The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Reviews by John Cook.

The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Published 52 years ago, this text can be seen as prophetic including its reference to Bobby Kennedy’s prediction that the US could have a negro President within 40 years – it took just a bit longer.

My copy of this slim text includes an introduction by John Wain, a British writer of the UK 1950’s ‘The Movement’ who published a definitive biography of Dr Johnson. This is useful to place Baldwin in a wider context and to elucidate what is a fairly condensed if brief work. The text is also commences with ‘My Dungeon Shook – A letter to my nephew on the hundredth anniversary of emancipation’. This is addressed to his namesake nephew and is intended to very briefly take stock of what impact emancipation has had and the problems and opportunities that confront a young black man at a time of great ferment. It concludes ..

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.

Your Uncle,

James.’

The following larger portion is entitles ‘Down at the Cross – Letter from a Region in my Mind’.

Taking his text from that concluding statement, Baldwin argues that religion does not hold the answers for American negroes although he sidelined as a Junior pastor when trying to avoid the fate of so many he grew up with in the ghetto. He tells of being invited to dinner with Elijah Muhhamad of the nation of Muslim. But sees that as simply mirroring the violence and exclusivity of so many whites. He then launches into an existential examination of race relations in the US and arguing that ..

“ “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the centre of that arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable waterwheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands: we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

When I look at the changes that I am conscious have occurred in US race relations over the last fifty years, I many have been elevated on that gaudy waterwheel but that there is still plenty of kindling waiting to spring into fire as we see all to often on TV news programs.

Giovanni

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I read this novel first in the sixties along with more of Baldwin’s work with an emphasis on his writings as a black man in the heat of liberation struggles. He was famous for his essays especially in ‘The Fire Next Time’ which opens with a letter to his nephew putting a positive spin on how Afro-Americans can deal with racism followed by a critique of the negative influences of religion (both Christian and black Muslim) on racial equaliy. Baldwin was always a capably analytic critic as even his friends discovered. I have read the book again and find it has just as much impact today with some slight reservations on the language and intensity of introspection. Written with no ‘on page’ reference to racism, it is often seen as an early gay coming out novel. It could, however, be seen as an early plea to understand the emotional complexities of all human sexuality as the two main characters appear as bisexual and many of the homosexual characters are, at least, unpleasant. No special pleading here, only unvarnished reality of a struggle to find and define what love might mean.

I am also currently reading Christopher Bram’s ‘Eminent Outlaws’ and I offer you his excellent supplied plot summary.

It’s a miraculously concise novel. The narrator, David (we never learn his last name), spends a long night alone in a rented house in the South of France, getting drunk and remembering the past year. In Paris, while his girlfriend Hella toured Spain, David met and became involved with and Italian bartender named Giovanni. The two men lived together in a small room for several months until Hella returned and David needed to choose between his two loves. He chose Hella and handled it badly. Giovanni fell apart, giving himself first to a man he didn’t love, then to a hated boss who humiliated him. Giovanni murdered the boss. He is sentenced to die on the morning after the night we spend with David.’

Christopher Bram ‘Eminent Outlaws’ 2012

This is a finely crafted work that largely stands the tests of time. As mentioned above, its only drawbacks lie in its intense and lengthy introspections and relative lack of action which may not suit some readers. The language only very occasionally echoes older (biblical) styles and compensates with great emotional intensity. There are some incidental gems that I have always remembered such as Giovanni’s imagined last minutes as Madame La Guillotine beckons. I continue to hold it in high regard and would happily recommend it to contemporary readers as the content is essentially ageless. Having now read Bram’s analysis, I cannot help wondering if his relationship with Beauford Delany contributes something to the core of this tale of confused and unrequited love while the reference to Swiss Baldwin’s Swiss lover also resonates.

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