black consciousness and the expression of its complexities and paradoxes” (187). George Kent, with reserve, says, “the book represents a large talent and may also represent Baldwin on his way to somethingstronger... If Baldwin can move in with a freshly imagined tour of his territory, he can probably yet arrive with the novel he has been struggling over these years, to create. New artistic devices must be summoned which give a deeper imaginative destiny” (188-89). Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review, contradicts the negative criticism. Rather her view is “If Beale Street Could Talk is a quite moving and very traditional celebration of love. It affirms not only love between a man and a woman, but love of a type that is dealt with only rarely in contemporary fiction – that between members of a family.” Furthermore, Oates describes the novel as a kind of allegory that “refuses conventional outburst of violence, preferring to stress the provisional, tentative nature of our lives.” As a parable stressing “the irresolute nature of our destinies, white as well as black, the novel is quietly powerful, never straining or exaggerating for effect” (1).
26Critics like Oates, and principally African-American critics, reviewers and writers consistently focus with pronounced yet varied points of view on the narrative voice, the strangeness that Baldwin in his uneasiness addressed. Oates finds Trish’s narrative convincing. “Baldwin certainly risked a great deal by putting his complex narrative... into the mouth of a young girl. Yet Tish’s voice comes to seem absolutely natural... Even her flights of poetic fancy of male-female relationships... are convincing” (1-2). Ivan Webster notes: “The narrative is a remarkable blend of lyricism and speed... Tish engages even astonishes Baldwin as no other character he has written about... I’ve never encountered anyone quite like Tish in American fiction" (25-6). According to novelist John McCluskey, the feminine narrative voice is the greatest strength in the novel“... The voice and perspective emerge as the primary achievements of the novel... The Riverses are blues people: loving, demanding, enduring, not maudlin angels, or dreary victims, or super-folk. Did the simple change in voice open up this possibility? Baldwin has taken his greatest risk in the construction of this story, a risk that is generally rewarding for this reader (89-91).
27On the negative side, Peter Straub writing for the New Statesman sees a “central problem with its voice.” The work “wanders among the tallest corn, while giving Tish a wide-eyed governessy style which is the very emblem of the unengaged, lazing imagination” (930). Darryl Pinckney describes the voice as “inconsistent,” problematic, “Fonny is just too good, Tish is too innocent. Tish narrates events in the second half of which she has no knowledge” (Unger 59). James Campbell writes: “In trying to bless his young narrator with a depth of self-knowledge and a vocabulary which, on any realistic measure, should have been out of her reach... Baldwin only does harm, for he deprives her of a character of her own. Tish’s voice is drowned in the absurdity of sounding like the author of No Name in the Street” (245).
28Both the French and American critics compare Baldwin’s style to the blues, but the American critics reference the title to W. C. Handy’s blues and/or Beale Street. Leeming writes, “Beale Street in Memphis is synonymous with the blues. The story told by Baldwin’s heroine, Tish Rivers, is a version of the story – a very old story – that Beale Street could tell if it would” (323). Therman O’Daniel references the title to Beale Street in Memphis and at the same time offers a reason that may shed light on this omission by the French:
Although its title is arresting, one can search only vainly in the 197 pages of this story for a specifically suggestive reason for that title. True enough, as is said on the book’s jacket, the story is one that Beale Street might tell if it could talk; but Lenox Avenue in New York, which Baldwin probably knows better than he knows Beale Street, could also tell the same story, and so could many, many other streets… Since the story can be understood, however, without particular references to the title, the reader hardly needs to trouble himself very much about them (77-78).
29What the French critic sees succinctly as no more than a “resonance of the blues,” the American critic analyzes in depth. For example, Robert Detweiler in “The Blues Lament” contends, “The novel is written as a blues lament a structure that explains the two unbalanced sections: the long lyric-evocative celebration of suffering in the first part (“Troubled About my Soul”) and the brief second (“Zion”) that does not conclude but plaintively fades away” (752). Marlene Mosher’s article entitled, “James Baldwin’s Blues, Plunges Beneath the Surface,” puts If Beale Street Could Talk in the context of all of Baldwin’s writing, proposing, “Baldwin’s most successful melding of the blues and the novel form is surely his recent novel If Beale Street Could Talk.” At the end of her insightful article, one reads, “Baldwin himself, though writing in nonsong form, usually writes ‘blues.’ Like his hero-musician, Baldwin draws his strength from honestly confronting – and overcoming – his would-be restrainers” (120). On these points the French critics and this American critic agree.
30Even more than the French reception, If Beale Street Could Talk has been the subject of academic study, years after Beale Street’s publication, revealing deeper meaning and expansiveness of themes found in the novel as in the case of two studies by Trudier Harris. In the eighties finding gaps in the criticism of the novel, Harris examines the women of Baldwin’s novels in her book, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin. “The majority of the black female characters in If Beale Street Could Talk are black women who are not tied down by their own notions of guilt about their actions. They are women for morality is a much more flexile concept than it has been in any previous works” (130). In the late seventies, Harris wrote an article entitled “The Eye as Weapon in If Beale Street Could Talk.” Also, to the list one adds Mary Fair Burks’ article, “James Baldwin’s Protest Novel: If Beale Street Could Talk.” Moreover, Leeming reveals from the position of an insider the history of Baldwin’s conception, birth, and role in the reputation of the novel in Europe and the United States. According to Leeming, “The author of Notes of a Native Son had spoken in the voice of Henry James and the King James Bible in order to reach out to his white brethren and perhaps to convert them. Now Baldwin says to his white readers, even more clearly than he had in Blues for Mr. Charlie or Tell me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, ‘Follow me if you will into my blues world, but don’t expect me to hold your hand once you’re there” (325).
31In sum, the French critic and intellectual observing the United States and its socio-political from afar wanted Baldwin to continue writing with the socio-political as primary content limiting the literary and creativity of Baldwin. Contrarily, the American critics examined the novel as a work of creative fiction analyzing as has been shown Baldwin’s characterization and narrative voice. None of the American reviewers questioned Baldwin’s choice of a love story. After a review of the American criticism, it is understandable Leeming’s statement of the review of the novel as “to some extent dependent on race or attitudes toward race” (326). Unequivocally, African-American intellectuals in great length probed the novel’s depth.
- 12 The following comments suggesting a loosely organized book-club-like reception of the novel can be (...)
32The suggestion of the future impact of the novel in the public domain might be gauged in part by internet reviews. One sees there a new generation of American readers, which demonstrates as the adaptation of the novel to film in France, the potential of a wider audience12.
33Finally, is there one American literature for the French and one for the Americans? Let it suffice to say that there was one Baldwin book for the French, the book that continued to give them a window through which to observe deep social issues in the United States.