17 mai 2015

ENG - 'I Was Looking For a Street' - Chester Himes and Charles Willeford

I Was Looking For a Street is the title of the novel that Jesse Robinson vainly tries to get published in The End Of a Primitive  (1956). Himes had already given this title to the novel that Jethro is about to write in the autobiographical short story Da-Da-Dee (1948 - in Black On Black)*.

I Was Looking For a Street is also the title of Charles Willeford’s autobiography where he recalls his childhood and adolescence. Willeford’s’ parents died of TB when he was a child. During the Depression, from the age of 12, Willeford lived a vagabond life between trains, small jobs and soup kitchens. It is a beautiful book. To my knowledge, Willeford never explained why he had chosen this title, still it is probable that he thus paid homage to Himes. As a journalist in the Miami Herald, Willeford wrote in Himes’ obituary (1984): “He will be remembered as one of America’s greatest writers, black or white.
The 4 Willeford’s novels with Hoke Moseley as a main character (hero doesn’t  become him) are Miami Blues, New Hope For the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now. Danièle and Pierre Bondil have translated them in French (Miami Blues, Une seconde chance pour les morts, Dérapages and Ainsi va la mort).

* In the French translation: "On l'avait invité à la résidence pour travailler à un roman intitulé Le pigeon. Après avoir écrit une soixantaine de pages, il s'était arrêté pour commencer une autobiographie appelée Hier vous fera pleurer. Mais maintenant il était plein à déborder d'une histoire qu'il avait l'intention d'appeler Je cherchais une rue. Il l'avait trouvée, en effet. Il avait trouvé la rue, Congress Street, une petite rue pleine de boîtes noires, qui partait d'une colline pour rejoindre la rue principale."  Noir sur noir, Paris, 10/18, 1984. Translated by Yvonne and Maurice Cullaz.

13 mai 2015

ENG - Blind Man with a Pistol: manufacturing secrets

Blind Man With a Pistol has confused many readers, even some of the more capable ones. Drawing on Grave Digger’s remark in the novel “So much nonsense must make sense”, I have looked for a design on the part of the author and for a pattern of incoherence. And I have found it: in Blind Man With a Pistol, Himes has set up a perfect and perverse strategy of confusion. Three stories make up Blind Man. I presume that Himes used some existing but still unpublished material: fragments of unfinished novels, or short stories. In 1969, Himes was ill and too exhausted to complete a novel.
Let’s call the three stories, of unequal size, A, B, and C.
Story A (8 chapters): three converging antagonist parades result in riots and looting in Harlem.
Story B (7 chapters): a white man is killed in the basement of a building in Harlem. It is the first of a series of homosexual killings.
Story C (3 chapters): during Mr Sam’s (a frontman for the organized crime syndicate) rejuvenation pitch, four people are murdered.
These three stories are ordered according to a very simple principle:
1st chapter of Story A, 1st chapter of Story B, 1st chapter of Story C;
2nd chapter of Story A, etc.
Drawing on this general basis, Himes introduced other elements inducing confusion, such as threads between the stories or wrong tracks. The table below gives an example of chronological disorder and incoherence between Stories A and C.

Chapter 18

Chapter 11

Chapter 8

Lt. Anderson discharges Coffin Ed and Grave Digger of their previous mission (about the rejuvenation pitch murders) and charges them to investigate on the origin of the riots.
Lt. Anderson’s superior officer, Capt. Brice, confirms the order, in spite of the two detectives’ reluctance.
Grave Digger refers retrospectively to the mission.

10 mai 2015

ENG - From 'Cast the First Stone' to 'Yesterday Will Make You Cry'

The story of this beautiful novel, first published in 1953 under the title Cast the First Stone, is interesting for several reasons. First, his main character, Jimmy Monroe, is white though there are a good number of autobiographical elements in the novel: the accident that caused his brother to become blind, life in prison, love between convicts, and the fire in the penitentiary. It is to be reminded hat Himes was sentenced in 1928 to 20 years in the State Penitentiary of Ohio for armed burglary following several other crimes. After the dreadful fire in the pen, which caused more than 300 victims, his case was re-opened and his sentence reduced. He got out in 1936. His first short stories written in prison and published in magazines for white readers (Esquire, Coronet) do not give any clue as to the author’s colour. In the USA, during and after WW2 fought against racism in Europe, one had to choose between being black and an author. Or, in a subtler way, there were enough black authors with Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

After several publishers refused Himes’ manuscript. Coward Mc Cann accepted to publish it (1953), but substantial changes were imposed to Himes who agreed upon them for financial reasons. 
40 years later, the book was finally published such as Himes had written it under the title Yesterday Will Make You Cry (Old School Books). The editor of the novel writes: “This totally neglected novel has been largely out of print in the United States since its first release in 1953. What should be regarded as a disgrace may also in fact be a happy circumstance – for stored away on libraries shelves was the best thing that could happen to Cast the First Stone.” He also gives details about the “restoration” work that was done: ”@It is a totally different book, much of which had simply been thrown away by Himes’s editors at Coward Mc Cann. They upset the whole structure of the book and reordered the chapters, even rewriting certain passages.” The effect of these cuts was to lessen the humanity and the sensibility of Jimmy Monroe, the main character. They thus reduced Cast the Fist Stone to a violent prison novel though Himes’ project was much wider.

1 mai 2015

ENG - Cidade Escaldante: What can be learned from a Portuguese edition of Himes’ The Heat’s On? 1 – The titles.

Found in the Lisbon flea market (Feira da Ladra in the popular borough of Alfama) Cidade escaldante (The Heat’s on) by Chester Himes, translated into Portuguese in 2000 by Clarisse Tavares.
The translation of the title is quite interesting. Cidade escaldante means The Hot/Burning/Boiling City. As in the Spanish translation of the same novel (Empieza el calor – The Heat Begins), it is related to the title of the 1st American edition of the book, The Heat’s On, and thus quite different from the original French title in the Série Noire, Ne nous énervons pas. Of course, the polysemy of Heat, which refers at the same time to firearms, to the police and to one of the heat waves that affect New York in the summer and have exaggerated consequences on human behaviour is not precisely rendered but this concentration of diverse meanings cannot be translated accurately in French.
When Himes’ publisher was given the manuscript, it was written (as always) in English and its title was Be Calm, the French translation of which, Ne nous énervons pas, is a good approximation. This French title is not very different from other titles by Himes, such as Il pleut des coups durs or Tout pour plaire. The book was later published in the United States, successively as The Heat’s On (1966) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1972).

Original title of the manuscript in English
Série Noire title
Title in the later American edition
The Five Cornered Square
La reine des pommes
A Rage in Harlem
If Trouble Was Money
Il pleut des coups durs
The Real Cool Killers
A Jealous Man Can’t Win
Couché dans le pain
The Crazy Kill
The Big Gold Dream
Tout pour plaire
The Big Gold Dream
Don’t Play With Death
Imbroglio négro
All Shot up
Be Calm
Ne nous énervons pas
The Heat’s On
Back to Africa
Retour en Afrique
Cotton Comes to Harlem

In the Série Noire catalogue, Ne nous énervons pas (Be Calm), n° 640, is situated between two Carter Brown novels, On se tape la tête[1], n° 638, and Y'a du tirage[2] (n° 642), and it partakes the Parisian slang inspiration of both titles. As far as I know, Himes never gave any clue about the choice and the translation of his titles, still his original English titles corresponded to what he knew or understood of the Série noire titles policy and of the explicit expectations of his publisher.
La reine des pommes is quite a good approximation of The Five Cornered Square, although it doesn’t convey the polysemic pun on square: the geometric figure – in this occurrence a very extraordinary figure – and a naïve, even a stupid individual. The Série Noire titles of four of the Harlem domestic novels Il pleut des coups durs, Tout pour plaire, Imbroglio négro et Ne nous énervons pas[3] are quite interchangeable whereas the novels are so different! Couché dans le pain only refers to a short part in one of the 1st chapters of the novel. Retour en Afrique, which is a much better title, corresponds to the original title in English and highlights the general meaning of the novel.
Unlike the Série Noire titles and even those of Himes’ English manuscripts, the titles of the 1st American edition of the books enhance the singularity of Himes in relation to Carter Brown or other authors, and the originality of each novel amongst the novels that make up the Harlem cycle.

[1] Original American title: The Savage Salome.
[2] Original American title:  The Dream is Deadly.
[3] The Real Cool Killers, The Big Gold Dream, All Shot Up and The Heat’s On.