A DOUBLE ECHO

ALAIN MABANCKOU ON JAMES BALDWIN

In the first part of my talk I would like to retell a tale of transatlantic influence in nineteenth and twentieth century poetry, and in the second part I would like to identify a contemporary current of influence in fiction and say what I think it implies for the twenty-first century.

Absent from Comp Lit discussions of status is the fact that literature in English is instinct with translation.  I think the reason this is so seldom mentioned is the emphasis on contemporary prose. Geoffrey Chaucer used passages from the Romaunt de la rose and Thomas Wyatt passed off entire poems by Petrarch and others as his own, because—difficult as it may be for us to place ourselves in another time, and imagine a world with different assumptions about originality and creativity—they were his poems, because he translated them.  Ben Jonson incorporated translated passages into his poems—but it would be more honest to say that several of his poems clearly began as a kind of jeu played with a piece of text he was putting into English for his own amusement.  In Jonson’s generation the solitary labor of William Tyndale (executed for heresy in 1536) was developed by a group of official translators into the King James Bible, that gem of English.  Shakespeare used North’s Plutarch, Pope and Dryden translated Virgil and Homer into heroic couplets in a deeply reactionary period, at the end of which Samuel Johnson adapted Juvenal into “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”  Throughout these exercises—which were not seen as experimental but as taking part in a tradition—it was thought that adaptation added the significance of analogy of one time period with another, Augustan Rome and Imperial London being the most resonant.  

This type of use of a source text for the creation of new work goes by various names, ranging from the imitatio of “The Vanity of Human Wishes” to the Homage to Sextus Propertius, where in a reversal of logic, the original text is new and the derivative text is the source.  The key to this is the analytical consciousness that self-aware artifice brings to the task, a critical incursion upon the concepts of influence, heritage and lineage that are so important to creative writing in the Modern and contemporary climate of critical opinion.  As such, in its sophistication and complexity, adaptation is especially suited to streams of tradition that the hegemon has historically diverted away from the broadest tracts of the field, notably the feminist, the postcolonial and the queer, among others.

A pattern of absorption by English language poetry of poems in other languages can be seen to change to the opposite, with the appearance of Charles Baudelaire, whose vision of the city would not have been possible without that of Edgar Allan Poe, whose works he translated.  And then, in the twentieth century, a curious thing happens: Baudelaire becomes—through the championship of T.S. Eliot, in his appeal to readers and writers of poetry in and out of academia, on both sides of the Atlantic—the interpretation de rigueur of modern city life, with a blithe lack of context that from our distance in time is puzzling, given the proliferation of English versions of Baudelaire—the lack of awareness that, in a sense, when you read Baudelaire you’re really reading a critique of Poe—and this understanding took a generation to dawn on the poets, before they grasped the fact that, as John Clarke put it, “The whole world has caught Poe’s cold.”  Rapid distribution and instantaneous communication has collapsed this literary-historical process into a periodic moment. I would like to detail one of its aspects by way of an example that shows the phase of development that we seem to be in at present, and that suggests the possibilities of what is being done and what we can do.

During an onstage interview a few weeks ago in San Francisco, the filmmaker Barry Jenkins recounted some personal history in connection with his new film, If Beale Street Could Talk—a period of isolation in Europe when he wrote the screenplays for that film and for Moonlight simultaneously: he noted that the Baldwin Foundation granted him the rights to film James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk on the strength of his earlier movie Medicine for Melancholy and that he wrote the screenplay for Beale Street before he had the rights.  It was only while I was walking home after the event, when I remembered that Jenkins told his interlocutor that the dialogue in the clip we were about to watch in the auditorium was taken verbatim from Baldwin’s text, that it occurred to me in what sense the director had used the word writing, and I became aware that what we were witnessing in this adaptation was an instance of the transformation of an image, one which, for all we knew, could turn out to be more or less eternal, and furthermore that adaptation between artforms has been the chief medium of such transit across continents and millennia.  Translation is part of that medium. I would like to consider these things, not as artforms, but as techniques of art. Alain Mabanckou, writing his Lettre à Jimmy, interprets the American writer James Baldwin, rather than adapting or translating him, but it seems to me that his interpretation bears upon our understanding of this process in several interesting ways.

Mabanckou seeks in Baldwin a spiritual brother and father, rather than a literary model of the kind Baudelaire found in Poe—Mabanckou’s work does not seem to owe much to Baldwin’s, and he does not analyze the novels from a literary-critical standpoint, but sticks to biography—and it is clear from the Lettre à Jimmy that Baldwin’s life and his social critique interest Mabanckou most.

The two most important chapters are 6, “Between the Black American and the African: Misunderstanding,” and 10, “On the Need to Read or Reread You Today.”  Chapter 10 opens with the sentence «Si tu reviens dans ce monde, cher Jimmy, tu jugeras ton pays natal avec plus de sévérité encore que de ton vivant.» (The French title of Notes of a Native Son is Chronique d’un pays natal, chronicle of a native land, in a curious echo, one presumes, for the reader of French, of Aime Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.)  “If you return to this world, Jimmy,” the chapter begins in the English of Sara Meli Ansari, “you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive.”  While the affection of cher (“dear”) Jimmy is lost, one assumes because it would sound to precious, too “French” perhaps, and “the land of your birth,” as a literal translation of ton pays natal, is rejected in favor of the ultramodern and politicized “your homeland,” the wonderful present conditional of the original text is preserved, as if it were in fact possible for Jimmy to come back to life: “If you return to this world….”  And chapter 10 is such a return from the other world, and such a severe judgement, in a sense, a decision handed down to us, that we should try to understand.

Chapter 4 is also important, “Destruction of Idols: from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Native Son,” because, after recounting the episode of literary history when Baldwin criticized Richard Wright in particular and the novel of social justice in general, rejecting, along with his mentor, a congeries of assumptions about what a novel is for, Mabanckou compares the conflict to a kindred difference of opinion, endemic to writing from African nations, saying:

People will loudly remind me of our duty to be politically engaged, to tell the tale of Africa’s woes, to publicly accuse those who drag the continent downward.  But what is the value of political engagement if it leads to the destruction of the individual? Many hide behind this mask in order to teach us lessons, to impose upon us a vision of the world where there would be the true children of Africa on one side, and, on the other, the ingrates—meaning the latter are considered Europe’s lackeys.  By nature I distrust those who brandish banners; they are the same people who clamor for “authenticity,” the very thing that submerged the African continent in tragedy.

Mabanckou aligns himself with Baldwin on aesthetic grounds: “Self-criticism is a commodity we no longer find in the marketplace.  Add to that the absence of thoughtful and objective reflection, and the coming together of people is further undermined, and the path down the famous ‘competition for victimhood’ further widened.”  The bone of contention in Mabanckou’s remark is surely the term objective, because of its activation, a few pages later, in a consideration of black American popular culture as principally a subculture, in the eyes of the children of immigrants, deracinated and disenfranchised, who adopt it out of an urge to rebel, confined within a role that the mainstream has written for them to play.

Here is Sara Meli Ansari’s English translation of Mabankcou, on Baldwin’s life as an expatriate in Paris, including the original English of literary theorist Dominic Thomas, whom Mabanckou is quoting: “Paris in this way becomes for you a true laboratory, playing ‘a defining role in the elaboration of the “African experience,” in the formulation and reformulation of a global blackness.’”  And here is the original French text of Mabanckou, containing his French version of Dominic Thomas: «Paris devient ainsi pour toi un veritable laboratoire “jouant un rôle dans l’élaboration de l’ ‘expérience africaine,’ dans la formulation et reformulation de la condition noire vue dans son ensemble.”» Global blackness becomes la condition noire vue dans son ensemble, the black condition seen in the aggregate, perhaps.  Mabanckou’s translation is more specified, and less pointed, blunted because no longer generalized, no longer grand in its appropriation—so glaring in the original, when we read it alongside Mabanckou’s version—of the jargon word global, on loan, in literary studies, from disciplines with which the field shares few if any assumptions, and applied to blackness, in a collocation on which Mabanckou, whose Sorbonne lectures on negritude are archived online, has commented by omitting half of it.  

To understand this passage I think we need to consider it in the context of what Mabanckou will state elsewhere in the book about exactly how he interprets Baldwin, how, for example, he considers Giovanni’s Room to represent the height of his artistic achievement, because in writing this novel the young Baldwin defied the taboo against homosexuality and the taboo against breaking ranks with his fellow black artists, supposedly forsaking the struggle for civil rights, for fame’s sake.  Mabanckou is trying to carry the light of Baldwin forward, or away, toward now, into a world that has changed since he wrote his books, and in which anyway Mabanckou has a very different perspective as a black African—although not, to the confusion of white Parisians, Senegalese, but Congolese, from, moreover, Congo-Brazzaville, not the other Congo (yes, there are two)—whereby he critiques, from the vantage of Los Angeles, black American commercial products of mass culture that are able to be worn as a mask of rebellion by the children of immigrants around the world:  

I am sure that it would be to them that you would address your words, though not to scold them, but to look them in the eyes.

You would tell them that the attitude of the eternal victim could not for much longer absolve them of their inaction, their equivocation.

You would tell them that their current condition stems, directly or indirectly, from their own illusions, confusion, and their one-sided reading of history…

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of words, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color.

I think this “objective reflection” of Mabanckou’s is, in part, his critique of the contemporary United States, and I think it is its pretense or ambition to reflect objectively on the condition of people of color worldwide, that could be seen, if one wants it to be, as a challenge, especially to the young writer from the United States today, the young writer of color in particular.  Moreover, and finally, it fits into the pattern of the foreign repetition in a finer tone of the domestic pop product: as Poe returns refined by Baudelaire in a critique, so too does Baldwin return to us in the form of a finer critique from Mabanckou.

The admonitory quality of Mabanckou’s text—if that is what it is—fades, for me, behind its performance of a drama, the invocation of a muse, a fantasy brother and father to an only child, as a way to approach the new country in imagination and also to keep one’s distance, to engage its hospitality and its hostility.


Presented at the 2018 American Literary Translators Association conference, Indiana University, Bloomington

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