According to Baldwin

A single post cannot begin to sum up a few days of being on Parisian time. And as I write this, the unfinished Cyprus post echoes to me from somewhere on the back burner of my consciousness. The stories, as this living abroad chapter nears its conclusion, will be shared. Soon. For now, I share a few choice excerpts from an interview with James Baldwin that  appeared in the Paris Review in the spring of 1984, just a few short years before the author’s death. Inspired by the man, I took a walk by Cafe de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain, where Baldwin drafted much of Go tell it on the mountain, that had all the trappings of the cliched, over-scripted movie moment if it hadn’t been for the French Dixieland band — a group of five men, each coaxing music out of a different instrument, was playing a tune with the same heightened enthusiasm of the yellow-and-green clad high school band that was entertaining passers-by yesterday on the steps of the Academie National de Musique; only halfway through did I recognize it as an uncannily apt (for the occasion) rendition of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” — on the corner as onlookers, young and old, looked on and tapped their feet, hands and other extremities as they listened.

Music. Appreciation.

This is the magic of communing — not only with others in the moment, but with the living ghosts come to life in the stories of others who walked the same steps years before; communing together, across time and space. The surreal and fantastical backdrop of this city was made for just this sort of thing. (A sentiment echoed in the time-traveling imaginations of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”)

I see why Baldwin felt at home here. The year may be different and the landscape has certainly evolved; the feeling evoked by the scenery, structures, and the Seine, however, hearken back to another time — no matter when you are there, walking one step in front of the other into and out of streets and alley ways, you can’t help but be somewhere else, or more precisely (nevermind how awkward it sounds), some-when else.

Baldwin talks about Paris and writing in the Paris Review interview excerpts below (and more here).

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell us how you came to leave the States?

JAMES BALDWIN

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people.

***

INTERVIEWER

Why did you choose France?

BALDWIN

It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York.

***

INTERVIEWER

Are you, or do you remain, very close to your characters?

BALDWIN

I don’t know if I feel close to them, now. After a time you find, however, that your characters are lost to you, making it quite impossible for you to judge them. When you’ve finished a novel it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

***

INTERVIEWER

Are there a lot of your characters walking around here?

BALDWIN

No, they begin walking around before you put them on paper. And after you put them on paper you don’t see them anymore. They may be wandering around here. You might see them.

***

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?

BALDWIN

No, you can’t have that.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s quite unlike preaching?

BALDWIN

Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to According to Baldwin

  1. Subhalakshmi says:

    Beautiful observation.. very poignant points.. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s