James Baldwin, Giovanni, and Awkward Characters


Few writers make a genuine impression when you meet them in a public forum. Doris Lessing rendered her own works plain and tedious as she read them at Glasgow University. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Jonathan Raban seemed like genial characters to share a drink with in the old Pan bookshop on Fulham Road. Michel Tournier in the role of uncle, Ian McEwan as young and eager lecturer, Nadine Gordimer as headmistress, Margaret Atwood as eccentric aunt, it has been curious to see the faces behind the books but seldom inspirational. One had to work to overcome the ordinariness of the encounters and find magic in the books once again. Sometimes it is impossible. In Santa Fe the Lannan Foundation brought a whole series of internationally famous writers to give public addresses. After a few evenings of utmost boredom and general pomposity I learned to avoid them all. Far better to stay at home with a good book.

I recall two transformative exceptions to this rule. One was James Baldwin, in Glasgow's small Third Eye studio in 1985. The man had the gentle charisma of a saint, that sanctity born of Mandela-style oppression. He was wise, beautiful, self-effacing and funny.

The tale he told of writing his classic Another Country was very funny. A character called Giovanni walked into a dinner party and took over not only that party but the whole book. Other characters began to seem shallow thereafter, and grouped together to complain to Baldwin. The novel had dried to a halt, they had all lost their sense of being. He had to do something about it.

He did. He took Giovanni out of Another Country and gave him a sad and delightful novel of his own, Giovanni's Room. Another Country duly proceeded at full pace.

The story reminds me of two facts about writing. One is that books tend to become entwined in the imagination. It can be hard to know what strands belong in what books, as it is easy to mix them up and thereby go astray. Another is the very individuality of characters. Just because you have a plot well worked out, an immaculate plot indeed, it doesn't mean your characters will consent to it. They will quite blithely see your plot going one way while they head off in another. One such character, Sarah, a Chinese-American sixteen year-old, has developed a troublesome mind and voice of her own in my current novel. She does belong in this book, I'm sure of that, but by the time I can steer her back on course she will have changed it. She's fun to have around, but she sure is awkward.

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