If there was a way to somehow imbue the energy, schemes, and urban underground with the free spirit and lyricism of the best works of the Harlem Renaissance, and the political commentary of centuries that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, you would get Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille. In a mere hundred and thirty pages, McKay has created a vibrant portrait of the somewhat seedy underbelly of the early twentieth century’s seaside life, and its energetic Black culture. But it doesn’t stop there – the characters and topics careen from the central portrait of a disabled man, the rights and violence of sex work, the personal nature of art and ability, the politics of Marxism, the inconsistent justice and unfairness of the legal system, and the way in which Black bodies take up space in all of these varied arenas and geographical locales from the United States to Morocco to Marseilles.
McKay tells the story of the joyful dancer Lafala at the height of the Jazz era. After he stows away on a ship and is caught, he is thrown into the dingiest water closet on the ship as a makeshift brig for the remainder of the journey. When they dock, his legs need to be amputated due to the injuries sustained from the major infection he catches. He is then embroiled in a legal battle for the value of his legs post-amputation, a battle for the literal value of Black flesh in America. For the remainder of the book, this argument of the value of flesh seems to be a great deal more litigiously fantastic in the short time span of the novel than the horrific truth of Black history. When his fortunes are tied to deportation, Lafala returns to Marseille and falls in love with Aslima, a Moroccan prostitute. They plan to escape to Africa together. But things become complicated when the value of Black flesh, and black lives, can go from priceless to meaningless depending on who is setting the price and how much they can profit from others misfortunes.
This book was a revelatory reading experience. McKay’s prose is breezy and packs a tremendous of energy and momentum into the story with each sentence. Furthermore, there is a shocking yet beautiful vulgarity that seems to run through the language, people, and events of this novel. This very vulgarity, and the topics that seem much too taboo for the early twentieth century, are certainly why this novel is first coming to light today. More on that soon. But like Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that was contemporary to McKay’s novel, the characters of this novel take to their stage of prostitution, wheeling and dealing, violence, and revolution to present a story that is totally endearing and heartfelt despite their lives and the subject matter. In this way, McKay has built a disruptive and beautiful queer novel through which the outsiders and vagabonds are the heroes, and doing their best to scrape some true happiness in their lives regardless of the hands they were dealt. We heartily cheer them on.
McKay’s portrayal of otherness is monumental in this novel. It is a novel of disability, as much as it is a novel of the Black experience, as much as it is a novel of economic and legal opposites, as much as it is a comedy, drama, and love story. What it is most is a great work of Black art from a talented and visionary member of the Harlem Renaissance. The opening fifty pages of the edition I read is a history of the publication of the novel and how it came to finally be published in 2020. It tells the story of how the one complete privately owned copy was almost destroyed, various other portions were lost in three different archives, and the story of how scraps of the piece changed hands, locations, and various versions of different names and forms of the piece led to a century of confusion. The one thing that I learned, though, is that regardless of how puritanical the audience was in the 1920s, preventing the piece from being published and widely read, the portrayal of the Black experience as it is read a hundred years later is just as relevant.
This is one of my favorite books I have read this year, and will remain a widely recommended title to everyone I know. McKay’s work is dynamic, and the politics, themes, motifs, comedy, and drama in its short hundred and thirty pages is nothing short of brilliant.