If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: book review

James Baldwin’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers in New York, a tale of the dreadful consequences of racism and the impact of imprisonment on the prisoner’s loved ones.

I believe Black Lives Matter and racism should be a thing of the past, so I want to read and review more books written by Black, Asian and other ethnicities. James Baldwin was a Black, gay man, part of the Harlem Renaissance, who wrote this tale of racism and police prejudice and injustice in 1974. Sadly, little seems to have changed.

How do you decide which books to take on holiday? One of my usual strategies is to take as many as possible in case there are any I don’t like; how awful it would be to be stuck in the middle of nowhere without a good book to read. And to give me the greatest number of options, I usually take as many thin books as I can. And that is how a couple of years ago I came to be reading If Beale Street Could Talk by torchlight, in a freezing cold tent, high in the mountains of Switzerland. Further from the overheated setting of the book in New York would not be possible.

Virtue signalling

This is a tale infused with the injustice of racism and poverty in the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, when equality was theoretically possible, but racism kept rearing its ugly head. In this book, James Baldwin uses some of his characters as mouthpieces for angry rants about injustice. Tish is ‘lucky’ to be taken on as a perfume saleswoman in a department store, almost as a favour, so the owners could show they weren’t racist. Nowadays there’s a term for that: virtue signalling. It’s rather interesting that so many of the characters are actually in work, in spite of prejudice, but this period was a boom time. Nevertheless, there’s always an undercurrent of violence, of people hooked on drugs or alcohol.

The main story in this short novel is about Tish and Fonny, childhood sweethearts. Tish is the narrator and mentions that others tease them about being like Romeo and Juliet, thinking that is the ultimate in romance, forgetting the implication that their ultimate fate is tragic. The book starts with a dramatic event: Tish telling Fonny that she is expecting their child, the problem being that he is in prison. At first we don’t know why, but the events leading up to Fonny’s arrest gradually unfold.

“Being in trouble can have a funny effect on the mind. I don’t know if I can explain this. You go through some days and you seem to be hearing people and you seem to be talking to them and you seem to be doing your work, or, at least, your work gets done; but you haven’t seen or heard a soul and if someone had asked you what you have done that day you’d have to think a while before you could answer. But, at the same time, and even on the self-same day – and this is what’s hard to explain – you see people like you never saw them before. They shine as bright as a razor.” (p.12)

Standing up and being counted

Talking about the first time Fonny and Tish make love, after feeling they belonged together since childhood, she says, “We had not seen it coming. Abruptly, it was there: and then we knew that it had always been there, waiting. We had not seen the moment. But the moment had seen us, from a long ways off – sat there, waiting for us – utterly free, the moment, playing cards, hurling thunderbolts, cracking spines, tremendously waiting for us, dawdling home from school, to keep our appointment.” (p.40)

After giving up her job, Tish can always visit Fonny in jail, emphasising the importance of just showing up, of moral support, of being there for somebody:

“It is very strange , and I now begin to learn a very strange thing. My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing. Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him.” (p.113)

The racist policeman, the bluest eye

Describing the policeman, Bell, who has it in for Fonny, Tish comments, “If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the centre of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all.” (pp.119-120) Black incarceration

This book is still relevant today, not only in light of George Floyd and others who died in the aftermath of his murder, but also with respect to the unjustly high numbers of Black inmates in American prisons and the impact this has on society. I recently watched the documentary 13th on Netflix, highlighting how Black society is disproportionately affected by this and how successive government measures have exacerbated it and convinced the public that it is somehow justified. It isn’t. Baldwin addresses this in If Beale Street Could Talk as we see the terrible effects of Fonny’s imprisonment on the rest of the family. This is not just the story of ‘two star-crossed lovers’. It involves the entire family of both Fonny and Tish as they all try to clear his name, get the charges dropped, discredit the racist policeman and do whatever it takes to raise the money to pay the lawyer. Desperate measures with dire consequences.

This was a great read. I highly recommend it and hope I will soon be able to watch Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk film, released in 2018.

Adapted from my original post in January 2019.

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Auer Bowles: book review

Jane Bowles’ unsettling novel of women breaking out of their conventional lives and following their own chaotic and scandalously strange bids for freedom.

Jane Bowles: breaking the rules

Jane Auer Bowles’ novel ‘Two Serious Ladies’ is is an odd book, but perhaps the oddest thing of all is that not one other review I’ve read has mentioned the part that I loved the most. It makes me wonder if I’ve accidentally mixed up the beginning of a review of a different book; it would be perfectly in keeping with the book itself.

According to me, then, ‘Two Serious Ladies’ by Jane Auer Bowles starts off promisingly by telling the story of a young girl almost drowning her sister’s friend Mary. It was incredibly tense and terrible, atmospheric. So much so that I read this part out loud to an unsuspecting member of my family as the tension was so deliciously wonderful, promising an enthralling gothic novel, but it was not to be. “[The game’s] called ‘I forgive you for all your sins’… You’ll have to take your dress off.” What happens next? Will it be murder? Accidental death? The life of a psychopath? No, of course not: this is Jane Bowles. Eventually I did find an article mentioning the near-drowning incident and some interesting background on Jane and Paul Bowles and just how innovative Jane was.

The narrative then skips to the adult world of New York, where women were expected to become wives and mothers, gracious hostesses, perhaps. The social observation is wry and witty. The structure is confusing. Jane Bowles deliberately broke rules, both in her life and in her works.

Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield: serious ladies

While writing this review, I was wracking my brain to remember how the story of the schoolgirl ties in with the main story. Eventually I found a Barnes and Noble review that reminded me that one of the women, Christina Goering, was a social misfit who became a religious zealot; she had been the creepy schoolgirl. As an adult, she encounters various people at a party in New York. Soon afterwards, the hostess, Mrs Copperfield, reluctantly travels to Panama with her husband, but ends up falling in love with a prostitute and sinking lower and lower.

Meanwhile the wealthy Miss Goering first invites an unprepossessing acquaintance, Miss Gamelon, to move in, even though she doesn’t like her. “I’ve been typing manuscripts for famous authors all my life, but there does seem to be much demand for authors any more unless maybe they are doing their own typing,” says Miss Gamelon on page 9, as Jane Bowles invites us to join in wrily poking fun at herself. Incidentally, I assume the author had some ulterior motive in naming her unpleasant character after Hitler’s second in command, but I have no idea what that motive was. Nor for that matter, do I know why the other Serious Lady should be a Copperfield.

Miss Goering also invites another new acquaintance, Arnold, to join them in her expensive, comfortable house. Having ensnared them, she decides to sell the house and move to a smaller, decrepit and isolated house on an island, inconveniencing them all. She then proceeds to abandon them, meeting and getting into sexual relationships with increasingly unsavoury men. Later the two Serious Ladies meet up and compare notes. By the way, there is not a single appealing character in the entire novel, in case you were wondering.

“You are gloriously unpredictable and you are  afraid of no one but yourself,” says Mrs Copperfield. (p.15) Perhaps a sentence sourced from comments made to Jane herself.

“Our race, as you know, is not torpid. They are grim because they still believe the earth is flat and that they are likely to fall off it at any minute. That is why they hold on so hard to the middle. That is, to all the ideals by which they have always lived. You cannot confront men who are still fighting the dark and all the dragons, with a new future” (p.143), comments Miss Goering about communism to Dick in the bar.

“For several days it had been quite clear to Miss Goering that Andy was no longer thinking of himself as a bum. This would have pleased her greatly had she been interested in reforming her friends, but unfortunately she was only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own salvation.” (p.172)

Two obscure ladies, one obscure book

The quotations above were the only ones I wrote down when I was making notes about Two Serious Ladies. I know why that is: I started to research Jane Bowles and became fascinated by her life and that of her more famous husband, Paul Bowles. I believe the cover mentions that she only wrote this one novel and I wondered why, because she was obviously an accomplished writer and her writing was admired by many of her contemporaries: Tennesse Williams and Truman Capote, to name but two. Apparently the novel was ill-received by the critics, which dented her confidence, particularly when her husband’s novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ was an instant success. This must have been particularly galling because up until that point he had been working as a composer. Only when he helped edit his wife’s book did he decide to try his hand at writing a novel.

Jane Bowles work never became particularly popular. I came across one newspaper article about her that stated that she only wrote one novel, and it wasn’t this one; that must have been a mistake. A Guardian book blog article refers to a New York Times article which claimed that in 1964 a publisher asked her to find a copy of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ as they wanted to reprint it; she was unable to provide it, though whether this was due to her poor health, alcohol, general disorganisation or unwillingness is not mentioned. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the Virago imprint at a BookCrossing meeting. Even though I had never heard of the book or the author, the books chosen by Virago rarely fail to make an impression, so I was glad to get hold of it.

Another interesting snippet the author of the blog article mentions in the comments is that there were originally going to be three serious ladies, but Jane’s husband advised her to leave the other one out because it would be too distracting. The other sections were later published as separate stories, A Guatemalan Idyll and A Day in the Open. It does however show how much influence Paul Bowles had on his wife’s writing.

An unconventional marriage

Jane Auer married Paul Bowles in 1938 in New York on the eve of her 21st birthday, when he was 27. As a composer, he was already socialising with influential cultural and intellectual leaders of the time. Paul Bowles was friends with Gertrude Stein and her sophisticated circle, meeting and collaborating with influential authors and musicians including his mentor Aaron Copland and many other modernist and avant garde personalities. Paul and Jane Bowles’ lives were equally adventurous and unconventional. For their honeymoon they travelled to Central America (including Panama), Costa Rica, then off to France on a ship filled with German Nazi sympathisers. Returning to New York, they shared a house with W.H. Auden, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

In 1947, Paul Bowles decided to move to Tangier, a place that was tolerant of gay people and with a lively expatriate and cultural community; Jane only joined him the following year. They were both bisexual with an open marriage, each mainly attracted to their own sex, living in separate apartments in the same building and yet devoted to each other. Jane had various lovers, but eventually became involved with a ‘peasant woman’ who wore a burqa when out in public. Paul Bowles was horrified and believed that she was taking advantage of Jane. Though Morocco was an inspiration for her husband, for Jane it crippled her creativity since she had a profound sense of being cut off from herself as an expat in North Africa:

“Jane’s lack of output after her novel’s poor reception was a result of many factors, not least of which was her fear of being further misunderstood, heightened as it was over the passing years by a sense of alienation not only from the literary world and not only from North Africa, but from herself, uprooted as she felt herself to be living so far away from home. Isolated in Morocco, living through a foreign filter, Jane Bowles was practically silenced by her displacement, which is of course contrary to the lore of the ex-pat living in a creative rush on distant shores. Jane Bowles felt somewhat untethered by living abroad in such an alien culture, one that she once described as her prison. For Bowles residing inside what Foucault called a heterotopia led to paralysis, exposed her profound alienation from herself.” (Source: Jane Bowles as Proto-Beat: Two Serious Ladies on the Cusp of Two or More Movements, Miryam Sivan).

Like the characters in her novel, Jane Bowles had escaped a conventional life. Perhaps she was the model for Mrs Copperfield who, like her, hated being abroad, but enjoyed the freedoms that being outside society gave her. Maybe Paul Bowles was more like Miss Goering, who did whatever came into her head, however much that inconvenienced her family and friends. After all, he was the one who decided to up sticks and leave their life in the USA for Tangier, probably living in conditions that were less comfortable than their life back home. Sadly for Jane, she was plagued by writer’s block, possibly self-induced; instead of concentrating on her writing, she spent too much of her time drinking at the Parade Bar, taking too many prescribed medications. This all resulted in her having a series of strokes, the first in 1957. This put the final nail in the coffin of her writing as one of the effects was that she lost her concentration and imagination. Her husband remained devoted to her for the rest of her life, though she finally died in 1973 in a nursing home in Malaga, Spain, after years of ill-health.

Further reading:

A detailed description of Jane and Paul Bowle’s marriage, their lovers and friends.

Two Serious Ladies in context: www.thedailybeast.com/1943-two-serious-ladies-by-jane-bowles

Another blogger’s review at the ClaireMCA site gives more detail about the storyline than I can remember.

According to Chris Power in the Guardian books blog, Jane Bowles’ short stories deserve to sit next to Mansfield, Rhys and Woolf.

A brilliant interview with Millicent Dillon, who wrote several books about the Bowles, including individual biographies of each. The best part of this interview is the part at the end where she describes the amazing coincidences and unexpected connections she discovered when researching Jane’s biography.

An extraordinary account of searching for Jane Bowles’ last resting place in Malaga. Paul Bowles did not believe in any religion or in commemorating physical remains, so only paid for a ten-year lease of a burial plot. Even a year after her death, visitors wanting to pay their respects were led a merry dance before they found her simple grave. Since then, roadworks have displaced her grave and new memorials have been created. Read more here: www.raintaxi.com/the-gathering-spirit-of-jane-bowles