Vincent O. Carter: The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020)

“But as I have asserted the relativity of the “time” and the “place” and having reduced the experience of “self” to a state of consciousness, this must be considered, above all, a record of a voyage of the mind” – Vincent O. Carter, in his Introduction to the 1973 edition of his memoir

Originally published by the John Day Company in 1973 to “abysmal sales,” after almost half a century Dalkey Archive Press has finally reissued Vincent O. Carter’s The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind in a paperback edition.*  

In his preface to the new edition Harvard scholar Jesse McCarthy calls it “one of the ‘shadow books’ of African American literature … those missing works, both real and imagined, which haunt the tradition like a phantom limb” – ‘shadow books’ a phrase he borrows from Kevin Young, poet and editor of African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (Library of America, 2020).

And McCarthy gives us a number of reasons for the neglect and shadowy existence of Carter’s book. For one, “uncompromising or eccentric literary works” are rarely given “a seat at the welcome table” in their own time. As examples from Carter’s own generation of writers he mentions Leon Forrest, Gayl Jones, Fran Ross and William Melvin Kelley whose afro-modernist 1970 novel Dunfords Travels Everywheres was reissued only last year, fifty years down the line.

There is the text’s “ambiguous relation to genre… situated at the intersection of travelogue, memoir, and personal essay,” Carter himself in his introduction to the 1973 edition calling his philosophical and literary experiment “essentially a travel book, a Reisebuch.”

But one of the principal reasons for his eclipse, McCarthy writes, is “simply biographical.”  Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to teenaged parents, Vincent O. Carter (1924-1983) served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the European theatre. Graduating in 1950 from Lincoln University on a GI Bill, working in an automobile factory in Detroit and saving his money, in 1953 he returned to Europe to settle, not in Paris (“Why I did not go to Paris”), Holland (“Why I left Amsterdam”), or Berlin (“Why I Left Germany”), but in Bern, capitol of the Swiss Confederation, but also a city, McCarthy says, that even the average Helvetic citizen is likely to find “terribly provincial.”

“But why did you come to Bern?” Why, indeed! “Are you a musician?” “A student? There are so many medical students in town.” “A writer? What do you write? Have you sold anything?”

Carter has divided the approximately 350 pages of his book into 78 mostly short chapters, giving some of them telling chapter headings: A Chapter Which Is Intended to Convey to the Reader the Writer’s Fair-Mindedness; Some General Changes in My Attitude As a Result of My Preliminary Experiences with the Bernese People; Why I was Depressed and Sunk in Misery; The Portrait of Irony As a Part-Time Job – reminding you of McCarthy’s observation (in another context) of the book’s “challenging” and “troubling oscillation between sly humor and genuine melancholy.”  

The most expressive is this one: EVERYBODY, Men, Women, Children, Dogs, Cats, and Other Animals, Wild and Domestic, Looked at Me – ALL the Time! – leaving the rest of the page blank!

Carter was, indeed, a “Stranger in the Village,” the title of James Baldwin’s 1953 essay, written in the Swiss town of Leukerbad, not far from Bern, Carter being Der Neger, the only black in town,  before he also became Herr Carter, writer for Radio Bern, and teacher of English.

Among Carter’s manifold other problems were poverty – “I have always had an almost instinctive dislike of rich people. They are the ones who have but do not need what you do not have and obviously need very much – all your life,” the problem of finding a job, the very real problem of language, the “marshmallow” tongue of Schweitzer-Deutsch – and loneliness. 

And from the day of his arrival in Bern there was the problem of finding a place to stay (Looking for a Room, Still Looking for a Room and Why). It did not help that he arrived just when the city was celebrating Bern’s Independence Day, having joined the confederation 600 years earlier.

Still, his problems with finding accommodation seem emblematic of his general problem to ‘fit in’ – in Bern, the Schweitzer-Deutsch speaking part of Switzerland, or indeed the world at large.

In the shadow of WW II. According to McCarthy, The Bern Book was written between 1953 and 1957 (it would not be published until 1973, see above), when Carter was just 19 to 23 years old.

The 1950s was a post-World War II era. Carter himself had been among the troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy and took part in the liberation of Paris. Hitler’s Germany and Nazism had been defeated, but the memory of Holocaust and the German concentration camps was still very much alive. (There is a horrifying moment in the book when a young Jewish woman in Amsterdam tells the author: “They made soap of my parents. The Germans”). In the Pacific theatre the Americans had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next came the Cold War and the ‘balance of terror’. (Carter’s book ends with a dream, an apocalyptic vision of nuclear war).

And there was the problem faced by all young and unknown writers: “I was afraid that I had nothing to say or that I had not the ability to say it.” A pile of unpublished manuscripts and rejection slips did not help. And everyone, friends and family alike, seemed to agree: “Writing is not work. Writing is writing.” One must have a regular job to support oneself, and then write.

Eventually, Carter did land a job writing manuscripts for Radio Bern, and while they liked his work well enough, they also had very definite ideas about what they wanted: “If we have a Negro writing materials for us, we want things that are typical of him and his people.” Like ‘the race problem’.

“The Girls Who Work in the Tearooms.” While Carter in his Introduction assures the reader that he does not intend to write “a social scientific study of the city of Bern or the Swiss nation,” after trying to ‘explain’ the race problem to the Swiss, that is almost exactly what he does in parts of the book (Topography; Flora and Fauna; The City; The Swiss “Movement”; Switzerland Is Neutral; A Little Sham History of Switzerland …; That Most of the Swiss Artists Who Become Famous Leave Switzerland In Order to Do So), even taking a shot at a portrait of the Swiss national character.

Carter is at his most empathetic, however, when he writes about Swiss women like the girls in the tearooms and their precarious situation at the margins of society (mirroring up to a point Carter’s own position as an outsider, as a black man in the city of Bern), hoping – if they were pretty – to attract the eye of a gentleman, or perhaps starting a tearoom, a Swiss institution, of their own.

Switzerland in the 1950s was “a man’s world,” since most women, Carter observes, were “little more than housemaids.” As readers in 2021 we have to remind ourselves that Switzerland, in 1971,  was the last country in Europe to extend the right to vote to women in federal elections, and that they had to wait another twenty years to be allowed to vote locally in the last canton, Innerrhoden.

Kirchenfeld Bridge and the spider. Carter himself had an eye for a pretty girl. Going from Kirchenfeld to the old town of Bern to work or to sit in a tearoom like his favorite, the Rendez-vous, to write – “I never could write in absolute silence” – , to meet with his friends, or to talk occasionally with one of the girls working there, he would cross the river Aare on the Kirchenfeld Bridge, often stopping to look at the spiders spinning their web from the stanchion to the railing modestly building their masterpieces, admiring the skill, the perfection, and the sheer beauty of it.

“At this point I was distracted by a very pretty girl … wearing a narrow skirt. Her hips swayed this way and that as she walked … It became increasingly difficult to concentrate because this happened to be a busy hour, and girls wearing tight pants and sweaters kept swishing around me!”

But it is also on the Kirchenfeld Bridge, looking down into the waters of the Aare, that Carter again ‘travels in the mind’, as if in a dream: “Then I saw, as I strained far out over the rail, what seemed to me to be a reflection of my face; and presently the reflection of many faces; and after that the reflection of all humanity reflected in my face! I was confronted with the new problem of locating my face in all those faces.” Wondering often if dreams were real, and reality just a dream.

In one of the chapters of the book Carter travels backwards in time to a childhood in Kansas City that he remembers as the happiest time of his life. And if you have been reading Carter backwards, first reading Such Sweet Thunder and only now The Bern Book, you will pay special attention to The Way I Used to Give Willis James My Candy When I Was a Little Boy – “Win-sun … gimmie sum …” – that could have been taken right out of Such Sweet Thunder, his major achievement.

Buddhism. After failing to place the Primary Colors manuscript with a publisher when it was finished in 1963, even with the help of Herbert Lottman and Richard Wright’s widow, Ellen Wright, by the late seventies Vincent Carter had given up writing altogether, becoming a strict  Buddhist, occasionally working for Radio Bern, giving English lessons, drawing and painting, playing the flute, and becoming a familiar figure in the city of Bern until his death in 1983.

UFI // 30 March 2021   

*See also the Random Notes article Vincent O. Carter’s The Bern Book; a Record of a Voyage of the Mind – An Exchange, with Warren Earl Crichlow

 

Appendix: Carter scholarship …  Several scholars have helped to keep Vincent O. Carter’s work alive: Herbert R. Lottman (1924-2014), PW’s European correspondent then working at the Paris offices of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who helped Carter to find a publisher and writing the foreword to The Bern Book (and later on Such Sweet Thunder); Bernese Liselotte Haas, Carter’s former student and girlfriend for twenty years, who had kept her friend’s 805-page manuscript of Primary Colors in a box under her bed for years after his death, happy to ship it to Steerforth Press and to see Chip Fleischer finally publishing Carter’s big novel as Such Sweet Thunder in 2003.   

There is African American scholar Nathan A. Scott, Jr., including The Bern Book in his essay Black Literature in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979), mentioning Carter’s two “as yet unissued” novels, including Primary Colors; critic and novelist Darryl Pinckney who wrote about Vincent O. Carter and The Bern Book in Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (Basic Civitas Books, 2002): “… a strange, disquieting, sometimes gorgeous account of what it was like for him to be the only black man living in Bern, Switzerland” in the mid-1950s, but being perhaps too quick to paint and dismiss Carter as a rather unsympathetic character:    

“Carter is that familiar, defensive figure in the café, the man who refuses to be practical, the artist with impossible high standards, the stranger who is difficult to help, the black man who attacks the white friends who have just fed him or from whom he has just borrowed money,” etc.

(Perhaps reading Such Sweet Thunder, had it been available to him at the time, Darryl Pinckney might have changed his mind about Carter).

… and context. And now there is Jesse McCarthy and other young scholars like Warren Crichlow ready to “lend Vincent Carter an ear,” – McCarty in his preface mentions bibliophile Oliver Franklin’s research into Carter’s connections to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the country’s oldest historically black university, from which Vincent Carter had graduated in 1950 – and placing him in various contemporary contexts of writers casting what McCarthy calls the ‘ethnographic gaze’ on America and The European Tribe (the title of Caryl Phillips’ book of essays from 1987).

Among the many other names McCarthy mentions:

The transnational fictions of Teju Cole (Open City, 2011), Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go, 2013), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, 2013); novelists Paul Beatty and Darryl Pinckney’s black Berliners (Slumberland, 2008, and Black Deutschland, 2016, respectively).

And the New York Review of Books/NYRB Classics, have just announced that they will reissue The Stone Face, the 1963 novel of the late, Paris-based African American expatriate writer William Gardner Smith (1927-1974), in paperback sometime later this year. 

UFI | 03/30/2021