Baldwin Does the Blues

02 October 2021 (12:20)

Through a quirk of serendipity, my completion of Book 4 in the Penguin 60s collection coincided with an examination of the late James Baldwin’s life on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Great Lives’ programme. Notwithstanding the enormous contribution of this American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist to the civil rights and gay liberation movements of the mid twentieth century, I was  unfamiliar with his work. Yet, the three short stories in this volume, taken from “Going to Meet the Man” (1965), are an excellent taster, which has whetted my appetite for more.

“Sonny’s Blues” is the longest of the three tales and encapsulates the topics often associated with the author’s take on anti-black racism, such as drug addiction and masculinity, but also offers a fascinating glimpse into complex family relationships and childhood upbringing as underpinnings of individual life experience. It is a sombre, but absorbing portrayal of Sonny and his tentative reconciliation with sibling and society through his music, within which he lays bare his pain.

“The Rockpile” and “Previous Condition” are shorter vignettes, but also evoke the harsh reality of poverty, the pernicious effect on childhood and the tension it confers on the relationships between those trapped in its grip. No doubt, Baldwin drew heavily on his own experience of growing up in Harlem, but for the uninitiated he describes a sobering, but sadly not unfamiliar world, tainted by inequality. Though short and challenging for the reader, these stories have depth and a food-for-thought quality that make them worth seeking out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Prince of Charm – Hans Christian Andersen!

Book 2 of the ‘Penguin 60s’ collection and six stories from the archetypal fairy-tale-teller. Born in 1805 in Denmark, Andersen is clearly of a different time and yet his stories have been adopted by many countries and revered as classics. That is certainly true of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, which continues to speak to the folly of outsized vanity and weakness in the face of unrequited truth.

The other five tales were more obscure and new to me, but equally charming. Clearly written for children, in the style of parables, what the stories have in common are the important lessons to be drawn from characters who submit to negative human traits such as greed, vanity, or profligacy. Look out for the titles:- “The Bronze Pig”; “Little Claus & Big Claus”; “The Flying Trunk”; “The Bottle”; and “The Girl Who Stepped on Bread”. Improbably effective, such tales should not be underestimated, as they continue to convey morals, which resonate two hundred years on. Quite a legacy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.