The novel hooks the reader with its first sentence: “In the main ward of the great hospital Lafala lay like a sawed-off stump and pondered the loss of his legs.” A merchant seaman originally from West Africa, Lafala had till recently been living in Marseille, where he had fallen in love with a Middle Eastern prostitute named Aslima. After she absconded with all his money, he stowed away to New York, was discovered en route and quickly confined to a freezing water closet. By the time the ship landed, Lafala’s feet were so severely frostbit that they had to be amputated.
At this low point, a fellow patient, nicknamed Black Angel, arranges for a lawyer to sue the shipping company. Surprisingly, the “ambulance-chaser” wins the case and his maimed client is awarded $100,000. In relating the African American community’s reaction to Lafala’s windfall, McKay — who was a bisexual leftist — cheekily mocks the bourgeois and religious character of much contemporary black activism. The imaginary Christian Unity of Negro Tribes — note the offensive acronym — writes Lafala asking him “to communicate with the association if he needed any spiritual assistance in the handling of his affairs.” Another letter arrives from a young man who “had written a book in which he had shown how the Negro Problem could be eliminated by the Negro himself by means of psychic development.” Might this be a jab at Jean Toomer, the author of “Cane” who became an acolyte for the mystic philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff?
McKay soon makes clear that Lafala is untrustworthy — he only pays his lawyer half of what he owes him — and that he’s prone to suspicion and readily swayed by others. So while Lafala may be the book’s protagonist, he’s hardly what you’d call a hero. After being fitted with cork prostheses, though, Lafala is able to hobble around and quickly decides to return to Quayside, the book’s name for Marseille’s Vieux Port, then a multiracial, harbor-side neighborhood of bars, brothels and violence.
In general, McKay writes in a loose, somewhat elliptical style, with a fair amount of slangy dialect, but he does occasionally grow quite lyrical. Thus he extols Marseille in language that seems to echo and amplify Dickens’s famous description of the city at the opening of “Little Dorrit”:
“Wide open in the shape of an enormous fan splashed with violent colors, Marseille lay bare to the glory of the meridian sun, like a fever consuming the senses, alluring and repelling, full of the unending pageantry of ships and of men.
“Magnificent Mediterranean harbor. Port of seamen’s dreams and their nightmares. Port of the bums’ delight, the enchanted break-water . . . Port of the fascinating, forbidding and tumultuous Quayside against which the thick scum of life foams and bubbles and breaks in a syrup of passion and desire.”
Once back in Marseille, Lafala re-initiates his love affair with the prostitute Aslima, known as “the Tigress.” Sex between the two isn’t just animalistic — one rejected title for McKay’s novel had been “Savage Loving” — but “piggish.” As Aslima says, “We’ll be happy pigs together as often as I am free.” Surprisingly, McKay offers nothing more graphic than that rather unerotic image. Nonetheless, sex pervades the novel. We learn that Aslima’s rival, La Fleur Noire, sleeps with men for money but saves her “sugar” for a Greek girl. The most prominent white character, the longshoremen Big Blonde — note the feminizing e on his nickname — is infatuated with a pretty boy called Petit Frere. Neither of these liaisons is criticized or even commented on, they are simply regarded as personal choices.
While Lafala waits for his money to come through, he swaggers around the tumultuous Quayside, interacts with the dapper Marxist intellectual Etienne St. Dominique and periodically tangles with Aslima’s pimp, Titin, a burly provincial Frenchman. More and more, though, he wonders about Aslima’s deepest loyalties. Will she really give up her life in Quayside for him? Or must he return to his homeland in Africa alone? Both questions have the same answer.
The editors of “Romance in Marseille” — Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell, both distinguished professors of African American studies — surround McKay’s text with a mildly academic introduction, a discussion of the manuscript’s textual history and 30 pages of explanatory notes. Their critical apparatus sets the novel in its own time and establishes its importance, in the words of the back-cover blurb, as “a pioneering novel of physical disability . . . and one of the earliest queer fictions in the African American tradition.” The editors also shrewdly liken the book’s dramatis personae to the exuberant grotesques in George Grosz’s contemporary paintings and caricatures.
To me, though, “Romance in Marseille” reflects the 1930s discovery and celebration of outcasts, rogues and criminals, all of them regarded as more vital and passionate than the upright citizens of etiolated bourgeois society. Had McKay’s novel been published when it was first written, it would now look right at home in the proletarian company of William Faulkner’s “Sanctuary” (1931), Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” (1932), James M. Cain’s noir classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1934) and even, from certain angles, Nathanael West’s bleak comedy “Miss Lonelyhearts” (1933).
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
ROMANCE IN MARSEILLE
By Claude McKay
Penguin. 165 pp. $16