McKay, Claude. “Romance in Marseille”, Penguin Classics, 2020.
Physical Disability, Transatlantic Travel, and Black international Politics
“Romance in Marseille” is Claude McKay’s pioneering novel of physical disability, transatlantic travel, and black international politics. It is vital document of black modernism and one of the earliest overtly queer fictions in the African American tradition. It has now been published for the first time having been buried in the archive for almost ninety years. The novel traces the adventures of a troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers (collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American). It is set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age. Lafala is an acutely disabled and very wealthy West African sailor. He stows away on a transatlantic freighter and when discovered, he is in a frigid closet and becomes frostbitten by the time the boat docks. He was once an agile dancer but now he loses both of his lower legs and sees himself as “an amputated man.” Due to an improbably successful lawsuit against the shipping line, Lafala scores big financially in the United States. After his legal payout, Lafala returns to Marseille and resumes his trans-African affair with Aslima, a Moroccan courtesan., McKay’s novel is filled with senses of searching for sexual pleasure and liberty and explores the heritage of slavery within modern economy.
This first-ever edition includes an introduction by McKay scholars Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell. The novel reflects the “stowaway era” of black cultural politics and the author’s career as both a star and skeptic of the Harlem Renaissance.
“Romance in Marseille” widens the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and because it was written in the second half of the period, it shows that the renaissance not only continued to be vibrant and creative but also turned its focus to international issues. Here we read of the tensions between Communists and black nationalists.
Claude McKay celebrates his ex-pat youth in his novel which is both a creative work of fiction and a historical document. It is a fascinating and timely reading of an era in which solidarity-building across racial identities and national borders is necessary and difficult to achieve. This is a satire of the political activists and intelligentsia of 1930s Harlem and the capstone to McKay’s literary career.
The book was written shortly after the period it covers. It reflects that era with an intimacy that would have been impossible to capture in a later time. Reading this today is like finding a lost world that, with its struggles over race and class in New York and elsewhere. We peep into an overlooked era when turmoil in Europe and the Depression at home did not stop Harlem’s writers from carrying on with their work.