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Romance in Marseille

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The pioneering novel of physical disability, transatlantic travel, and black international politics. A vital document of black modernism and one of the earliest overtly queer fictions in the African American tradition. Published for the first time.

A Penguin Classic

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice/Staff Pick
Vulture's Ten Best Books of 2020 pick

Buried in the archive for almost ninety years, Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille traces the adventures of a rowdy troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers—collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American. Set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age, the novel takes flight along with Lafala, an acutely disabled but abruptly wealthy West African sailor. While stowing away on a transatlantic freighter, Lafala is discovered and locked in a frigid closet. Badly frostbitten by the time the boat docks, the once-nimble dancer loses both of his lower legs, emerging from life-saving surgery as what he terms "an amputated man." Thanks to an improbably successful lawsuit against the shipping line, however, Lafala scores big in the litigious United States. Feeling flush after his legal payout, Lafala doubles back to Marseille and resumes his trans-African affair with Aslima, a Moroccan courtesan. With its scenes of black bodies fighting for pleasure and liberty even when stolen, shipped, and sold for parts, McKay's novel explores the heritage of slavery amid an unforgiving modern economy. This first-ever edition of Romance in Marseille includes an introduction by McKay scholars Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell that places the novel within both the fistowaway era" of black cultural politics and McKay's challenging career as a star and skeptic of the Harlem Renaissance.

ISBN-13: 9780143134220

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-11-2020

Pages: 224

Product Dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

Claude McKay (1889-1948), born Festus Claudius McKay, is widely regarded as one of the most important literary and political writers of the interwar period and the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jamaica, he moved to the United States in 1912 to study at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1928, he published his most famous novel, Home to Harlem, which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature. He also published two other novels Banjo and Banana Bottom, as well as a collection of short stories, Gingertown, two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home and My Green Hills of Jamaica, and a work of nonfiction, Harlem: Negro Metropolis. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, and in 1977 he was named the national poet of Jamaica. In 2009, his lost manuscript for the 1930s novel Amiable with Big Teeth was discovered among the archived papers of Samuel Roth at Columbia University, and was published for the first time in 2017 by Penguin Classics. Gary Edward Holcomb is the author of Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (2007) and is the coeditor of Hemingway and the Black Renaissance (2012). William J. Maxwell is the author of the American Book Award-winning F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (2015) and New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (1999). He is the editor of the first-ever edition of McKay's Complete Poems (2004) and of James Baldwin: The FBI File (2017).

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In the main ward of the great hospital Lafala lay like a sawed-off stump and pondered the loss of his legs. Now more vividly than ever in his life he visualized the glory and the joy of having a handsome pair of legs.

Once again in the native compounds of the bush with naked black youth, he was baptized in a flood of emotion retasting the rare delight the members of his tribe felt always by the sight of fine bodies supported by strong gleaming legs.

The older tribesmen appraised the worth of the young by the shape of their limbs. Long legs and slender made good swimmers. Stout legs and thick, good carriers. Lithe and sinewy were runners' legs. And long swinging monkey arms marked expert climbers of palms and jungle trees.

The lads fancied the girls by the form of their legs, the shape of hips and firmness of thighs in symmetrical motion with coral-covered arms poised at oblique angles steadying burdens on their heads.

Lafala as a boy was proud of his legs, participating in all of childhood's leg play, running and climbing and jumping, and dancing in the moonlight in the village yard. He remembered lying down naked under the moon and stars while his playmates traced his image with pieces of crockery. And when they were finished they all held hands and danced around it singing "The Moonshine Kid." He remembered the fine shock of wading through the tall grass in the cool early morning after the hot night, the heavy dews bathing his naked skin. . . .

As a kid boy, the missionaries brought him from the bush to the town where they lived and taught. His legs were put in pants and soon, soon he learned among other things the new delight of legs. . . . Legs like a quartette of players performing the passionate chamber music of life. Loud notes and soft, notes whispering like a warm breath, a long and noiseless kiss, flutes and harps joined in enchanting adventures, in ritual unison, trembling and climbing together in the high song of life and leaving unforgettable sensations in the blood, in the brain.

Legs of ebony, legs of copper, legs of ivory moving pell-mell in columns against his imagination. . . . Dancing on the toes, dancing on the heels, dancing flat-footed. Lafala's dancing legs had carried him from Africa to Europe, from Europe to America.

Legs. . . . Feet that were accustomed to dig themselves into the native soil, into lovely heaps of leaves, and affectionate tufts of grass, were now introduced to luxuries of socks and shoes and beds of iron.

Lafala had gone on wandering impressionably from change to change like a heedless young pilgrim with nothing but his staff in his hand and playing variations on the march of legs. Come trouble, come worry, blue days without a job, without food, without love. . . . Dance away. . . . Think not of age, of accident, the festering and mortification of youth and poisoned worms corroding through the firm young flesh to the sepulchral skeleton. His dancing legs would carry him over all.

Suddenly they were jerked off and there he lay helpless.

On an impulse of self-disgust Lafala had stowed away from Marseille leaving at Quayside pals and wenches, frustrated feelings and dark desire. For there he had met the Negroid wench Aslima, a burning brown mixed of Arab and Negro and other wanton bloods perhaps that had created her a barbaric creature.

It was a time of universal excitement after the war and even among Negroes there were signs of a stirring and from the New World a dark cry of "Back to Africa" came over the air.

Lafala was a child of black bush Africa. The missionaries had brought him out of the bush to educate in the mission school of the town. But Lafala had not remained a missionary credit. He left the school to ship as a sailor boy. He reached the land of the missionaries and stayed there, spending himself in the low-down places of many ports.

There Lafala heard the other Negroes discussing the Back-to-Africa news and wondering what would become of it. Lafala listened and was stirred too. Return. . . . Return. . . . Turn away from strange scenes and false gods to find salvation in native things. . . .

Then Lafala met Aslima, a near-native thing, and there found a way to go back too, he thought, if he could ever wrench free from the fascinating new idols native to go again. Aslima was a striking girl with a face that looked as if it was hewn out of hard brown wood into beauty. And like a magnet she drew Lafala to herself. Day and night they spent together, eating, drinking and sleeping together. Dancing together in the bars down at Quayside. Going boating together in the bay, their faces moistened by the salty spray, happy little brown and black birds together.

Ah! It was the happy meaning of a dream. Aslima was the real thing, Lafala thought. Not just a transient piece of luck of a moment only. But alas he awoke one morning to find that Aslima had snatched all his material assets and left him with the dream.

An object of ridicule and an object of pity at Quayside, Lafala had no desire to remain there and join the gang of dark drifters until his only suit was worn to rags. And so, disgusted and chagrined, he had stowed away as soon as he found an accessible ship.

Being very black, Lafala had hoped to escape detection in the gloominess of the bunker. But they found him. He was locked up in a miserable place. It was very cold crossing the Atlantic. When the mess boy brought him food, Lafala tried to explain that he was freezing to death. But they could not understand each other. It was a foreign ship and the mess boy did not think that Lafala's signs were serious enough to call an officer.

By the time the ship docked, Lafala's legs were frozen stiff. From the ship he was taken to the immigration hospital. There the doctors told him that they could save his life only by cutting off his legs.

Lafala passed out from hearing or feeling anything. He had a confused vision of childish impressions of the bush country and then all was blank. When he came back to the reality of himself and his environment, his dependable feet were gone.

Oh, that he had not been brought back from the state of oblivion! In a strange land, without home, without friends, without resources, without his greatest asset-his faithful feet! Why had the doctors saved him? He had often heard his ignorant companions say that hospitals were the final passage to the grave for poor and unknown persons. The black drifters were superstitiously afraid of hospitals. They said the doctors never had enough corpses for laboratory work and would not worry about the life of a poor unknown beggar when a body was wanted for dissection.

All that talk was just so much bunk, he mused now. The doctors had been so assiduous attending to him, the nurses so kind. Terrible attention and kindness, for what was he going to do with himself when he was better and discharged? With the crutches in his armpits would he have to squat down on the hard-hearted city pavement and beg, he who had gone so headlong proud through life?

Better he had not come back to this reality. Life was now behind him. In the future there was no hope. Peering, exploring, the world that he saw was a ball heavy with mist with no light or warmth.

Oh, God! He whinnied like a sick pony in a paddock and buried his face in the pillow, his stump of a body twitching under the long white nightshirt.

Lafala was in heaven. There were no black things there. The terraces were paved with gold and beautiful flowers of every hue spilled their scents everywhere. There were pretty woodlands with spotless pools where birds of the richest tropical colors nested and were ever singing. The palaces were wonderful creations of marble and crystal and rarest glass reflecting white the saints and angels in attitudes of heavenly voluptuousness. Lafala was transfigured beyond remembering what complexion he was, but his legs were all right there, prancing to the lascivious music of heavenly jazz.

Oh, what a welcome there. . . . All the jazz hounds who raised hell in the mighty cities of earth were summoned here by the Almighty to welcome him. All the saints were strutting their stuff and the angels fluttering their wings for him, the center of attraction. A beautiful angel child was floating toward him. What magnificent wings! Many were the birds that Lafala had known on earth, but none with wings like this argent gorgeousness. The angel child was certainly coming to take him to the Prince of Heaven, to the throne above all thrones in the Holiest of the holy places.

The wings were enveloping him. He was lifted up. The music now far away reached him as from a celestial broadcasting station. On, on through heavenly space!

Angel wings! Salvation. How comforting to be warmly folded.

A sudden stop. Arrival. Was that the Prince of Heaven bending down to welcome him?

Lafala opened his eyes and saw a huge black face, yellow teeth in a badly-molded mouth, bending over him. Black things in heaven! Good God! And he was black in hell. A block of blackness in a hospital shirt. Why was he dumped down so violently upon the fact of himself and what did this other black want fooling over him?

Lafala had never liked him although they were the only two Negroes in the ward. The other black patient irritated him.

It seemed to Lafala that he was jealous of him because he was a favorite among the nurses and even the doctors took more than an ordinary interest in him.

Lafala was really handsome. A shining blue blackness, arresting eyes, a fine protruding forehead topped by a mat of closely-weaved black hair. Sometimes the nurses asked him to say something in his tribal language and one day he sang a little song of his people that they all liked. He was happy that he could do something to please them. Then suddenly he remembered his legs and was sad and tears stole down his face. He was very agitated and shuddered thinking of the future. The nurse that always attended to him patted him gently and Lafala kissed her hand and held it against his cheek. . . .

The other black, whose cot was on the side of the ward opposite Lafala, observed them with a grin and later in the day when the nurse approached him to do something, he grabbed her hand and kissed it. She gave him a slap and cried "Insolent nigger!" And he became very angry and morose.

What did he want with his objectionable mug hanging over me? thought Lafala.

"I jest want to say bye-bye and good luck, ole fellah, 'cause they done told me I can quit this shop today and although we ain't been no best buddies"-he hesitated a little-"I bin thinking right hard ef I kaint do some'n' on the outside foh you."

"No, nothing. You know they are going to ship me back to the port I stowed away from as soon as I am better," Lafala replied impatiently.

"But it's that there case o' yourn," the American black insisted. "You oughta get some good money with you laigs chopped off and throwed away like trash. I been thinking big about you' case as I done heared it told and I believe theah's good money in it."

"Money," sneered Lafala. "I stowed away on the white man's boat. Do you think they're going to pay me for getting cold feet?"

"We got laws ovah heah can see about that better'n them in the woods you come out of, fellah," the America said with a friendly grin.

He told Lafala that there were lawyers in the mighty city who knew how to squeeze money out of all kinds of accidents. He made Lafala relate all the details of his stowing away, how he was discovered, how he was treated, the kind of cell in which he was locked up. . . .

"It was a toilet," Lafala said.

"You mean a lav'try?"

"No, a real WC."

"But that ain't possible in Gawd's kingdom. They wouldn't do that to a hog."

"They did it to me all right though, and they knew what they were doing too, for after they fed me they didn't even think it was necessary to let me out to take the air."

The American shook his head with a ripe giggle.

"You nevah can tell what a white man will do. But all the same I'm going to take this business a yours to a white lawyer. I don't trust no nigger lawyers. They'll sell you out every time."

Lafala wanted to defend Negro lawyers.

The American Negro grinned. "Race ain't nothing in this heah hoggish scramble to get theah, fellah, wif the black hogs jest that much worser because them is way, ways back behind. Ise gwina get you a go-get-'im-skin—and-scalp-him of a lawyer and take it from me that when him done get through fixing you up youse gwina have you a pair of legs to walk on and good dollars in you pocket."

"You think so?" asked Lafala.

"I done think, I knows it."

Alone, Lafala wondered if anything would come from the talk of Black Angel. It was the first sign of hope for the future that he had seen. He had never before thought of gaining something from such a loss, never dreamed there was the slightest chance. The hospital staff had avoided talking to him about the subject of his future. Doctors and nurses. "Poor boy!" a doctor would ejaculate, passing his cot. Sometimes he noticed a group of visiting doctors and internes and students talking with sympathetic glances towards him. He knew they had been told about his case. The nurses, even his nurse that called him "my boy," could not grant him that essentially feminine word of encouragement that always works such a miracle on the masculine mind. In their eyes, in their silence about his future, he saw only pity, that terrible dumb pity that can sweep the fibers of feeling for a fine man or beast that has fallen from self-sufficiency into a hopeless case.

Now from the thought of the other black whom he had avoided as a fool, he saw himself again facing existence. Suppose the shipping company came across with something! A thousand dollars!