Claude McKay: Romance in Marseille (Edited and introduced by Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell, Penguin Classics, 2020)

Romance in Marseille is the second novel by Claude McKay (1889-1948) set in the Vieux Port of Marseille*, France's big, sprawling Mediterranean seaport. The first, Banjo (Harper & Brothers, 1929) – a rambling, picaresque tale of life among an international cast of mostly black sailors, dockworkers, drifters, prostitutes, and struggling artists and intellectuals debating colonialism, racism, and Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement – was subtitled A Story Without a Plot.

This second novel – written between 1929 and 1933 but published only now, see Hiding in plain sight below – with roughly the same diverse cast of characters, does have a plot.  

Stowaway fiction(s). Claude McKay’s novel opens like this: “In the main ward of a great hospital Lafala lay like a sawed-off stump and pondered the loss of his legs.”

Our protagonist, a West African sailor from an unspecified English colony, after a fall-out with his on-and-off girlfriend Aslima, a Moroccan prostitute of mixed Arab and Negro ancestry, on an impulse had stowed away from Marseille on a transatlantic ship bound for New York. Discovered and locked up in “a miserable place,” by the time the ship docked his legs were so badly frostbitten that doctors had to cut off both of his lower legs. Thanks to a successful lawsuit against the shipping line, a suddenly wealthy Lafala doubles back to Marseille to resume his affair with Aslima …

But Marseille is no safe harbor. The shipping line, conspiring with the French police, want their money back, accusing Lafala of “clandestine embarkation” with the sole purpose of enriching himself, the loss of his legs apparently not payment or punishment enough.  

Calling the 1920s the era of the high seas black stowaway, the editors in their thorough introduction discuss several cases reported in the newspapers of the day of real-life black stowaways and their “fortune and misfortune,” McKay himself having met and befriended Dede, a Nigerian stowaway seaman in Marseille, and tried to assist him in a dispute with a shipping line.

In Marseille Lafala is joined by a cast of straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters – the lesbian La Fleur Noire, the gay Big Blonde and his “little brother” Petit Frère among them –, Africans, Europeans, Caribbeans and Americans, in a novel whose “open and flexible sexuality” would have made Romance in Marseille trailblazing, had it been published when it was finished in 1933.

Hiding in plain sight. Until recently Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth, a biting satire on Benito Mussolini’s war on Ethiopia in the mid-1930s and black Harlem’s reactions to the war, was a ‘lost’ novel. Written in 1941, the manuscript was accidentally discovered by graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier in 2009 when he was doing research at Columbia University – “a book that was as unknown as it was unpublished before its appearance as a Penguin Classic in 2017.”    

But unlike Amiable with Big Teeth, despite 87 years of near invisibility, Romance in Marseille was never a lost book, Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell write in A Note on the Text.    

Since the 1940s hand-corrected typescript versions of the novel have been “hiding in plain sight” in two of the most important archives of Afro-Americana: the Beinecke’s James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University in New Haven, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The Beinecke manuscript runs to some 87 pages, the later, final version at the Schomburg to about 172 pages, McKay having added eleven more chapters to the earlier draft.   

 (In the 1990s I ordered a copy of Romance in Marseille to be published together with three of McKay’s Jamaican short stories by the UK publisher University of Exeter Press in 2001. Eventually I got an e-mail to the effect that the book had been “postponed indefinitely.” Holcomb and Maxwell note: “Premature listings to the contrary … the book was never finalized for publication.”).

While McKay was still hopeful of finding a publisher for his novel, his agent recommended that he make his disabled protagonist more pitiful and perhaps his other characters more likeable. McKay refused: “Primarily I am not writing a sentimental story about Taloufa” (later called Lafala). In order to do so “I should have to write a real sob-sister story and that I just cannot do,” believing that it would betray not only the character’s humanity, but also the novel’s racial distinctiveness.

And so the plot will move the story of Lafala and Aslima’s romance to its hardboiled conclusion.

THE EDITORS WRITE: “The reader is invited to use or ignore the notes as she or he likes,” most of which illuminate the novel’s wide-ranging and often learned political, musical, and literary intertexts, or which translates French terms left untranslated by McKay, as they write.

But don’t miss the Introduction and A Note on the Text, the detailed story of which “may be as interesting as the novel itself,” as the editors claim. This reader for one would concur .

* In Banjo, McKay uses the English spelling, Marseilles (with a final –s), while Romance in Marseille uses the French spelling, Marseille.         

UFI // 19 February 2022         

Other books by Claude McKay and selected critisism. In his own lifetime McKay published three novels, the bestselling Home to Harlem (1928), the above mentioned Banjo, the nostalgic Banana Bottom (1933) set in his native Jamaica, the short story collection Gingertown (1932), A Long Way from Home (1937), an autobiography, and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940).

Claude McKay’s several collections of poetry from 1912 onwards are reprinted in Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2004), edited and introduced by William J. Maxwell.     

Selected criticism: Wayne F. Cooper: The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1912-1948 (Schocken Books, 1973), and Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography  (Louisiana State University  Press, 1987); Winston James: A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion (Verso, 2000), and Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik (Columbia University Press, 2022 – forthcoming); and Gary Edward Holcomb: Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Florida, 2007).