Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Today seems to be Janet Turner Hospital day. Whispering Gums posted a review of JTH’s short story ‘The Insider Story‘, a discussion ensued about Orpheus Lost which we had both reviewed and lo, Lisa was also working up a review of Orpheus Lost from her reading notes, so here it is,


ANZLitLovers

This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love. Read on …

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was an American writer of avant-garde short stories and Science Fiction . She started writing short stories in the 1950s, at about the same time as she started having children. Her first collection was published in 1974 and Carmen Dog, her first novel, in 1988.

The Women’s Press, a London publisher – and not to be confused with Onlywomen Press – was founded by NZ/Australian writer Stephanie Dowrick. Her co-publisher, Naim Attalah (a guy) had some connection with Virago and so as a point of difference, The Women’s Press focused on contemporary fiction, and also, as you see, Science Fiction. All this of course is ‘research’, and I see from Wikipedia that their early writers included Alice Walker, The Colour Purple and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

I own and have previously reviewed from TWP SF The Planet Dweller and Moving Moosevan by Janet Palmer and The Total Devotion Machine by (Australian) Rosaleen Love. I’m not sure why this cover does not have The Women’s Press’s familiar black and white stripes (though, inside is the same jokey logo, an iron and ironing board – see the motto: Steaming ahead).

Carmen Dog is a postmodern romp through Science Fiction, Magic Realism and Women’s Lib. The core of the plot is that women everywhere (ie. New York. I’m not sure Americans understand the difference) are devolving into animals and that female animals are evolving*, in the space of a year or two, into women.

There is not really any science in the SF, but also the fantastical elements do not make it SFF. Instead, the implication is that you must read Carmen Dog as you read SF – accept the premise as possible and think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world.

‘The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,’ the doctor said. ‘In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.’

The principal characters are Pooch, a female pedigreed setter who has partway changed into a woman; a baby, in fact the baby of the woman the doctor is speaking about, who is in the process of changing into a snapping turtle; the woman’s husband, Pooch’s ‘Master’; the doctor; the doctor’s wife, whose name we learn is Rosemary; and half a dozen women changing variously to/from a wolverine, a cat, a duck (or maybe a swan), a python etc.

Pooch finds herself being given more of the housework and babysitting, till one day the baby’s mother grabs the baby in her beak and won’t let go. Pooch rescues the baby, but thinking she’ll be blamed for the wound on the baby’s arm, runs away with it, from the suburbs into central New York. There she realises her dream of attending the opera, Carmen of course, but cannot help herself and begins singing in an untrained but powerful voice over the top of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the doctor has applied for a research grant into these changes to women and has constructed a laboratory in his basement where he can keep six women/animals and conduct tests on them.

Pooch is arrested, along with baby, and is put in the pound, where every seven days those unclaimed are taken away to be euthanized. There, out of compassion, she exchanges identities with Isabel, who is becoming a wolverine, enabling the real Isabel to escape when the Master, too busy to come himself, sends Pooch a travel pass for the subway.

Pooch makes friend with those around her; they are handed over to the doctor for his experiments; Rosemary cares for them; and slowly reveals herself as another changeling, preserving her appearance with a rubber mask.

In another part of town the Academy of Motherhood, an exclusive club for men who are attempting to take women out of the motherhood process altogether, has its own laboratories where women test subjects are inseminated –

The academy uses only the best genes in the nation: from governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists as well as the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest countries, oil magnates and so forth. The men picked are splendid, tall and blonde for the most part and all earning over $100,000 a year not even counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are, by now, paunchy and bald.

From here it gets more than a bit chaotic. Pooch escapes and is engaged briefly in a love triangle with a (female) cat and a (male) opera lover. She loses her voice and can only bark. A tall blonde man who had seen her sing is also seeking her. Pooch, being a dog, remains loyal to Master, but when finally reunited and she leaps up on him, he french kisses her and gropes her new breasts.

A protest meeting addressed by a range of women all in Rosemary masks is broken up by the police. The women overpower the police and disguise themselves in police uniforms, the police disguise themselves as Rosemarys. The women march on the Academy of Motherhood.

Pooch finds love. Marries. Adopts baby. Has a litter of setters. Did I enjoy it? I loved it, and you would too if it were available which I suppose it is not.

.

Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog, The Women’s Press, London, 1988. 148pp.


‘Evolving’ is Emshwiller’s (mis)usage. Evolution is of course a process covering generations.

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

It’s years now since I first read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters, stories he wrote in the 1950s, and in my mind some of the best prose ever written. I was thinking as I planned this review that the most comparable prose is the opening of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and so I wonder was there a New York school of writing at this time of which in my general ignorance of US Literature I remain blissfully unaware.

I knew I should read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and indeed a copy has been prominent in the general disorder of my TBR stacks for some years. This week in iso that I am taking off from work was the opportunity, a remark from Jackie/Death by Tsundoku that she didn’t agree with Catcher being the Great American Novel was the spur, and a review of The Blue Guitar published today (Sun 6 Sept) as I write by Kim/Reading Matters is my inspiration.

Ok, I finished it. I was about two thirds through when I wrote that intro, then Milly came round and sat on the balcony and drank wine and talked to me through the door, Boy, is she a good sort, old Milly. She even brought avo dip and some stuff for later, dhal and a home-made spinach roll. The kids rang, it’s father’s day, and Gee and Oak, who’d taken baby Dingo camping, promised me home delivery pizza for tea, vego and anchovies. I sure wish that’d turn up soon. I’m old, goddammed well over fifty and I eat early.

But no, it’s not the Great American Novel, more an iconic coming of age story, two or three days in the life of a privileged, troubled New York school boy, Holden Caulfield, a junior, year 11 in Oz-speak I think.

I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself – especially around mid-terms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

He goes to see a teacher who wishes to wish him goodbye and then back to his room, and his annoying dorm-mates, but late decides he can’t wait the few days till end of term, and heads in to town, worrying all the while about his friend, Jane, who’s been on a date with his room mate, and who he doesn’t mess around with but his room mate never misses so what went on. And all the time he’s thinking about his brother, DB who’s a writer in Hollywood, and his other brother Allie who died, and little sister Phoebe who’s only ten but bright as hell and he just wants to sit down and talk to her.

In a downtown downmarket hotel the elevator guy talks him into having a girl come to his room and he doesn’t feel like it, well ok, he’s still a virgin and she might get him started so he knows what to do when he’s married and all, but when she comes and takes off her dress and sits on his lap, he just wants to talk.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

He goes out again for a drink. He’s under-age but tall, 6’2″, he’s been to all the bars with DB, and sometimes he gets served and sometimes he doesn’t. The next day he checks out, wanders around, almost rings up Jane a half dozen times, takes the very good looking Sally who is keen on him, to the theatre; makes some funny observations about the self-awareness of actors, fights with Sally, drinks, sneaks home late at night to talk to Phoebe, sneaks out again after his parents come home, wakes an old teacher/friend who puts him up …

We get to the ending, which I found heavy handed. All along Caulfield has been talking to us, revealing his pain, his confusion, through his own lack of comprehension at what he is telling us, and on this final night he, and we, must endure a long well-meaning lecture about missed opportunities and all that bullshit we say to kids; as though Salinger lost faith in his own story telling (and what is it with Salinger – who had one, older, sister – and families and dead brothers?) though he pulls it together a bit the following day when Phoebe … (I won’t tell you, in case you’re the one other person in the world who hasn’t read it yet) and winds all up too patly with Holden in care.

This isn’t Salinger’s best prose because the voice is Holden’s, but it’s still pretty damn good.

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JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, first pub. as a novel, 1951. My edition (with what appears to be the original cover) Little Brown, New York, 1991

New York, Lily Brett

I’ve been down to Fremantle to see Kim (ReadingMatters) for coffee and beer a couple of times since she moved back to Australia. We have a connection, the obvious one, that we follow each other’s blogs, and the less obvious, that we are in WA and our parents are in Victoria. Last time, she gave me this book.

Lily Brett lives in Manhattan and her father, at the time of writing, in Melbourne, so that’s a connection too. Though I’m sure Kim gave me the book because she knows I enjoyed Lola Bensky.

New York is a slim volume of pieces, some trite, some whimsical, some sad, all the same length, around two and a half pages, maybe a thousand words, that feel like newspaper columns, casual, personal and beautifully crafted. Brett writes of Geoffrey, the man who cuts her hair:

This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser,

She might be writing about her writing.

The pieces, only tied together in that they are observations arising from Brett’s having lived in downtown New York for many years, all have the same rhythm so that if you read them one after another it begins to feel like the rise and fall of breathing.

A quick introductory sentence: “I feel bad about living so far away from my father”. A little story about something she sees or is feeling: “I worry that he is lonely in Australia. He is eighty-four. Most of his friends are dead.” A side-step into the general: “In New York, elderly parents are sometimes seen as a storage problem.” Then back to the particular:

I work at home. It would be impossible for me to concentrate with my father in the apartment. “Would Grandpa really disturb you?” my younger daughter, who’d love her grandfather to live in New York, asked me.

“He’d drive me nuts, very quickly,” I said. I paused. “I don’t want to ever hear you talking like that about me,” I said to her.

And a little sting in the tail:

“You won’t,” she said, “I’ll say it out of your hearing.”

Lily Brett, it is clear, writes always about Lily Brett. I’m not complaining. The best writing comes from deep within as the writer wrestles with his or her demons.  Look at DH Lawrence, Sartre, Gerald Murnane, Kim Scott. The problems their protagonists deal with are the problems they deal with. Writers who imagine themselves into situations, famously Lionel Shriver, or say, Peter Carey, may write very well, but they are mere story-tellers compared with the greats.

The great problem Brett’s writing revolves about is that her family was murdered by the Nazis before she was born. That she is alone in the world, not just an only child, born in 1946 in the shadow of Auschwitz, but without uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents; her own parents often remote; her loving, ordinary husband and children never enough.

This is a light work, indeed Lola Bensky is a light work, but Brett’s New York is not the New York of Friends or even of Seinfeld. We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who feels every day the absence of family. She loves New York, is anxious when she is away, describes lovingly the everyday experiences of walking, shopping, apartment living, getting her hair cut. But this is also the New York where people take dogs to work because they can’t make connections with people; where Brett can’t offer to help the homeless couple living nearby because she might become involved; where Brett’s acquaintances don’t know her children, and her children don’t know them; where there is no-one who knows her father. A world where no-one has ever met, where she has never met, was never able to meet, her wider family.

I wonder if she writes of herself, or versions of herself, so that we can know her, so that she can feel known. Or known and not known. She tells a friend her father is worried about a prostate op. making him impotent.

“Well he’s certainly had his fair share of sex,” she says. I am surprised. She doesn’t know my father. I realise she is confusing my father with the father in my novels.

Maybe I am confusing the author with the Lily in these stories. But I don’t think so.

Brett, as a new New Yorker from Australia, tries very hard to fit in,

Trying to be American can be exhausting. I’ve practiced perkiness until I’m blue in the face. And still perkiness eludes me. It’s not my natural condition. Nor is friendliness …

She has speeded up her speech and ‘tried to tone down my Australian vowels’. Kim’s years in London have noticeably rounded hers, but I gather she’s doing lots of homework in her local (Clancy’s) and will soon be as nasal again as the rest of us.

 

Lily Brett, New York, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Kim’s review (here)

Lola Bensky, Lily Brett

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Lily Brett is a well known Australian/New York/Jewish writer, born in Feldafing displaced persons camp, Bavaria in 1946 after her parents, Polish Jews, were released from Auschwitz concentration camp. She grew up in Carlton (Melbourne), attending University High, reported for the Australian pop magazine Go-Set from 1966-68, and moved to New York in 1989 (Wiki).

This is all relevant, as Lola Bensky starts out as a nineteen year old reporter in London for an Australian music magazine, reflecting on her uncommunicative parents’ experience of the Holocaust in between interviewing all the famous names of 1960s London pop culture; marries, divorces, remarries, has children, moves to New York to live. Lives all the time with a type of PTSD arising out of the horrors experienced by (especially) her mother.

I enjoyed the 1960s parts of the book, all the name dropping, interviewing Jimi Hendrix; interviewing Mick Jagger, being invited by Jagger to have a cup of tea with Paul McCartney; then hanging out in New York with Lillian Roxon, “the other fat Australian journalist, as Linda Eastman had so bluntly put it”; being introduced to, and not liking, Jim Morrison. All the time through the prism of her love for her parents and her experience of their horror, and of all the absences, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who didn’t survive.

Eastman, from upper-crust Scarsdale, has a Jewish father “who really wanted nothing to do with his Jewishness”.

Even if they had wanted to, Renia and Edek [Lola’s mother and father] would not have been able to discard their Jewishness, Lola thought. Their anguish, their sadness, their wariness was as clear as if it had been printed on them and illuminated and enlarged.

Two years later, when Lillian rings Lola to say that Linda is going to marry Paul McCartney, Lola’s first thought is, “Anyone who could spread her legs that wide could probably get anyone they wanted.”

I enjoyed the rest of the book too, but the first part could have been expanded into an interesting grunge/coming of age novel on its own – and maybe it has, I’m not familiar with Brett’s other work.

We step through the stages of Lola Bensky’s life – 20,30,50,60. At 30 she is married to Mr Former Rock Star in Melbourne, after an awkward ‘mixed’ wedding:

The Jews were too loud. Too emotional. And too obsequious to the Church of England crowd. There was also a lot of kissing from the Jews. And too much kissing for the non-Jews.

They have a son and a daughter, Mrs Gorgeous, but Lola falls in love with someone else, Mr Someone Else, an artist, and moves with him to New York.

Twenty one years later, Lola is lunching with the editor for her new book The Ultra-Private Detective Agency. We digress into the book and its characters for a while. Needlessly, probably. Her mother has died.

Lola had cried for weeks and weeks after Renia died. She didn’t know she would be crying for Renia for the rest of her life. Lola missed her mother. She missed the mother she had and the mother she didn’t have.

Lola understands why her parents couldn’t always be there for her, I’m sure this book is part of Lily Brett’s working her way through to an understanding. At one point, discussing that Lola’s parents had trouble ‘hearing’ her, she writes:

It would take Lola many years to understand that Renia wouldn’t answer questions. that Renia was terrified of questions. And terrified of answers.

Lola’s parents were unable to live in the present.  Mrs Gorgeous for instance is the image of Renia’s niece, nine-year-old Hanka, who with her mother was separated from Renia and Edek on arrival at Auschwitz, into the line for, though they didn’t know it, the gas chambers. And Lola must live, not in the past with them, but in a present where the past is always present too.

To be honest, I avoid Holocaust books. Like every other person in the western world I know it happened, and in a general sense, what has happened since. But Brett says that Australia has the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country in the world, so the Holocaust is an Australian experience too. I’m still not sure I want to know more about it – factual or fictionalized – but I found this ‘memoir’ profoundly moving.

 

Lily Brett, Lola Bensky, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), Melbourne, 2012

see also Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)