It seems that, recently, James Baldwin and his work have had something of a renaissance, thanks to two films that came from his written work. The first of those was I Am Not Your N*gro, a documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished final novel directed by Raoul Peck, and the second was Barry Jenkins’ highly anticipated follow-up to his 2016 Best Picture-winning Moonlight, an adaptation (albeit not a literal one) of what may be Baldwin’s most famous novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. Both films seemed to respire the conversation surrounding Baldwin and his achievements as a writer – one who challenged the representations of race and sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s through his intensely beautiful and melancholic prose.
Another Country was written almost a decade after Baldwin published his debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book is centered on Rufus – a self-destructive jazz musician living in New York, experiencing just what you’d expect him to in a Baldwin novel in the at-first wonderful but eventually grim social underbelly of the city lifestyle. The book, perhaps expectedly, was met with some shock – Baldwin certainly wasn’t new to shaking up his audience, and even seems to get some joy out of it considering that his writing only seemed to become more challenging with time. Most of the book follows the aftermath that Rufus leaves in his wake, particularly the drama that ensues surrounding his best friend, Vivaldo, and his sister, Ida who are left troubled by Rufus’s problems and search for peace.
However, few people read Baldwin’s novels for the premise – his poetic prose has always been the selling point. His way with words blends beautifully with the perspective he is speaking from – when with Rufus, the world is dark, metallic, and horrifying in a way that can hardly be articulated without spurting thousands of words. The writing is laden with a unique and distinct sense of melancholy, one that can become overwhelming were it not for some of the wonders in the dialogue between characters, particularly their often dry humour and their slick talk. Baldwin’s political lens also comes through clearly – his disdain for the American way of life stays splattered on each and every page (Hell, it’s even in the title!). It’s a book torn between two equally soaring passions – love and hatred – detailing the everlasting war between the two by simply witnessing how they seem to spur each other on and constantly become intertwined.
Of course, because of this, it isn’t a particularly easygoing read: Another Country’s pages are mostly bleak ones, but there is something to be said for a book so bold and so brave, especially one written in the 1960s. There is an electrical vibration behind it all, one that thrusts the plot forwards and the characters in their various directions (often towards tragedies that the reader must choose if they deserve or not) and remains uncompromising from start to finish. Baldwin was always a brilliant writer, but Another Country may be his crowning achievement. It’s a jaw-droppingly sharp book, written with such distinct beauty and emotion throughout that it is impossible to shake from your mind, but to Baldwin, it was just another incredible novel to add to his list of published works.
Another Country was originally published in 1962 and was re-printed in 2001 by Penguin Classics. Hear Baldwin himself read a segment of the book below: