2017年11月29日

‘The balloon of experience is tied to the earth,’ wrote Henry James in The American, ‘andunder that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or lesscommodious car of imagination.’ In 1949 James Baldwin was living in Paris – a measure of ropehaving been unfurled – yet his ties to Harlem grew stronger by the day. There was little of Hemingway or Gertrude Stein in Baldwin’s sojourn; though he enjoyed a little more freedomthere, and adventure too, he wasn’t there for friendship or freedom or adventure either, but forwriting. Baldwin came to Europe in search of his own voice. He came for a clear view of the past.
  And this exile suited him, sentences at once beginning to bleed out of memory ands imagination,old wounds opening into new language.
  Baldwin’s father was a lay preacher; to his eldest son he was ‘handsome, proud, andingrown’. The son was born into a religious community, a world where duty joined with pride,where sin battled with high hopes of redemption, where the Saved sang over the Damned, wherelove and hate could smell similar, and where fathers and sons could be strangers for ever. ‘I haddeclined to believe,’ Baldwin wrote in his famous Notes of a Native Son, ‘in that apocalypse whichhad been central to my father’s vision.’
  … . We had got on badly, partly because we shared,in different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized I had hardlyever spoken to him … He was of the first generation of free men. He, along with thousandsof other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had neverseen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes called the Old Country hong kong fellowship award.
  Baldwin was the kind of writer who couldn’t forget, He remembered everything, and thepulse of remembering, and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing. At the ageof fourteen he underwent what he called later ‘a prolonged religious crisis’, a confusion too deepfor tears, but not for prose. ‘I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell,’ hewrote, ‘I suppose Him to exist only within the wall of a church – in fact, of our church – and I alsosupposed that God and safety were synonymous.’ At this point Baldwin became a preacher too. Heknew that something important happened when he stood up and entered deeply into the languageof a sermon. People listened, they clapped. ‘Amen, Amen,’ they said. And all of it remained withhim: the smell of church wood and the crying out, the shimmer of tambourines; the heat ofdamnation; the songs of the Saved, his father’s face; and the New York world outside with itswhite people downtown who’d say ‘Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?’ Butmore than anything it was his father’s face. ‘In my mind’s eye,’ hw writes in Notes, ‘I could seehim, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul includinghis children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching toward the world which had despised him Makeup course.’
  Some novelists, in their early work especially, set out to defeat the comforts of invention:
  they refuse to make anything up. Go Tell It on the Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel, ashadow-album of lived experience, the lines here being no less real than those on his mother’sface. For Baldwin, as for Proust, there is something grave and beautiful and religious about thelove of truth itself, and something of sensual joy in bringing it to the page. Baldwin’s career as anovelist was spent walking over old territory with ghosts. Things became new to him this way.
  ‘Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,’ he said years later.
  ‘I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father Business Centre Mong Kok. ’
  The novel is centred around a “tarry service’ at the Temple of the Fire Baptised in Harlemin 1935. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes, dubious, fearful, and already bitter, is about to walk thepath to salvation. There are high expectations of John, ‘to be a good example’, and to ‘comethrough’ to the Lord. The service will last the whole night, and John is there in the company of theelder ‘saints’ of the church, and with his father and mother and Aunt Florence. There is a strongsense of John being one of the anointed, but we absorb his slow, terrible doubts about himself.
  Altogether he is not a happy child on this special night:
  Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and tothe air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, andthe Holy Ghost were riding in the air. His father’s face, always awful, became more awfulnow, his father’s daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyesraised to heaven, hands arked before her, moving, made real for John that patience, thatendurance, that long suffering, which he had read in the Bible and found so hard to image.
  
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