Breaking Bread at Baldwin’s Welcome Table

Jules B. Farber, James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence

Pelican Publishing Company, 320pp, $29.95, ISBN 9781455620951

reviewed by David C. Jones

In 1970 the African American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin settled in Saint-Paul de Vence, a small, medieval town in Provence, southeast France. For much of the previous decade, he had been one of America’s most feted writers. His status in the civil rights movement, meanwhile, as documented in Raoul Peck’s acclaimed 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, briefly rivalled that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. By the end of the sixties, however, Baldwin found himself increasingly isolated. Hounded by the FBI, marginalised within the black freedom struggle on account of his sexuality, and reeling from the assassinations of King and Malcolm, Baldwin no longer felt able to live in the United States. While work commitments ensured that he remained a self-styled ‘transatlantic commuter’ for the rest of his life, Baldwin set up home in Provence, which would remain his permanent base until his death in 1987.

It is Baldwin’s 17 years in Saint-Paul de Vence that provide the impetus for Jules B. Farber’s compelling new book James Baldwin: Escape from America, Exile in Provence. Drawing on over 70 interviews – both with Saint-Paul de Vence locals and with famous friends and confidants of Baldwin’s like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Angela Davis – Farber pieces together a fascinating portrait of the author’s final years. The result is a kind of oral history of his life in Provence, one rich in gossip and anecdotes likely to appeal to Baldwin aficionados and casual readers alike. The author who emerges from Farber’s interviews is a complex, contradictory figure, someone who – to borrow a phrase of Walt Whitman’s cited approvingly by Baldwin – ‘contain[s] multitudes.’ He is by turns gregarious and lonely; streetwise and easily manipulated; ‘a diamond of intelligence’ and a ‘boring’ drunk.

Within these ‘multitudes,’ however, certain key themes emerge, notably Baldwin’s generosity and charisma. Life at Chez Baldwin, Farber writes, was characterised by his ‘unending hospitality.’ In this regard, Baldwin embodies what John Berger, another writer who spent his final years in France, defines as ‘the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable.’ According to Berger, ‘the first rule of hospitality is to accept the presence of somebody and exchange.’ In Baldwin’s case, this meant opening his home to a ‘full retinue of intimates,’ with guests ranging from A-list celebrities to ‘unknown artists, poets, musicians,’ by way of ‘friends from the village’ and ‘casual acquaintances.’ All, Farber illustrates, were invited to break bread and exchange ideas around Baldwin’s so-called ‘Welcome Table,’ with little heed paid to guests’ wealth and status.

This ‘endless hospitality,’ Farber shows, revolved around the centrifugal pull of Baldwin’s personality. Throughout the text, he is characterised as exuding a charisma and magnetism that beguiled many of those he encountered. In the words of one interviewee, he attracted ‘everyone like bees to honey,’ while another refers to his ‘mesmeric presence.’ Nowhere is Baldwin’s charm more apparent than in his relationship with his erstwhile landlady, Jeanne Faure. Discussing it in much greater depth than previous biographers, Farber’s account of this relationship is perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the book.

Faure, we learn, was a ‘pied noir’ whose family were forcibly repatriated to France from Algeria when she was a child. The legacy of her upbringing, Farber claims, left her ‘violently opposed to people of color’; one Saint-Paul de Vence resident describes her ‘fixed notions of imperialistic superiority’ and far-right sympathies. Yet despite initial misgivings about having a ‘neeger’ staying on her property, Baldwin and Faure developed an unlikely and enduring friendship. Locals describe how Faure ‘totally adored’ Baldwin and ‘treated him like a God.’ When her brother died, she asked Baldwin to lead her family’s funeral procession with her.

This affection was mutual. When Baldwin received the Legion d’Honneur from President Mitterand in 1986, he asked Faure to attend the ceremony with him. At her funeral, a Saint-Paul de Vence resident recalls, he was ‘visibly shaken.’ Perhaps most telling, however, are comments made by Baldwin himself in his final published interview, the transcript of which is included here in full. In the interview, Baldwin describes his relationship with Faure as having been ‘stormy [. . .] politically speaking,’ but speaks fondly of having ‘learned a lot from her,’ before referring to her as a ‘guide’ and a protector. Difficult as it is to square this friendship with Baldwin’s status as an unsparing critic of white racism, it offers a potent reminder of Baldwin’s insistence in his 1949 essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ that the possibility of transformation and transcendence is contingent on engaging with others in all their ‘disquieting complexity.’

While the text is frequently compelling when recounting Baldwin’s day-to-day activity and personal relationships in Saint-Paul de Vence, it is less assured when it comes to the relationship between Baldwin’s life and work. The few attempts Farber makes to contextualise the writing Baldwin produced and published in his final years tend towards generalisation and, on occasion, betray a lack of familiarity with the texts themselves. This apparent lack of familiarity manifests itself most obviously in easily avoidable factual errors. For instance, No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) are both incorrectly identified as novels, while Baldwin’s claim in his ‘The New Lost Generation’ (1961) that ‘Europe gives an American […] the sanction to become oneself’ is wrongly described as having been made prior to comments in his 1955 introduction to Notes of a Native Son concerning his ‘right to criticize [America] perpetually.’ More broadly, however, Farber makes claims about how life in France affected Baldwin’s perspective that do not withstand closer scrutiny.

One of Farber’s overarching arguments is that, while living in Saint-Paul de Vence, Baldwin ‘shed his earlier fiery tone,’ becoming ‘more complex and humane with a more lucid vision of race relations, human tolerance and understanding.’ If by ‘vision’ and ‘tone,’ Farber is referring to Baldwin’s writing, this claim is frequently contradicted by the work itself. Texts such as No Name in the Street and The Devil Finds Work are arguably angrier than anything Baldwin produced in the 1960s. Where the ‘fiery’ rhetoric of The Fire Next Time (1963) was tempered by a cautious optimism that black and white Americans were capable of coming together to end the nation’s ‘racial nightmare,’ this faith is almost entirely absent from No Name in the Street and The Devil Finds Work. The problem of race is characterised instead as being ‘irreducible,’ with Baldwin asserting that King’s assassination ‘has forced me into a judgement concerning human life and human beings that I have always been reluctant to make.’ Such comments hardly suggest the kind of newfound tranquillity that Farber invokes.

In a sense, Farber’s apparent difficulty in reconciling Baldwin’s life and work during his final years is not surprising. In contrast to the time he spent living in Paris in the 1950s, Baldwin did not publish anything during his lifetime about living in Saint-Paul de Vence, save for a brief and largely forgotten 1987 article in Architectural Digest. Prior to his death, however, Baldwin was working on a play entitled The Welcome Table, the narrative of which focuses on the above-mentioned ‘endless hospitality’ and features thinly veiled surrogates of some of his famous guests. This unpublished play has long fascinated Baldwin scholars. However, while Farber appears to have had access to the manuscript in the course of his research, he touches only briefly upon the play’s contents and pays little attention to its possible wider significance. The purported focus of Farber’s book, coupled with the lack of any other attempt by Baldwin to render his experience in the South of France in literary form, makes this decision seem like something of a missed opportunity.

Thirty years on from his death, Baldwin’s critical stock is perhaps higher now than at any time since his Sixties heyday. As the success of I Am Not Your Negro illustrated, his ideas have found a new constituency among contemporary artists and activists seeking to interpret the apparent intransigence of racial injustice. For all the critical attention that has been devoted to Baldwin in recent times, however, his time in Saint-Paul de Vence remains relatively underexplored. To this end, Escape from America, Exile in Provence represents a timely, if flawed, intervention, one that opens up new critical terrain for anyone wishing to explore Baldwin’s final years. As a portrait of a complex and occasionally contrary artist, the book has its limitations – but it is nevertheless a welcome addition to the ongoing renaissance in Baldwin studies.
David C. Jones is an independent scholar based in Liverpool. He completed a PhD at the University of Manchester in 2015, where his research focused on African-American literature in the 1950s, and has taught English and American Studies at the University of Manchester and Newcastle University.