Claude McKay led a life marked by contradiction: generally ambivalent, always in but not of. Though he was the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, and his novel Banjo was a touchstone for theorists of Negritude and Pan-Africanism, McKay is not as iconic as, say, Langston Hughes. With the recent publication of two of his previously unreleased novels, there’s a wave of renewed attention to both his life and work. Much like his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, McKay is described as “difficult-to-categorize,” “a misfit,” “rebellious.” He was polymorphous. He slept with both women and men but didn’t write much about either. He hung out in modernist circles but spent much of his career writing sonnets in iambic pentameter.
A committed Communist, he traveled to the nascent Soviet Union and received a rapturous welcome—meeting many high-level members of the Comintern including Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Trotsky—but when his hosts asked him to rally Russian workers by telling them that an American revolution was imminent, he categorically refused. In Harlem, McKay criticized bourgeois values and the mandatory uplift of the New Negroes, then wrote stories about proletarian characters that behaved inappropriately—they did not organize, they drank and fought and fucked and robbed each other in the dead of night. This failure to live up to expectations often rendered both the left and right unsatisfied. From a doctrinaire Marxist point of view, the work didn’t perform any discernible social function, too concerned with non-working lumpenproletariat types. The bourgeois New Negroes wanted him to recede to the background because the work made black people look bad—low-down, shiftless, savage.
McKay’s life and work was defined by the psychic and physical distances he maintained. He was born in Jamaica, but never returned after he left for the United States as a young man. At the height of his career and in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, he left New York for Paris. He attended many parties but was a reluctant dancer; he turned down invitations to Gertrude Stein’s salon. He continued traveling across Europe and North Africa to Marseille, Nice, Barcelona, and Morocco for years before moving back to the States in poor health. He was syphilitic for the latter half of his life, and while desperate for money in France, had posed nude for Cubist painters in unheated studios, developing a case of pneumonia from which he never fully recovered. In the end, he renounced radical politics altogether and became a Catholic, dying a rather solitary death at a hospital in Chicago.
Romance in Marseille (Penguin) is one of McKay’s two posthumously published novels. The first, Amiable with Big Teeth, was written over seventy years ago and only published in 2017. It is an inventive work with layers of irony, centered on the efforts of the Harlem intelligentsia to organize support for Ethiopia as the country faced Italian occupation. Romance in Marseille was written almost twenty years earlier, during McKay’s Morocco years, and is shorter and classically picaresque. The book opens with Lafala, a West African man of indeterminate origin, waking up in a New York City hospital. Having stowed away on a ship from Marseille to find work in America, he is discovered by the ship’s staff and chained up against his will for the duration of the trip.
Confined in a frigid closet, he gets frostbite and eventually has both lower legs amputated. While convalescing he meets a lawyer who sues the shipping company on his behalf. After settling for a large sum of money, he returns to Marseille newly rich, with scores to settle. Things develop from here. There are richly-detailed characters— intellectuals, dock workers, sex workers (both male and female, queer and hetero), pimps and madames. The core of the story is the titular romance between Lafala and Aslima, a Moroccan sex worker, a liaison complicated by the jealousy of Aslima’s Corsican pimp. There are many intrigues; the people in this world are overly credulous and, thus, easily manipulated. It all ends tragically.
Romance in Marseille is immediately historically significant upon arrival: McKay’s commitment to creating truly marginal characters is extraordinary for the period, and the book will undoubtedly provide a rich text for contemporary theorists in a number of disciplines. Lafala’s captivity and travails dovetail with Christina Sharpe’s theorization of the hold, the shipped, and the wake. The fact that McKay (who was bisexual himself) includes openly queer, unpathologized characters is notable for the time, and may also account for his publishers’ reluctance to print the book.
Still, there’s something that doesn’t work, things that don’t quite make sense—plot holes and discontinuities raise more questions than McKay is willing to answer. One is left to wonder: Why do all the African characters speak the king’s English, while the African Americans shuffle along in vernacular dialect? Is Lafala’s disability ever accounted for in a real way? Why did McKay try his hand at writing an African protagonist at all? These are tricky questions. How can we truly represent the other who is just barely other? How do we represent that which is at once familiar and immensely foreign—that which in one sense belongs to us, is part of us, and yet is and must always be wholly separate? In other words, how can we think of diaspora?
Brent Edwards (via Léopold Sédar Senghor) has theorized a notion of décalage—a certain irreconcilability, an ever-present gap between positions in the African diaspora. The word can be translated as discrepancy, time-lag, or interval; it’s also the word that French speakers sometimes use to translate jet lag. The verb caler means to prop up or wedge something, and décalage means the removal of some artificial prop or wedge. As Edwards writes in The Practice of Diaspora:
Décalage indicates the reestablishment of a prior unevenness or diversity […]Like a table with legs of different lengths, or a tilted bookcase, diaspora can be discursively propped up (cale) into an artificially “even” or “balanced” state of “racial” belonging. But such props, of rhetoric, strategy, or organization, are always articulations of unity or globalism, ones that can be “mobilized” for a variety of purposes but can never be definitive: they are always prosthetic.
This notion of prosthesis is key. Reading a work through the lens of décalage, one begins to understand that attempts at reconciling diaspora are always already incomplete—the nation can never be whole; any attempts to reconstruct it must necessarily fall short. But Romance in Marseille complicates this further: McKay’s use of a disabled narrator forces us to contend with the contingent nature of narrative itself. As Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell have elaborated in Narrative Prosthesis, these characters are often employed as prosthetics for narrative: used to add extra metaphorical heft, propping up the work by standing in for larger themes.
Seen in this light, a character like Lafala might be seen as representing violence against black bodies more broadly, his truncated body a metaphor for the transatlantic fissure in the body politic. This, I think, is precisely what one has to avoid. Romance in Marseille is best understood by combining these concepts. Although—ninety years on from its creation—its seams show, the novel’s gaps reveal the constructed nature of all that we assume to be natural and whole. The point is that we are, all of us, never whole or consistent, that all of these things—the nation, the body, the self—are fabrications. They fail and fall apart, deteriorate. They are made up of parts with conflicting desires and abilities. They sometimes work against each other. They move in many directions.