- 1 Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile”, in Mark Robinson. Altogether Elsewhere. Boston: Faber & Faber, (...)
1Some of the most successful modern writers have taken their personal experiences of exile and used it to address lasting human concerns. "How is it," asks Edward Said, "that the literature of exile has taken its place as a topos of human experience alongside the literature of adventures, education or discovery?. . . Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience"1. However, the United States has occupied a peculiar position in relation to the phenomenon of exile. It has provided a refuge for many immigrants and political emigrés, particularly those from Communist Eastern Europe from the 1940s through the 1980s, but at the same time, a number of major black American writers – notably W.E.B. DuBois and Richard Wright – escaped the nation that so many foreigners found liberating, and lived permanently abroad. Paris was a major center for African-American expatriates in the 1920s, just as it was for such writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald: nearly every major Harlem Renaissance writer, from Jean Toomer to Countee Cullen, spent at least some time there. However, while their white counterparts went abroad in search of experience and inspiration, it seems that many of African-Americans went abroad to find relief from it (that is, from the painful experience of racism that inspired much of their work.)
- 2 John F. Szwed, “Josef Škvorecký and the Tradition of Jazz Literature”, World Literature Today,Vol. (...)
2A parallel and more immediately influential group of artists were the black jazz musicians who traveled across Europe in the interwar period. The development of the blues, and subsequently jazz, developed out of the triple displacement of African-Americans: first from Africa to the American South, then to northern cities in the early twentieth century, and then to Europe. Jazz immediately captured the imagination of European writers and musicians, becoming known as "the first true American art form" even before it was fully accepted by the white American artistic community. As critic Paul Szwed explains, "there was a special attraction in the life and appearance of the black jazz musician: the double alienation of the artist and color. Whatever his occupation itself might be like, the jazz musician provided perhaps the first truly non-mechanical metaphor for the twentieth century"2.
- 3 Josef Škvorecký, Miss Silver’s Past, New York: Grove Press, 1974, xvii.
3Jazz and blues are closely tied to the exile experience, as can be discerned in the work of a number of emigré writers. Naturally, African-American writers were among the first to develop blues and jazz as literary themes. For some black American writers who had chosen to settle abroad, especially James Baldwin (who lived in France and Turkey for decades), jazz represents home – not just the United States, but the black cultural community from which this music had emerged. An interesting and unexpected counterpart to this experience is the enthusiasm for jazz among European writers, notably the Czech author Josef Škvorecký, who was a successful translator of American literature in Prague before emigrating to Canada after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Jazz appears in nearly all of Škvorecký’s works, and as a major theme in a number of them. His central work on jazz, however, is The Bass Saxophone, which is a collection of three prose pieces written in Prague and Canada. In the introduction to his murder mystery Miss Silver’s Past, Škvorecký explains: "I made my crime novel a mixture of humor and cynicism because that’s how we’ve been taught to respond in the schizophrenic domain of Central Europe; an attitude we share, I believe, with the Blacks of America"3. The parallels between these two cultures can be observed most strongly in the literature of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement in the United States and the "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia brought the underlying struggle against political oppression into the open. Baldwin’s novel Another Country and Škvorecký’s prose collection The Bass Saxophone both use jazz as the backdrop for situations of human interaction in the face of social oppression.
- 4 LeRoi Jones, Blues People, New York: Morrow, 1963, xii.
4LeRoi Jones has described the emergence of the traditional spirituals and work songs of the Southern slaves as the music of a people who have lost their home, in the bleakest sense: "This, America, was a foreign land. . . the reaction and subsequent relation of the Negro’s experience in this country in his English is one beginning of the Negro’s conscious appearance on the American scene. . . It is only when you begin to accept the idea that you are part of [your new] country that you can be said to be a permanent resident"4. Thus, for Jones, the development of the blues was a means for these deeply dislocated people to come to terms with their new home, as well as they could.
- 5 J. Škvorecký, The Bass Saxophone. New York: Washington Square Press, 1985, 20.
5In The Bass Saxophone, Škvorecký has described the struggles that jazz musicians faced under both fascism and Communism, and the methods that its enthusiasts used to defend it with the same means that ideologues had used to attack it: “A type of the cannibal-music with roots so patently folkloristic and often (the blues) so downright proletarian that even the most Orwellian falsifier of facts would be hard put to deny them"5. As the epigraph to that same book, Škvorecký chose a quote from Langston Hughes, from the latter’s tour of the Soviet Union: "‘But jazz is decadent bourgeois music,’ I was told, for that is what the Soviet Press had hammered into Russian heads. ‘It’s my music,’ I said, ‘and I wouldn’t give up jazz for a world revolution.’"
- 6 Richard Wright, The Outsider, New York: Harper & Row, 1953, 179-80.
6Richard Wright may have gone through similar encounters during his period of membership in the Communist Party. Wright’s The Outsider (1950), which condemns both Communism and Fascism, is an early example of the African-American expatriate novel: although it is set entirely in the U.S., it was written mostly in France. Like a number of the French writers of the period, such as Boris Vian, Wright shows an interest in jazz. For the French, however, jazz is generally an exotic but "liberating" force, while for Wright’s protagonist, Cross Damon, "this music was the rhythmic flauntings of guilty feelings, the syncopated outpourings of frightened joy existing in guises forbidden and despised by others. . . Blue-jazz was the scornful gesture of men turned ecstatic in their state of rejection; it was the musical language of the satisfiedly amoral, the boastings of the contentedly lawless, the recreations of the innocently criminal. . ."6. This description of jazz as the music of the "amoral, lawless and criminal," who have been driven to lawlessness by the pressures of society (as has Cross Damon, who is driven to multiple murders) certainly has an element of truth. However, it also seems as though Wright is fitting jazz to his own political definitions rather than appreciating it on its own terms. Although Wright had by this timedisavowed his links with the Communist Party, his characterization of jazz shows parallels with the ways in which some Communist intellectuals were trying to appropriate jazz as music "of the working classes" at the same time that it was condemned as "capitalist" by the Communist Party.
7Another renowned novelist who emigrated to Paris, Milan Kundera, has also described Communist reactions to jazz. Kundera’s first novel The Joke, published in 1965, describes the revolutionary atmosphere shortly after the 1948 Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. The young student Ludvik tries to convince his friends about the links between jazz and folk music, to show the importance that the latter would have in the new socialist society:
- 7 Milan Kundera, The Joke, New York: Penguin, 1983, 120-21.
Jazz had grown out of Negro folk music and conquered the whole Western world. . . The same strength lay in the roots of our folk music as lay in the roots of jazz. Jazz had its own melodic specificity, which still bore traces of the basic six-tone scale of early Negro songs. But our folk songs also had their own specificity, and their melodies were, tonally speaking, much more varied... There was only one thing that differentiated us from jazz. Jazz was quick to develop and change. Its style was in constant motion. It had traveled a precipitous road from early New Orleans counterpoint to swing, bop, and beyond... Our folk music, in contrast, was a languorous Sleeping Beauty of the past. We had to awaken her7.
8As the narrator Jaroslav explains, Ludvik’s vision of folk music’s reawakening comes true with the Communist Party’s consolidation of power: "Moravian and Slovak folk songs inundated the universities, May Day celebrations, youth festivities, and variety theaters." However, just as in the Soviet Union, jazz was condemned as "bourgeois": "Jazz disappeared from the face of our country. Not only that. It became a symbol of Western capitalism and its decadence"8. While it provides interesting insights into the cultural shifts that affected music in totalitarian societies, Kundera’s early background as a musicologist comes through in his academic and detached view of jazz.
- 9 Ursula Brochke Davis, Paris Without Regrets, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986, 29.
9James Baldwin’s Another Country, which appeared in 1962, uses jazz in a more nuanced and personal fashion. Like Baldwin’s previous novel Giovanni’s Room, Another Country features an American protagonist living in France, but in both novels these characters are southern white Americans. The earlier novel does not feature any African-American characters, but Another Country essentially revolves around one black character, the jazz musician Rufus, although he is absent from the last two-thirds of the book. The intensity of the book’s opening section, which ends with Rufus’s suicide, is never matched in the subsequent parts, andthe reader keenly senses Rufus’s absence in the lives of the other characters. According to critic Ursula Davis, "The Afro-American community was shocked to discover that Baldwin had created a hero, Eric, who is white, and an antihero, Rufus, who is black... . A closer look reveals, however, that Eric and Rufus are actually one and the same character. Because he represents self-hatred and self-destruction, Rufus has to die so that Eric, who realizes his identity in Paris, can return"9.
10On one of the last occasions when Rufus’s friend Vivaldo sees him alive, they listen to Bessie Smith’s "Backwater Blues":
- 10 J. Baldwin, Another Country, New York: Dial Press, 1962, 46-47.
There’s thousands of people, Bessie now sang, ain’t got no place to go, and for the first time Rufus began to hear, in the severely understated monotony of this blues, something which spoke to his troubled mind. The piano bore the singer witness, stoic and ironic. Now that Rufus himself had no place to go -- ‘cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no mo’, sang Bessie -- he heard the line and the tone of the singer, and he wondered how others had moved beyond the emptiness and horror which faced him now10.
- 11 J. Baldwin, Another Country, 48.
11Rufus, who has fallen into poverty and depression, is almost literally homeless at this point, but this choice of songs seems to suggest that his "homelessness" is a reflection of the larger society’s rejection of him, as a black man. A few minutes later, Vivaldo and Rufus listen to Bessie Smith’s "Empty Bed Blues": "When my bed get empty, make me feel awful mean and blue... My springs is getting rusty, sleeping single like I do"11. This selection highlights the loneliness of each character, particularly Rufus, as well as hinting at the unacknowledged sexual feelings between the two friends, which Vivaldo only becomes fully aware of after Rufus’s death. In Rufus’s "troubled mind," the blues make him conscious of the fact that he is not, in LeRoi Jones’s terms, accepted as a "permanent resident" of his country. The title implies, however, that there might be "another country" where he might find greater acceptance. Rufus’s death shortly thereafter hints at Baldwin’s image of his own fate, had he not gone into exile in France.
12In a 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, Baldwin explains the importance of "Back Water Blues" for his creative process:
- 12 Fred L. Stanley, ed., Conversations with James Baldwin, Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississ (...)
The first time I heard this record was in Europe, and under very different circumstances than I had ever listened to Bessie in New York. What struck me was the fact that she was singing... about a disaster, which had almost killed her, and she accepted it and was going beyond it. The fantastic understatement in it. It is the way I want to write, you know.When she says, "My house fell down, and I can’t live there no mo’" -- it is a great... a great sentence"12.
13This description highlights an element of the song that is minimized in the novel: the sense of survival it conveys. Its significance for Baldwin also lies in the fact that he was listening to it in another country, as he later explains, during his stay in a small Swiss mountain village. It simultaneously evokes images of home, as well as inspiring him with the resilience to survive far from home.
- 13 J. Baldwin, Another Country, 136-37.
14After Rufus’s death, Vivaldo becomes romantically involved with Rufus’s younger sister Ida, who is an aspiring jazz singer. Ironically, while the suicidal Rufus is associated with Bessie Smith, Ida (who not only survives but begins to gain success with her music) is connected in the narrative with the more melancholy and tragic figure of Billie Holiday: "Ida put on an old Billie Holiday record and she and Vivaldo danced... Their bodies barely touched but her hair ticked his chin and gave off a sweet, dry odor and suggested, as did everything about this girl, a deep, slow-burning, carnal heat"13.
- 14 Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 11.
- 15 Vera Linhartova, Canon à l’écrevisse, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1965, 102-3.
15Billie Holiday also appears in a rather unexpected setting (in Prague, two years after her death) in the collection of short stories, Interanalysis of the Immediate Past by Vera Linhartová, another Czech writer who settled permanently in Paris. In the short story "Polyphonic Entertainment," which (like Another Country) was written in 1961, Billie Holiday is herself apparently in exile. According to Angelo Maria Ripellino, "the rarified abstractness of Linhartová’s discourse spurs her on to rummage helter-skelter through history and bring together people from different lands and periods in her parables. Thus Prague, shrouded in mist and drenched in an alcoholic light... becomes the adoptive city of Charlie Parker (who plays the saxophone at the Orlík), Billie Holiday... and Linhartová herself... in an eighteenth-century satin coat"14. After entering a jazz club with the mysterious Dr. Altmann, Linhartová’s narrator sees Billie Holiday sitting at a table. When the doctor tells Holiday that she is looking well, she replies, "with a pleasant smile: ‘You’ve been very kind, doctor, and I don’t know how to thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me.’ While saying this, she fished around in her handbag for a syringe... ‘Now, I see the world in a totally different way, with much more pleasure, and it’s all thanks to you.’" As she gives herself a morphine injection, the doctor scolds her for not using rubbing alcohol on her skin. "For an instant, [Billie] looked like a schoolgirl whom one has just scolded after finding errors in herhomework... but this moment did not last long: the morphine had begun to take effect" 15 . While Linhartová’s evocation of Billie Holiday is poignant, it does not provide insight into her musical genius, but her early death, like Charlie Parker’s, is symbolized by an imaginary exile in the Kafkaesque city of Prague.
- 16 J. Škvorecký, Bass Saxophone. 3.
- 17 Ibid., 6.
- 18 Ibid., 12.
16While Kundera and Linhartová (who both emigrated to France) seem to share the French critical perspective on jazz as an art form, Škvorecký looks back on jazz nostalgically as the music of his youth. Like Baldwin, who grew up in Harlem in a time of intense racism and was forbidden to listen to jazz by his devoutly Christian stepfather, Škvorecký saw jazz as a forbidden fruit, yet one perfectly suited to his experience. When jazz first reached Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, it quickly spread in popularity, and Czech jazz bands toured as far as the Soviet Union. However, by the time Škvorecký was sixteen, the country had become a part of the Third Reich, and all jazz bands were strongly disapproved of: “jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of the power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successively ruled in my native land” 16 . Škvorecký played as part of a band that called itself Red Music (not realizing that “in jazz blue is not a color”) which risked punishment by playing “that music that we called jazz, and that in fact was swing, the half-white progeny of Chicago and New Orleans, what our nonblowing contemporaries danced to in mountain villages, out of reach of the Schuzpolizei, the uniformed Security Service”17. The band played mostly American jazz tunes, which it learned from banned imported records and secretly-circulated sheet music. Often the lyrics were translated into Czech to conceal the origin of the songs. What Škvorecký refers to as as “the height of our effrontery” was “‘The Song of Resetova Lhota,’ in fact ‘St. Louis Blues,’ rang out one misty day in 1943 in eastern Bohemia, sung in Czech by a country girl... ‘Resetova Lhota [i.e., ‘Hicktown’] is where I go... I’m on my way... to see my Aryan folk... ’ ‘The Song of Resetova Lhota was simply an indigenous response to Nazism”18. W.C. Handy, who called himself “the Father of the Blues,” surely never imagined that his blues classic, immortalized in Bessie Smith’s recording with Louis Armstrong, would undergo a metamorphosis into an anti-Nazi political satire.
17Bessie Smith’s recordings also play a central role in Book Two of Another Country. When the actor Eric returns to New York after several years in France, he first visits his friends Richard and Cass, which reminds him of Rufus. Their apartment (the same in which Vivaldo andIda had danced) is also the site for Bessie Smith’s most extensive appearance in the narrative: "For the large living room was empty, and filled with the sound of the blues. It was the voice of a colored woman, the voice of Bessie Smith, and it hurled him, with violence, into the hot center of his past: It’s raining and it’s storming on the sea. I feel like somebody has shipwrecked poor me" 19. The songs playing in the background --"Shipwreck Blues," "Long Old Road," and "In the House Blues," all have themes of the dangers and suffering of travel, and the longing to return home.
18As Cass asks Eric about his experiences in France, the song "Long Old Road" begins to play, and the "friend" that Bessie Smith sings of reminds Eric first of Rufus, and then of Yves (Eric’s French lover):
"You loved Paris, didn’t you? You must have, you were gone so long. Tell me about it."... It’s a long old road, Bessie sang, but I’m going to find an end...
"Well, you didn’t leave because you weren’t happy there any more?"
"No." And when I get there, I’m going to shake hands with a friend.
Weeping and crying, tears falling on the ground.
All other faces were obliterated for him by the blinding glare of Yves’s absence...
When I got to the end, I was so worried down. "You seem very sure of yourself," she said. .
You can’t trust nobody, you might as well be alone. Staring out over the water, he asked, "What was Rufus like -- near the end?"... "He became very involved with a Southern girl, a girl from Georgia--"
Found my long lost friend, and I might as well stayed at home!20
19The record ends with "In the House Blues":
The old pain receded into the home it had made in him. But another pain, homeless as yet, began knocking at his heart--not for the first time: it would force an entry one day, and remain with him forever. Catch them. Don’t let them blues in here. They shakes me in my bed, can’t sit down in my chair...
- 21 J. Baldwin, Another Country, 203.
The room was growing darker. Bessie sang, The blues has got me on the go. They runs around my house, in and out of my front door. Then the needle scratched aimlessly for a second, and the record player clicked itself off21.
- 22 The songs are currently available on the Columbia album Bessie Smith, The Complete Recordings, Vol. (...)
20Interestingly, these three songs were recorded together in a single session in 1931, and it is likely that they would have been released together on a single record. However, Baldwin leaves out one song from that session, "Blue Blues," and curiously, reverses the order in which the songs are usually listed: "In the House Blues," "Long Old Road," "BlueBlues," and "Shipwreck Blues"22. Thus rather than the journey toward exile and possibly death, from home to road to the open sea, which the original order suggests, Baldwin creates a voyage home -- although the homecoming is not necessarily a happy one.
21Later in the book, when thinking of Ida, Vivaldo begins whistling "Trouble in Mind":
- 23 J. Baldwin, Another Country, 265.
Trouble in mind, I’m blue,
But I won’t be blue always,
‘Cause the sun’s going to shine
In my back door someday.Why back door?... What in the world did these songs mean to her? For he knew that she often sang them in order to flaunt before him privacies which he could never hope to penetrate and convey accusations which he could never hope to decipher, much less deny. And yet, if he could enter this secret place, he would, by that act, be released forever from the power of her accusations23.
- 24 Ibid., 321.
- 25 Ibid., 335.
22Book Three of Another Country begins with Vivaldo’s dream of a strange land, perhaps this "secret place" of the blues that he was not able to reach in his conscious state: "Vivaldo dreamed that he was running, running, running, through a country that he had always known, but could not now remember, a rocky country... Then he heard the wail of trombones and clarinets and a steady, enraged beating on the drums. They were playing a blues he had never heard before, they were filling the earth with a sound so dreadful that he knew he could not bear it"24. Then he wakes up, and finds himself (to his and the reader’s surprise) in bed with Eric. Completing the symbolism, when he wakes up and calls Ida, she is listening to Billie Holiday: "In the background, he heard Billie Holiday singing Billie’s Blues. ‘Hello, sugar. This is your man, checking on his woman’"25. For Eric, the blues seem to symbolize a literal and emotional home, as for Baldwin himself. But for Vivaldo, jazz has a mysterious, impenetrable force, symbolic of Ida’s unreachability through both her blackness and her femininity. It is simultaneously political (by highlighting the racial separation that none of the characters can overcome) and deeply intimate.
23For Škvorecký, however, the political implications of jazz are always secondary to his enjoyment of the music. He emphasizes the nostalgic side of his memories, of being an ordinary boy interested in girls and music, still mostly unaware of the extent of the Nazi horrorsoccurring around him. However, there is always an underlying dark side. In the title story, “The Bass Saxophone,” Škvorecký describes the atmosphere of danger that accompanied the group’s performances:
two [German] soldiers used to come to the Port Arthur bar... we would play Ellington, Basie, Lunceford’s arrangements, we would swing as if the devil possessed us, the Port Arthur reverberating like an immense Victrola into the blacked-out protectorate night in the town, and we would stare past our saxophones at those two men in the uniform of the Nazi Luftwaffe.
24This leads to a surprising alliance between the German soldiers and the Czech jazz musicians, brought together through American jazz:
those two soldiers also came out in the open one day, they pulled some sheet music out from under their military blouses, Dixieland arrangements of "Lisa Likes Nobody" and "Darktown Strutters’ Ball"... and they let us copy them in exchange for our Ellingtons. Then they disappeared too, apparently to the eastern steppes... one of them was a captain, the other a first lieutenant, and they’d played Chick Webb, they’d played swing... imagine, German cadets in a Nazi Offizierschule imitating a hunchbacked black drummer. So it was not just in concentration camps, not just in the Jewish town of Terezin, but in the Offizierschule too, it was simply everywhere, that sweet sickness... 26
25Although Škvorecký and Red Music were almost untouched by the war (except for one band member, who was half-Jewish) in retrospect he can see the broader effect that jazz had even in the darkest days of the Third Reich, attracting musicians from Nazi officers to prisoners.
- 27 Ibid., 24-26.
- 28 J. Škvorecký, Bass Saxophone, 4.
26In the 1950s, Škvorecký was instrumental in organizing a jazz revue in Prague featuring an American bass player and his wife, who had requested political asylum in Czechoslovakia. Eventually, however, the two Americans “went the way of many American exiles: back home to the States, the land where the words ‘you can’t go home again’ generally seem not to apply. Apply they do, though, for other countries, the ones that send their own writers into exile, to prison or to their death.” In his most explicit connection between jazz, writing, and exile, Škvorecký notes: “Jazz is not just music. It is the love of youth which stays firmly anchored in one’s soul, forever unalterable... To me literature is forever blowing a horn, singing about youth when your youth is irretrievably gone, singing about your homeland when... you find yourself in a land that lies over the ocean, a land – no matter how hospitable or friendly – where your heart is not, because you landed on these shores too late”27. By coming to terms with the absurdly disconnected conditions of his life in exile, Škvorecký is ultimately able to portray his exile not only as auniversal condition, but as a rejuvenating form of catharsis, a quality which he also attributes to jazz and blues in The Bass Saxophone: "And no matter what LeRoi Jones says to the contrary, the essence of this music... is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental... an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art... Its effect is cathartic"28.
- 29 Martin Pilar, “Making Both Ends Meet, or Czech Literature after November 1989”, Canadian Review of (...)
27For the Czech critic Martin Pilar, Škvorecký views "creation not only as a sacred and serious mission, but... as a profane and profoundly funny craft"29. The impressive success of Czech exile writers such as Kundera and Škvorecký can be partly attributed their effortless combination of sacred, serious, profane and funny in ways that would seem incongruous to Western writers. James Baldwin’s work is exceptional in American literature for a similar insistence on crossing the borders of the explored and examining the unspoken realities of human relationships. The experience of exiles, which combines degradation and liberation, loss and discovery, puts them in a unique position to explore both intellectual concerns and physical realities. African-Americans, like many writers from Eastern Europe and other repressive regimes, have often felt like "outsiders" in their native land. They have often hoped for "another country" where they could live more freely – a longing expressed not only through literature but also in jazz, which brings together white and black Americans, Germans and Czechs, Americans and Europeans, and other groups separated by political borders and social barriers, even if this unity is imaginary and fleeting.