An Important Novel

‘Writer and playwright [James] Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. One of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.’ This is an extract from

This afternoon I finished reading the author’s novel ‘Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone’ in which, according to the above-quoted website ‘Baldwin returned to popular themes — sexuality, family and the Black experience. Some critics panned the novel, calling it a polemic rather than a novel. He was also criticized for using the first-person singular, the “I,” for the book’s narration.’ My copy is a first UK edition published in 1968 by Michael Joseph.

In my view the novel was certainly not a polemic. It recounts the story of the life of a man of his times from mid-teens to middle age. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust underlying the life of the Black protagonist is never far from present but the book is far more than a rant. Leo’s struggles with relationships, both within and without the constraints of racial boundaries, both sexual and familial; his bisexuality reflecting the author’s own; finding a non-stereotypical place in the world, are conveyed with sensitivity, compassion, passion, and understanding. Yes, there is progressive seething anger, yet, to my mind, the author’s genuine humanity is the dominating factor.

Baldwin is a literary genius. His writing is eloquent, his fine descriptions elucidating and his complex characterisation credible.

I thought the first person singular enormously enhanced the impact of the book.

He was also very far sighted in his view that change would not come in his lifetime. Indeed, it seems that not much has been learned in the last half century. The author’s work has never been more relevant.

Today, the hottest day of the year, was largely overcast and humid. We began with a trip to the pharmacy at Milford on Sea for repeat medication. The coast road car parks were full to bursting. We continued to Ferndene Farm Shop where Jackie bought some new lavender plants in the uncrowded nursery section, but eschewed the queues to the main shop. We returned home where I spent much of the afternoon indoors and the head Gardener carried out essential watering..

This evening we dined on Jackie’s flavoursome cottage pie with superb al dente carrots and cauliflower, and tasty, meaty, gravy with which she drank sparkling water and I finished the Rioja.