EXILED IN PARIS: RICHARD WRIGHT, JAMES BALDWIN, SAMUEL BECKETT, AND OTHERS ON THE LEFT BANK
by Lee Smith
"Sometime in the late middle of the 1950s," James Campbell writes, "the ethos changed. As Campbell quotes American editor and translator Richard Seaver, "This was the dawn of the Atomic era." Exiled in Paris takes up figures like Seaver, Samuel Beckett, Alexander Trocchi, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, and the editors of the Paris Review, who were all in Paris at roughly the same time in the dawn of the atomic era. Some of them knew each other, some well enough to fight bitterly, and between others there was no connection at all. What did they all have in common? They sought freedom, Campbell writes: "from racism, from sexual restraint, the frenzy of anticommunism . . . Calvinist ethics . . . conventional dress . . . artificial rhyme and stiff rhythm . . . linear narrative . . . and the totalitarianism of the new thing, television."
Campbell, the author of a well-received biography of James Baldwin, is at his best on the relationship between Baldwin and Richard Wright, who came to Paris to escape racism and whom Baldwin followed. Instead of uniting these two writers under one interpretive umbrella, he details the various literary, political, and personal differences that led to their falling out, which started when Baldwin published "Everybody's Protest Novel." Wright thought the younger novelist's essay, in which Baldwin articulated his own aesthetic and questioned the value of Wright's social realism, had betrayed "not only him but all American Negroes by attacking the idea of protest literature." It was Baldwin of course who returned to the States to take part in the civil rights movement while Wright remained in Paris. Campbell aptly details Wright's subsequent isolation, harassment, failing literary fortunes and paranoia, also arguing that it's unlikely he was murdered as some believed.
Nonetheless Campbell's treatment of the black writers in Paris generally suffers from his assertion that black foreigners enjoyed, in Paris, a liberation equal to that found by white expatriates. Certainly the Americans weren't subject to the kind of racism that had driven them from the States, but Baldwin, who understood better than anyone the monstrous configurations of race and sexual ressentiment, surely wasn't just joking when he said that if he ever wrote a memoir of his Paris years he'd title it "Non, nous ne jouons pas la trompette." Jazz, Josephine Baker, Picasso's use of primitivist art: Parisians had embraced "the Negro" since the early decades of the century, not as a person but as an exotic, primarily sexual totem, **a situation that helps explain the trials this community of writers endured.
For white writers, indeed, the liberation was at least in part sexual -- particularly for the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, who sought to liberate himself from the wife and two children he brought with him to Paris along with his novel in progress. **But Trocchi spread himself too thin: trawling for women, editing the literary journal Merlin, writing pornography for Maurice Girdodias's Olympia Press, and **sinking into his heroin addiction. Inspired by **the recently published S&M fable Story of O, Trocchi wrote to an estranged lover already engaged to another man, offering **vague** promises of **a dubious freedom: ". . . Our problem? It is history's and we can't escape that except by destroying it in ourselves as Sir Stephen did in relation to himself and to O . . . ."
Trocchi's identification with The Story of O sits well with Campbell. **Along with**? Trocchi, he is convinced that the postwar period was a revolutionary epoch, witnessing a global change in consciousness "the writer" had to challenge with a total derangement of his own senses. But in contemplating the **license Trocchi found in pornography, I can't help but think he misconceives the **?coupling. The problem isn't sex but Trocchi's questionable metaphysics**: if the world is sick, only the artist, the outcast, is sane. This of course is a traditional French recipe dating back at least as far as Rimbaud, but Campbell insists it's novel. "For the writers who grew up before the war . . . the enemy of sane and civilized life was . . . 'over there,' the Nazis. . . . The Cold War presented a different type of enemy -- this one . . . was in our own government, at home."
Most of this is not accurate. Many of those writers, Pound and Celine for instance, believed that fascism was the only legitimate response to forces like democracy and mass culture that threatened civilization. And as for the enemy at home, as Campbell even shows, the French were still busy **?lustrating collaborators.
Underlying these inaccuracies is the problem: trying to make a collage into a narrative, Campbell proposes affinities where there are none. **The scheme is simply too large to cohere: clearly it's a different matter to be free from TV or to be free from racism; clearly Wright and Trocchi were battling very different oppressions. Human consciousness no more changed at the beginning of the atomic age than it did around December, 1910, as Virginia Woolf's pronouncement, so characteristic of modernist and postmodernist self-dramatization, would have it.
If Campbell is too ready with an overarching thesis to explain the intellectual mindset of the fifties, he **also seems to me a little too quick to discount the continuities between the past and the future, between, for instance, the first wave of expatriates -- Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, and Pound (who like his heirs was certain the sky was falling) -- and the postwar scene. We are used to thinking that changes of consciousness occur because of large political events or technological developments; political events shape political conditions. But really, changes of consciousness are usually just products of changed consciousnesses. Tanks and mustard gas and nuclear arms don't make us more destructive, or more evil, just a little faster. Our ideas about the self and self-identity are different, perhaps richer, than they were in November, 1910 less because of a political or military event than because of Woolf's literary technique, and our belief that interior monologue is an insightful representation of the way an individual mind perceives the world. **Trocchi's heroin use, his sad dissipation, wasn't, as Campbell seems to suggest, an inevitable response to the evils of mass civilization, but a familiar junkie abdication to what Nietzsche, one of Trocchi's own heroes, called "the problem of existence." Nietzsche, in a quote that heavily weighs against Campbell's **historical interpretation, declares, "Any philosophy founded on the belief that the problem of existence has been changed or solved by a political event is a parody of philosophy and a sham."
Pound called literature "news that stays news." Lasting literary work was produced in post-war Paris: Baldwin, Beckett, even Trocchi's two novels, Cain's Book and Young Adam, have recently been reissued. This work wasn't just timely, and it shouldn't bear, as Seaver believes, "the weight of the early Cold War on its meager shoulders". Rather, it's literature and, meager or not, addresses the problems of existence. Reviewed by Lee Smith 173 Warren Street, Bklyn, NY 11201 (718)522-0939 070-62-1266
Lee Smith, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY, has contributed to Artforum, the Voice Literary Supplement, and Open City.