I reflect on the place of If Beale Street Could Talk in the
corpus of Baldwin’s writings, and its relationship to Barry
Jenkins’s movie released at the beginning of 2019. I consider also what
the arrival of the movie can tell us about how Baldwin is located in
contemporary collective memories.
The escalation of systematic, if random, violence in the contemporary world frames the
concerns of the article, which seeks to read Baldwin for the present. It works by a
measure of indirection, arriving at Baldwin after a detour which introduces Chinua Achebe.
The Baldwin–Achebe relationship is familiar fare. However, here I explore not the shared
congruence between their first novels, but rather focus on their later works, in which the
reflexes of terror lie close to the surface. I use Achebe’s final novel, Anthills of the
Savanah, as a way into Baldwin’s “difficult” last book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen,
suggesting that both these works can speak directly to our own historical present. Both
Baldwin and Achebe, I argue, chose to assume the role of witness to the evolving
manifestations of catastrophe, which they came to believe enveloped the final years of
their lives. In order to seek redemption they each determined to craft a prose—the product
of a very particular historical conjuncture—which could bring out into the open the
prevailing undercurrents of violence and terror.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book addresses why, we might ask, was the colonial violence deleted from Anthony Burgess's fiction, while the male bravado of the teddy boys was amplified out of all proportion. It then addresses What does this tell us about the manner in which late colonialism was comprehended by the English eye, and what also about the purview of the English novel. The book discusses the dialectic between colonial order and postcolonial disorder, for all its phantasmagoric properties, turns out to be one theme which is prominent, although in many variants from the 'invasion' literature of the postwar fiction. The memories which came to be condensed in the rituals of end of empire, the symbolics of the lowering of one flag, the raising of another served to obliterate other decisive histories.
This book explores the history of postwar England during the end of empire through a reading of novels which appeared at the time. Several genres are discussed, including the family saga, travel writing, detective fiction and popular romances. In the mid 1950s, Montagu Slater's brief essay in Arena is the first of a group of contributions, with the authors' warning of a growing American monopoly in cultural expression. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey are now the best remembered representatives of the distaff side of Britain's Golden Age of crime fiction which extended well into the early postwar period. The book focuses on the reception of John Masters' novels, the sequence of novels known as the 'Savage family saga'. William Golding's 'human condition' is very much an English condition, diagnosed amid the historical upheavals of the mid-twentieth century. Popular romance novels were read by thousands throughout Britain and across the world, and can be understood as a constituent element in a postwar colonial discourse. William Boyd's fiction displays a marked alertness to the repercussions of fading imperial grandeur; his A Good Man in Africa, explores the comic possibilities of Kinjanja, a fictional country based on Nigeria. Penelope Lively's tangential approach to writing about empire in Moon Tiger suggests ambivalence and uncertainty about how to represent a colonial past which is both recent and firmly entrenched in ideas of national identity.