Party Going

Romance in Marseille BY Claude McKay. edited by William J. Maxwell and Gary Edward Holcomb. New York: Penguin Classics. 224 pages. $16.
Cover of Romance in Marseille

Claude McKay’s “lost” novel Romance in Marseille begins where most novels would end: with a twist of fate that brings life to a grinding halt. Lafala, a West African sailor and a man of “shining blue blackness,” is discovered stowing away on a ship traveling from Marseille to New York and detained in an uninsulated bathroom, where he nearly freezes to death. When he comes to, he’s in a New York hospital, legless. Lafala’s first reaction is fear: he has heard that doctors in hospitals sometimes kill Black patients to use as cadavers. This is not merely superstition, but the unremitting condition of Black life in a world that deems some bodies—especially vulnerable ones—disposable.

Against all odds, Lafala survives. And further twists are in store, setting the course for a propulsive second act: a lawyer takes on Lafala’s case and sues the shipping company, securing a windfall for the new amputee. So, life might resume again, materially comfortable, if not physically. Where to go from here? New York, filled with leering swindlers and bigots, won’t do. Lafala has only one destination in mind: his former home in the Quayside community in Marseille, “port of seamen’s dreams and their nightmares,” a crumbling pleasure town for the decadent, the destitute, and the desiring.

McKay is known as a vanguard of the Harlem Renaissance, often compared to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, his interlocutors and collaborators. A more thorough understanding of the American canon—one less constrained by identity, which siloes all writers who aren’t straight white men—would see him as a singular hero of American literature. McKay’s was a troubled life, marked by political persecution, illness, and financial hardship. But that did not prevent him from writing some of the best poems and novels of the modernist era, or from developing his own forceful, radical style. In his fiction, he embraced prurience and abjured the banal; simplistic tales of Black struggle never held his interest. Instead, he asked: How did Black working-class communities survive? What were their indulgences, their secret sins—the private, tightly held joys that kept them living and loving? His exploration of these themes made him successful, though he also battled with intransigent publishers. Romance in Marseille, which McKay finished in 1933, was one casualty of those fights: called “sex hash” by a reader at Simon & Schuster and rejected by several other publishers. This small masterpiece of Black diaspora literature languished in an archive until last year, when McKay’s estate made it available for publication.

Lafala is the warm, beating heart of Romance in Marseille: not merely a symbol of the transatlantic traffic in Black bodies, but a fully formed character who grows more vital and self-possessed with every chapter. This is not so much because of his new wealth but in spite of it. As he adjusts to the comforts of a small fortune, Lafala realizes that money is “the slogan of life”—crucial, but lacking real meaning, as the advertising term suggests. Loneliness ensues; the cure lies in Quayside, where Lafala’s reappearance draws the attention of a clever prostitute named Aslima, also his former flame. She may or may not be after his cash. Lafala is smitten, but remains on edge: their fledgling relationship makes him “so happy that he became afraid of his happiness,” which “always started him off like a fever gripping madly.”

It’s a common affliction in Quayside, whose seedy bars and cafés teem with feverish pleasure seekers, drawn to the short-lived, visceral thrills of a good night out. Warm bodies, loud music, strong drinks. As in any small town, spats arise and flame out: between Aslima and other sex workers, bartenders and socialist organizers, Black and white expats. But desire, in all its forms, holds Quayside together like a suture. Aslima’s competitor, a prostitute named La Fleur, sleeps with men for money but prefers women; Big Blonde, a gruff dockworker, swoons over coquettish gigolos. These are not the self-effacing queer characters found in E. M. Forster or Radclyffe Hall: if there are closets in Quayside, they’re for storing sequined dresses and wine bottles only. Nor are McKay’s characters particularly interested in shows of solidarity, or parsing their own identities. What they really want is to drink, smoke, fuck, argue, dance, and fuck some more; Lafala offers himself up as Quayside’s sugar daddy, bankrolling every late-night fête. If Gatsby’s parties are like boring, expensive clubs, then Lafala’s are the warehouse parties way downtown. No invitation required, but you better be fun, and prepared to dance. (I know which ones I’d go to.)

Romance in Marseille has been described by various reviewers as a book “ahead of its time,” presumably because of its queer and disabled characters, and its frank discussion of racial violence and unfettered capitalism—themes more familiar to readers in 2020 than 1920. But I struggle to see an analogue in today’s fiction. Contemporary characters are burdened by desire, not invigorated by it; they are guarded, solipsistic, and mostly resistant to intimacy, or having any kind of fun. In Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness—also about the lives of queer, displaced people in Europe—the narrator notes of an encounter with another gay man: “It seemed to me the intimacy he had drawn between us deepened further, becoming a kind of kinship, which I greeted with both welcome and dread.” Such ambivalence is typical of today’s bleak, anxious novels, from the millennial depression chronicles of Sally Rooney and Raven Leilani to the self-conscious autofiction of Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Pleasure is regarded with an analytic suspicion, a fear of self-revelation; love might be a trick, set up to exploit, like modern society itself. (“Capitalism harnesses ‘love’ for profit,” proclaims one character in Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.) Lafala and his Quayside friends could seem credulous in comparison, but they, too, know how desolate modern life can be. Their world, no less than the world of a Rooney or Lerner character, feeds off debt, drudgery, and hollow exchanges for profit. McKay’s characters move between temporary jobs “like the scum and froth of the tides,” their thinking “confined to the immediate needs of a day’s work down the docks or a trip on a boat or any other means of procuring money for flopping, feeding, loving.” In Quayside—a town of “poverty and sweetness,” to borrow Frank O’Hara’s phrase—partying is time regained. Sheer enjoyment has no exchange value: these good times are the marrow of life, and ends in themselves.

What McKay created, in just 130 pages, is a coruscating novel whose characters are more resilient, and more resolutely alive, than their contemporary counterparts. Form-wise, though, there are fairly obvious faults. Romance in Marseille has the texture of a comic book and the feel of a condensed Shakespearean tragedy: blunt prose, clipped scenes, and a plot strewn with diversions. As one would expect, it is only lightly edited, and seems to have been finished in a hurry. New, hastily drawn characters appear in the novel’s final pages, stand-ins for certain political arguments. Though not mentioned earlier, Babel, a fellow stowaway, returns to Marseille and warns Lafala against leaving for West Africa with Aslima—a clear rebuke of Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalism, whose approaches McKay questioned. In fact, there’s little McKay isn’t drawn to critique: the N.A.A.C.P. (here called “C.U.N.T.”), Communism (from which he diverged later in his career), even himself (one character is a troubled leftist writer). He has a harder time passing judgment on Lafala, though the character’s decision to return to Marseille has far-reaching consequences: Aslima’s love ends up being genuine, but she is murdered by her jealous pimp. In Romance in Marseille, the role men play in propagating women’s misery is limned, but never quite acknowledged, a perplexing blind spot. This is not to say that Lafala is rewarded, or that he escapes entirely unscathed. In the book’s final pages, he evades an attempt at prosecution by the vengeful shipping company and leaves for West Africa alone, unaware of Aslima’s death but hardly content. What McKay gives his hero is a fate that hews closer to reality, and to his own volatile life.

Even ending as it does, Romance in Marseille is not a cynical novel, at least not in the way that many novels are today. Love may appear to be a capitalist trick, but it doesn’t have to be; money can buy some happiness, in the form of booze and revelry; a disability is not a death sentence. These are things most of us know, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

McKay’s was an imperfect and luminous art: a lone, flickering taper in an airless, dismal age. He was ahead of his own time, but ahead of ours, too, dedicated to a redeeming vision of the world we seem to have relegated. Life, like this novel, is full of near misses: threats that never come to pass, loves that slip silently by. Pleasure comes at us in glorious, time-bound bursts. We can choose to miss out on those, too, and to narcotize ourselves with our own skepticism. Perhaps this is the safer option. But as McKay knew, this is a dull way to live indeed—if it is even living at all.

Sara Krolewski is a writer and graduate student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.