I have attempted to write this review for many weeks now. I was reluctant at first because I was afraid that my words would bring little to no justice to the ones written by James Baldwin. ‘Write’ is perhaps not the best way to describe how this novel was constructed. The story he tells is a complete work of art. Everyone does not always agree with art or understand its concept, but those who do are forever changed because of it.
That is ‘Another Country’.
“But by this time he knew everything he did was wrong in the eyes of his parents, and in the eyes of the world, and that, therefore, everything must be lived in secret.” – Eric, page 198.
I have grown inexplicably fond of James Baldwin since I discovered the gem of ‘Giovanni’s Room’. If you do not read past this part, the message you must take away from this review is this: read something, anything, that has James Baldwin’s name on it.
This time, Baldwin has set his story in the 1960’s surrounded by the Jazz era sweeping through New York City. It resonated with me for many reasons. One of them being that the 1960’s was a similar time in which we found ourselves today: society seems to be in the awkward stage of acceptance. Back then, the black community was on the rise. Racial acceptance was increasing, but because of this, many were fighting against it. The white people were angry because they believed they were better, whilst the black people were furious because of the injustice they still suffered. They now had a voice, but it seemed their cries fell on deaf ears. A constant cloud of ominousness is a permanent theme in this novel.
“They had long ago give up saying anything which they really felt, had given it up so long ago that they were now incapable of feeling anything which was not felt by a mob.” – Cass, page 119.
Ida, who, years after her brother’s death, is still heartbroken, although she appears a hard woman. James Baldwin developed her character beautifully by never revealing too much about her. Like Vivaldo, her dead brother’s best friend and her (white) lover, we constantly seem to fight her. She puts up barriers which make her so inhumane. Vivaldo, desperately in love with her, struggles to win her affection, and even when he thought he did, we all come to realise later on that she detests him really. Because he is white. And the white people killed her brother. This despite the fact that Rufus’ self-destructive behaviour and abusive ways contributed largely to his demise.
There are many themes ‘Another Country’ broaches: sexism, racism, fascism, oppression and so forth, but I would like to discuss just one in this review. I could write pages upon pages about ‘Another Country’, but again, it would do the novel no justice.
Sexuality. In both novels I read by Baldwin, he discusses sexuality in such a way you do not even realise he is. As a gay man himself in the 1960’s, his characters feel real emotions. They experience real actions and words. He never offends or angers, but he did confuse me slightly. I came to realise that was my own doing. Our society is so rigid, so set in its ways. If you are not one thing, you are the other. We label one another constantly: black, white, gay, straight, lesbian, man, woman when really everything is a spectrum. You cannot say someone is definitely sad or happy. Everyone feels these emotions to a degree, some more than others, so why do we label sexuality? With all his male characters, Baldwin drops hints of fluidity. Vivaldo, although in love with Ida, is approached by an acquaintance after a night of smoking weed on a rooftop, but he declines the offer.
“He recalled his fantasies – of the male mouth, the male hands, the male organ. So he knew that it was there, and he probably wasn’t frightened of it anymore. ‘I’m not putting you down. But my time with boys was a long time ago. I’ve been busy with girls. I’m sorry.’”
Vivaldo later does spend a night with a boy – a friend.
Eric, first introduced in France, lives with his lover; Yves, a young French boy, who worked the streets before he met and fell in love with Eric. The two lovers are separated for a time when Eric moves back to America. And while he waits for his lover to join him, he embarks on an affair with a married woman. This, of course, doesn’t last.
“But it was only love which could accomplish the miracle of making a life bearable – only love, and love itself mostly failed; and he had never loved her. He had used her to find out something about himself.” – Eric, page 395.
In both cases, I was confused. These men and their fluid sexualities came as a shock. Ida’s anger at white people was clear. Some might say her words and actions were justified. But these men, who simply stepped out of their sexual boundaries and explored themselves and their lovers, seemed unacceptable to me somehow. I had assumed Eric was gay because he was in love with a boy. But this was a rigid mentality to have. Their freedom of exploration only meant that their feelings were further grounded after certain experiences. Each character selfishly used another, whether it be for pleasure, boredom, success or to somehow try and cure the loneliness each felt after Rufus died.
Baldwin himself called these “sexual myths.” He says, “They want you to feel that you’re not a man, maybe that’s the only way they can feel like men.”
‘Another Country’ displays society as it truly is: “a prison-house of desires which cannot be fulfilled.”