I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Barry Jenkins' film 'Moonlight' at the London Film Festival back in 2016. It was one of my favourite films of that year and I was thrilled that it won the Oscar for Best Picture a few months later – after Warren Beatty finally opened the right envelope! Jenkins new film is an adaptation of James Baldwin's “If Beale Street Could Talk” and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. But I always try to read a book before seeing the film version and I've been meaning to read more of Baldwin's writing for a long time. In college I read “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Giovanni's Room” and “Another Country” but I've not read anything since then. Somehow I forgot how forthright and emotional Baldwin's fiction is because I think this novel is absolutely extraordinary. 

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is narrated by nineteen year old Tish who has become pregnant by her fiancé Fonny who she's been close to most of her life. They've found their own place to live in Harlem and received a blessing from Tish's father to marry, but their plans collapse when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Both their families try to pull together to get Fonny out of this dire situation, but they encounter many obstacles due to economic disadvantages and institutionalised racism. It's a heart-wrenching tale, but powerfully describes the bonds of family and romantic love in the most exquisitely beautiful way. 

Baldwin has a way of articulating in clear-sighted lucid prose his intense frustrations on a number of subjects. There are frequent cutting asides like this which slaps down the inflated egotism of a nation's spirit: “I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody - if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.” Another line feels so contemporary it's like Baldwin was critiquing the self righteous indignation of people on social media: “these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” Passages like this burn with the intensity of sparks. Baldwin was a great essay writer and speech maker and maybe this comes through too strongly in a narrative meant to be narrated by a nineteen year old. Equally some later sections stray so far into other characters' points of view I wonder why he kept the entire novel in Tish's first person voice. Nevertheless, the dialogue and relationships between the characters in this novel felt entirely true. 

There's also a startling edginess to Baldwin's writing in how he portrays sexuality and frank heated exchanges. An early sex scene between a husband and his zealously religious wife is shown with surprising violence and expresses the unvoiced conflicts in their relationship. This contrasts so sharply with the mountainous passion expressed when Tish and Fonny make love. I was riveted by the arguments between the families which built to such a riotous show down it could have been a confrontation portrayed in a daytime talk show. It's also somewhat bracing to read how some racist and homophobic language is used by the characters. This makes total sense because it's of the era but you know that phrases such as “eyes like a Chinaman” and “the way his behind stuck out, his mother might have been a gorilla” wouldn't fly in a novel written today. 

Scenes of furious confrontation are balanced with touching moments of forgiveness and some scenes subvert your expectations such as when disenfranchised members of a community come together when Tish gets groped at a grocers. But alongside the high drama there are also many quiet moments of reflection that reveal the depths of great psychological complexity. For instance when considering her appearance Tish observes “People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes in a human face is the record of that collision.” This is such a disarming way of considering how our image of ourselves and judgements by others about our appearance can mingle. 

What comes across most of all is how many of the issues Baldwin was writing about almost fifty years ago (this novel was first published in 1974) still feel relevant today. Perhaps that's why Barry Jenkins is bringing this story to the big screen now. I'm looking forward to watching it as well as Jenkins' next project which is turning Colson Whitehead's “The Underground Railroad” into a mini series. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJames Baldwin
4 CommentsPost a comment

Ever since I read Danielle Dutton’s novel “Margaret the First” which fictionalizes the life of Margaret Cavendish and Siri Hustvedt’s extraordinary novel about a misunderstood female artist “The Blazing World”, I’ve had a fascination with this pioneering writer of the 17th century and wanted to read her books. Earlier this year I attended a feminist book club meeting about Dutton’s novel and that reignited my interest in Cavendish. In the lead up to the announcement of this year’s longlist announcement for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed like a great time to explore this intrepid figure’s writing. “The Blazing World” was first published in 1666 and is often considered a forerunner to both science fiction and the utopian novel genres. It’s a totally bonkers story of a woman who is stolen away to the North Pole only to find herself in a strange bejewelled kingdom of which she becomes the supreme Empress. Here she consults with many different animal/insect people about philosophical, religious and scientific ideas. The second half of the book pulls off a meta-fictional trick where Cavendish (as the Duchess of Newcastle) enters the story herself to become the Empress’ scribe and close companion. It was impossible for me to read this novel without thinking of Dutton’s text which gives an impression of the real struggles Cavendish faced in her life as well as her eccentric personality.

I found the first half of the novel quite difficult to follow although I was entranced by the bizarre concepts and “chopt Logick” that it contained. The Empress is ruthlessly methodical in quizzing her anthropomorphic subjects who are the leaders in their field of study. It’s like she’s investigating the current trends in thought to either approve or reject them. Cavendish was privy to the debates and meetings of some of the most prominent minds of her era so it feels like in her novel she’s mulling over many new concepts and trying to connect disparate ideas. In her wilfulness the Empress demands that telescopes be destroyed because she calls them “false informers” and dissolves her society of Lice-men who are Geometricians because she finds “neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession.” It felt to me like her ruthless decision-making and domineering mentality were Cavendish’s reaction to being made to feel relatively voiceless amongst the egotistical learned men of her time. This could be a simplistic interpretation of her creative reaction and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the ideas Cavendish works with in her novel.

Cavendish explores many fascinating concepts throughout the text concerning the natural world both at the macro level of astrology and the micro level where she seems to be striving to articulate a concept of subatomic physics. In one section she states “both by my own Contemplation, and the Observations which I have made by my rational & sensitive perception upon Nature, and her works, I find, that Nature is but one Infinite Self-moving Body, which by the vertue of its self-motion, is divided into Infinite parts, which parts being restless, undergo perpetual changes and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions.” It feels like she’s speaking here about the behaviour of matter and energy and gravitational forces. 


As the ultimate leader, the Empress also contemplates how people should be ruled. I found it interesting how she rejects the idea of ruling through tyranny because she recognises its short-term effectiveness: “for Fear, though it makes people obey, yet does it not last so long, nor is it so sure a means to keep them to their duties, as Love.” Not only does she absorb and sift through scientific and political ideas, but also references many different religions and sacred texts to play off from before the Empress decides to write her own religious text or Cabbala. The Empress hilariously wants to summons the spirits of some of the greatest minds in philosophy and science such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo or Hobbes, but it’s decided that they would be too “self-conceited” to agree to be her scribe. So instead she summons Cavendish herself. Neither are content to simply reside within this fantastical world so they create worlds within this world to travel to and the Empress appoints a “Spirit to be Vice-Roy of her body in the absence of her soul.”

In the novel there’s a frequent insistence upon the formation of one’s own imaginative world as a means of escape in a way that makes me feel Cavendish must have felt either bored or suffocated by the actual life she was trapped within. It felt as if the Empress’ freedom and vast riches played off from the fact Cavendish’s much older husband experienced varying amounts of financial and political trouble throughout their marriage. Dutton’s novel also suggests how Cavendish had such a restless spirit, boundless level of creativity and a monumental ego that she often felt discontent with the limitations of her reality. She also craved fame and sought it out by dressing outlandishly and self-publishing many books. Cavendish’s taste for fashion and cultivating a distinct image are reflected in the novel as well when the Empress daringly seeks to make a flashy garment made from “star-stone”. I think it’s safe to assume that if Cavendish were alive today she’d be a habitual social media user and would take countless selfies. Everything about her unique and multi-faceted personality suggests that she was someone who struggled with the many limitations of her time. 

“The Blazing World” is such an intriguing oddity that I found it a totally absorbing and bewildering read. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson