The ‘Late’ Modernism of Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille

3rd July 2020

Laura Ryan, University of Manchester

Claude McKay once said of his 1928 novel Home to Harlem – the first American best-seller by a black author and a key text of the Harlem Renaissance – that it would take ‘another thirty or forty years’ for his readers to see it ‘in its true light – to appreciate it in the spirit in which [he] wrote it’.[1]  Yet McKay could surely never have predicted that more than nine decades later another of his novels – Romance in Marseille – would be published for the first time to critical fanfare. 

Completed while the Jamaican-born McKay was living in Morocco in 1933 and published in 2020, Romance in Marseille centres on the character of Lafala, a West African sailor.  Heartbroken after being fleeced by Aslima, a Marseille sex worker he had fallen for, Lafala stows away onboard a ship to New York only to be discovered and locked away in a freezing lavatory.  Here he develops severe frostbite; on arrival in the Big Apple, his legs are amputated.  With the help of a lawyer, Lafala secures a large settlement for his lost limbs and returns to Marseille in first-class luxury, sporting New York’s finest cork prostheses.  Upon his return, his new-found wealth affords him near-celebrity status in Marseille’s buzzing, multiracial Quayside; he takes up again with Aslima and amuses himself whilst awaiting his big pay-out.  Lafala’s story was based upon that of a real-life Nigerian sailor, Nelson Simeon Dede; like Dede, McKay’s protagonist is arrested for stowing away in the novel’s third part. 

McKay’s earlier novel, Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1928), had also been set in Marseille and documented the lives of its vagabond inhabitants, but Romance in Marseille is in so many ways more daring and more inclusive than his previous works.  Not only does the newly-published novel feature a disabled protagonist, but the milieu of Marseille comfortably accommodates openly queer characters and same-sex relationships, sex workers and Marxist labour organizers, individuals of all colours, creeds and sexual predilections.  We have, then, a work simultaneously ahead of its time and late to the party, prescient and (inevitably) backward-looking.  How do we make sense of this?  How do we read, situate and respond to a text that is at once new and old, modernist and contemporary, belated and timely?

Of course, any response to a text is conditioned by and dependent upon the precise moment in which one is reading.  Many reviews published on the novel’s American release in February 2020 focused largely upon the above-mentioned real-life story that inspired McKay and the work’s incredible publication (or rather non-publication) history.  Both are fascinating, yet reading in June 2020 it is the content rather than the context of Romance in Marseille that seems most significant and resonant.  Perhaps the most immediately striking aspects of the novel are its portrayals of disability and queer characters.  Lafala does not conform at all to traditional stereotypes often attached disabled characters; he is neither villainous and reprehensible nor saintly and pitiable.  Losing his legs does not diminish Lafala’s thirst for life or indeed dampen his sexual appetites; his disability seems rather an ironic manifestation of what McKay saw as the ‘especial handicaps’ faced by ‘the colored man […] under the worldwide domination of occidental civilization’.[2]  When these ‘especial handicaps’ are translated into physical disability, the financial gains that accompany it in fact render Lafala far better-equipped to thrive under ‘occidental civilization’.

Lafala and his somewhat tumultuous, ill-fated love affair with Aslima are at the centre of the novel, but many of the most instrumental and intriguing characters here are portrayed as specifically and unmistakeably queer.  Big Blonde (note the feminizing ‘e’), described as ‘an outstanding enigma’ and ‘a hero straight out of Joseph Conrad’, is a white, gay longshoreman in love with Petit Frère, a younger male sex-worker.[3]  Aslima’s rival courtesan, La Fleur Noire, sleeps with men only for money; outside of her professional life, her preference is clearly for her own sex (and, the end of the novel suggests, for Aslima in particular).  Such open, unflinching depictions of queerness and sex work are striking even today.  Yet queer love and prostitution – like the jazz music of the raucous Quayside cafés – are presented simply as everyday aspects of life in Marseille.  These are not identities to be wrestled with or concealed within clever metaphors; like everything in the world of the novel, they are raw, real and sometimes dirty. 

Moreover, queerness in Romance in Marseille is intimately connected with the politics of racial liberation and class struggle.  The character of Big Blonde – one of McKay’s later additions to the novel – is especially emblematic in this regard.  He is a working-class, American expatriate who moves easily among the diverse inhabitants of Marseille’s Quayside; his first action in the novel is in defence of his friend Étienne St. Dominique: a mixed-race, Martiniquan former student now recruiting for the Communist Seamen’s Club.  Big Blonde has ‘no interest in the workers’ unions’, but, as Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell observe in their thorough and fascinating introduction to the novel, he represents a kind of chain-breaking ‘socialist colossus’.[4]  This role is mirrored in a drawing at the Seamen’s Club; it hangs below images of Marx and Lenin and depicts ‘two terrible giants, one white, the other black, both bracing themselves to break the chains that bound them’.[5]

Radical politics, queer love and racial liberation in Romance in Marseille are so entangled as to be inextricable.  In this sense especially, the novel seems to prefigure many of the conversations taking place and the movements fighting systemic racism and oppression today.  Many in recent days and weeks have emphasized the role of a black, trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, in the fight for LGBTQ rights, while Black Lives Matter has from its inception been an inclusive organization committed to creating and leadership opportunities for those often side-lined by black liberation movements, including ‘Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum’.[6]

We can only imagine what a 1930s readership might have made of these most prescient aspects of Romance in Marseille.  Contemporary publishers certainly believed that the novel was too shocking for public consumption and McKay himself seems in later years to have been keen to forget about it; his 1937 autobiography makes only one brief reference to it.  Readers today – perhaps at least vaguely aware of the basic premises of queer theory, Black Atlantic thinking and disability theory developed in the decades between its composition and publication – are embracing the novel often for the very reasons that publishers shunned it and McKay (metaphorically) buried it. 

Of course, Romance in Marseille is only one among several works by writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance to be published for the first time or republished after a long hiatus in recent years.  McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth and Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave saw their first publication in 2017 and 2018 respectively, while a new collection of Hurston’s short stories – Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick – and a new edition of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (first published 1924) have both been published in 2020.  Jean-Christophe Cloutier, the researcher who in 2009 happened upon the typescript of Amiable with Big Teeth (a previously unknown novel written in 1941) among Columbia University’s Samuel Roth Papers, associates such archival discoveries and recoveries with ‘a belated form of timeliness’.[7]  Indeed, the ‘new’ works listed above distort our conceptions of contemporaneity, seeming to embody what Ernst Bloch called the ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’.  They appear to us at once as old texts with a particular history – time capsules unearthed and poised to reveal some past mystery – yet they also emerge as strikingly fresh, novel works: the New Negro made ‘new’ once again eight or nine decades on. 

That long-unpublished works by black writers are today being finally released to great fanfare and often acclaimed as monumental literary events must in some ways be seen as positive and restitutive: as efforts to amplify and celebrate voices once silenced or lost to time.  Yet the extent to which a text like Romance in Marseille appears to speak so clearly to our current moment – reviewers have labelled it ‘ahead of its time’, ‘strikingly modern’ and even ‘strikingly woke’ – must also be indicative of the ways in which our own time is in some ways belated, behind, delayed.[8]  As K. Merinda Simmons and James A. Crank note, the re-emergence and revival of black modernist figures like McKay and Hurston makes sense during a period in which the same delineations ‘that identify an “us” and a “them”, an “insider” and an “outsider”’ are still at issue.[9]  In other words, the conditions, questions and struggles that fuelled the New Negro movement a century ago are in many cases confluent with those confronting African Americans, black British people and all marginalized populations today.  When racism is allowed to remain foundational and systemic, the mere passage of time can do little to alter the lived experiences and everyday realities of the people that these systems were designed to oppress. 

As a global pandemic continues to highlight enduring racial fissures, inequities and injustices in the United States, the United Kingdom and across the globe and as communities react in horror and anger to the murder of George Floyd (and many others), we are reminded that we still live in a world in which black bodies are deemed expendable.  In this extraordinary and singular moment in history – we have become accustomed to hearing the present period described in terms of ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘uncharted waters’ – there is also an abiding and disturbing sense that this is in fact not an exceptional moment at all.  It is rather a moment in which McKay’s stirring 1919 protest sonnet, “If We Must Die”, resonates anew and Romance in Marseille’s calls for solidarity across lines of race, class, nationality, gender and sexuality seem more vital and relevant than ever.   

Romance in Marseille ends in violence; Aslima is shot and killed by her pimp, Titin. Having talked of marriage and returning to Africa with Aslima by his side, Lafala boards a ship home alone (though having finally received his full financial settlement).  This unsatisfying ending perhaps speaks to McKay’s frustration with a novel that he had begun several years earlier and abandoned more than once.  In concluding his most daring work of fiction, McKay has his main characters abandon what seemed the only practicable and desirable ways forward: love, unity, solidarity.  The story of Romance in Marseille is thus in several senses – to quote McKay’s Harlem contemporary Langston Hughes – the story of ‘a dream deferred’.[10]  Worldwide events today are perhaps the result of a similar sense of decades-old and even centuries-old dreams deferred, progress postponed, promises broken.  In 1951, Hughes asked ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’; in 2020, it seems, it does finally ‘explode’.[11]


Sources:

[1] Claude McKay, quoted in Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press, 1987) p. 247.

[2] McKay, quoted in Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2003) p. 210.

[3] McKay, Romance in Marseille (New York: Penguin, 2020) p. 94.

[4] Ibid, p. 94; Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell, Introduction to Romance in Marseille, p. xxxiv.

[5] McKay, Romance in Marseille, p. 76.

[6] Black Lives Matter, “About” <https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/> [accessed 9 June 2020].

[7] Jean-Christophe Cloutier, Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019) p. 144.

[8] Hayes Edwards, “A Legless Black Man Comes Into a Windfall in This Biting Satire”, The New York Times, 11 February 2020 <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/11/books/review/romance-in-marseilles-claude-mckay.html> [accessed 10 June 2020]; Cameron Woodhead, “Fiction reviews: Romance in Marseille and three other titles”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June 2020 <https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/fiction-reviews-romance-in-marseille-and-three-other-titles-20200601-p54yh0.html> [accessed 10 June 2020]; Michael Dirda, “Claude McKay abandoned ‘Romance in Marseille’ because it was too daring. He was just ahead of his time”, The Washington Post, 5 February 2020 <https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/claude-mckay-abandoned-romance-in-marseille-because-it-was-too-daring-he-was-just-ahead-of-his-time/2020/02/05/1c215cc4-46a1-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html> [accessed 8 June 2020].

[9] K. Merinda Simmons and James A. Crank, Race and New Modernisms (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) p. 186.

[10] Langston Hughes, “Harlem”, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. by Arnold Rampersad (New York: Vintage, 1995) p. 426.

[11] Ibid, p. 426.

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