Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fiesta of Giovanni's Tender Buttons, Revisited

In January 2015, I taught a class in Paris which took as its source texts the writings of the American expatriate writers of the early to mid-twentieth century. In chronological order, they were:

Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, In Our Time, & A Moveable Feast (written and published towards the end of his life, but the events take place in the 1920s).
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babylon Revisited
James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room
David Sedaris, various essays about his Parisian experiences.

In preparing for the class, I read Stein and Baldwin for the first time, though of the two, I have to say I am only ashamed that I left it so long to get acquainted with Baldwin's writing. My experience of reading and talking about Stein is as someone who recognizes her as an important literary landmark for her experiments with language, but who leaves me cold in terms of an emotional response. In class, by the way, I am completely professional and leave my personal opinion of the quality of her writing out of it. Also, not all of Stein is as mystifying and dull as Tender Buttons. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is written in a fairly straightforward way, and is full of great anecdotes about the great people she knew, mixed with, supported, and of course lived with in Paris from 1905 onwards.

Baldwin, though, wrote a superb book in Giovanni's Room. Though it centres on a homosexual affair in a seedy underworld, certain of the cadences in the writing remind me of Henry James, of all people, in the way that the voice seems to circle around on its own reactions and thoughts even as the narrator is recounting dramatic events in the middle of a scene:

The Sun Also Rises has been one of my favourite books since I first read it in my teens. I only started to read more of his work just a few years ago,filling in a blank spot in my reading life that I can't explain why I let stand for so long. It was a great experience to spend time in Paris walking in Hemingway's footsteps and visiting the streets and haunts that he depicts in A Moveable Feast. In the class, going deep into his description of the cafe on the Place des Contrescarpes led to a lots of good writing from the students:

The main theme of the class was to sit with these young American writers and ask them to consider their own selves, and their own writing, both as they responded to Paris as a beautiful city but also a foreign one, and how this related to their self and writing back home in the USA. For in doing that, they tread on the pathways of those great expatriate writers, who needed to leave their home country in order to discover what made them American.

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