The book must always come before the author,” said Nobel Prize winner, VS Naipaul. Unlike another genius such as James Baldwin, Napaul spent his entire brilliant, vicious life seemingly trying to prove himself wrong.
For Baldwin, words came first. By becoming a child preacher in his native New York City he avoided the Harlem ghetto. He also soon found the power of images and a sense of himself as gay and American, an American “negro”: the mid 20th century polite English word for “black”. (I remember the shock of hearing the other, offensive ‘N-word’ when my cousin in Sydney used it as the name for his pet dog. I was seven years old at the time but even then somehow I knew how wrong that was.)
On a wider tour of Iberia, Baldwin (who died in rural France in 1987) came to Barcelona six decades ago last May. He met the poet Jaime Gil de Biedma and stayed in his basement in Carrer Muntaner – “blacker than my reputation,” he called it – and they spent seven frenzied days together with [current mayor of Hijar] Luis Marquesán.
Biedma wrote in his diary: “Life, since Monday, when I met Jimmy Baldwin, has been so hectic that today I find myself in a state of real moral and physical exhaustion, aggravated by the intellectual dullness that comes with an alcoholic regime such as the one I have been following.”
According to Marquesán’s biographer, Miguel Dalmau, they went to the picnic areas of Montjuïc, “where they saw the landscape of misery, the shantytowns in disarray on the mountainside.” Ultimately it all led to Baldwin’s new friend Biedma questioning himself about whether he was a coward.
Despite the stimulating week, it seems fair to say that the Catalan capital was a place of mixed fortunes for Baldwin.
As reported in this magazine in October 2019, the publisher, Lumen, “had asked Barcelona photographer Oriol Maspons to advise on publishing the book ‘Nothing Personal’ by James Baldwin and Richard Avedon, but his advice was ignored. Hurt, he and other photographers published a signed ad in the magazine Destino, criticising the indifference shown towards a masterpiece dealing with the US’ racist and classist system.”
Fortunately though, one of Baldwin’s books, ‘Beale Street Blues’ has finally found its way into a Catalan translation, thanks to the publisher Edicions 1984 and the work of Oriol Ampuero. He launched it along with professor and writer Josep-Anton Fernàndez on June 13 at the Sants bookshop La Inexplicable.
Baldwin’s work, like so many others, was censored in Spain during the Franco years, but Barcelona played another part in his local history when the US writer Nicholas Boggs was a recent writer-in-residence at Jiwar on Carrer Astúries (founded by two Barcelona residents, Mireia Estrada Gelabart and Moroccan-Canadian Ahmed Ghazali). Boggs spent his time co-editing and writing the introduction to a new edition of Baldwin’s ‘Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood.’ He is also continuing work on his manuscript in progress about love and race in Baldwin’s life and work at the Department of English at New York University.
I share Boggs’ fixation. It knocked me sideways when I read Baldwin’s novel, ’Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone’, during lockdown in spring 2020 and I’ve barely left his words untouched since then.
Reading James Baldwin (or listening to his captivating voice) is like having a fogged-up window wiped clean. Now the view can be seen for what it is, whether picturesque or hideous. Baldwin’s penetrating work, too, is now starting to be seen more and more for what it is, both in Catalonia and across the wider planet.