11 juin 2015
ENG - The Paris black bank
The cover of La rive noire : de Harlem à la Seine (by Michel Fabre, 1985; it has not been translated into English) shows a black-faced Statue of Liberty. The title literally means: “The Black Bank: From Harlem to The Seine”. Michel Fabre, the best connoisseur both of R. Wright and C. Himes, shows how from the middle of the 19th century till the ‘70s, Paris was the destination of many black writers and artists. For example, after WW2, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes settled in Paris (respectively in 1946, 1948 and 1953). Wright died in France in 1960, Himes spent there nearly 30 years before moving to Spain – where he had a house built for him, which he could not afford in France in spite of his success, and Baldwin only went back to the US in 1960.
Several particular reasons motivated Himes’ exile to France: Lonely Crusade, his second novel was badly received by all his most likely readers (white liberals, Blacks, Jews, communists) and was a commercial failure. He also nearly killed Vandi Haygood, his white girl friend; this would later inspire The End of a Primitive (1956), maybe his most beautiful novel. But the fundamental reason was the same for the three authors: the absolute necessity of fleeing from a nightmarish existence. For them as for those who preceded them, France meant freedom and Alexandre Dumas whose grand-mother was a black slave was considered a token of France’s difference.
The black bank corresponded to a part of the left bank of Paris, from the Latin Quarter to Montparnasse. In his autobiography, one can follow Himes in the left bank cafés where the Black Americans spent a lot of time because of the cold and uncomfortable conditions of their hotels: first the bar Monaco, on the rue Monsieur le Prince, then the café Tournon, near the Luxembourg gardens, launched by William Gardner Smith, “Dick’s domain”*, which Himes was happy to leave for the Select, on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, after La reine des pommes (The Five-Cornered Square).
As regard Himes’ feelings towards France after arriving there, it is somewhat difficult to sort out between the sources and periods. In an unpublished article quoted by M. Fabre, dating from the first months or years of Himes’ exile, the latter says: “My fate, whatever it be, is in America. I’m American, as a Frenchman is French, as an Englishman is English and I will be back (to quote Mac Arthur, another American) to fight in America until death.” Later, recalling the success of La reine des pommes (The Five-Cornered Square - 1958) in the 2nd volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity (1976), he writes: “I was now a French writer.”
Still Himes lived in a permanent inner revolt and antagonism against the Whites. He also was remarkably ungifted at learning languages and his courageous attempts to learn French were totally unsuccessful. M. Fabre concludes: “He was the stranger everywhere, only a passenger lingering in France.” Indeed Himes appears quite isolated from the French, in particular from the French intelligentsia, compared to the friendships Richard Wright gained in France: the Sartre-Beauvoir couple, Marcel Camus, Léopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire. In France as in the US, Wright tended to be the American Black Writer.
* Dick: Richard Wright (My Life of Absurdity).