- Chester Himes, Boris Vian, and the Transatlantic Politics of Racial Representation
In his 1969 review of Chester Himes's Blind Man with a Pistol, Edward Margolies offered these kind words: "Himes's crime fiction sells rather well in France, where presumably it whets and sates an appetite for erotica-exotica (violent and passionate jungle-black Harlemites); perhaps it also narcotizes French readers about their own race problems" (59). Though it suggests Margolies's knowledge of the intricacies of French race politics, this statement betrays a certain annoyance with the terms of Himes's French career and the fame he had secured by writing "potboilers" featuring "plenty of gore, as well as sex to the lively accompaniment of much bawdy satirical humor" (59). Although he grants certain qualities to Himes's thrillers, Margolies appears particularly to lament what he sees as Himes's choice to settle for less and not try to "transcend genre." To Margolies's dismay, "it is as if Himes in the course of writing potboilers inadvertently discovered that . . . [he had] freed himself from the 'art' of the novel" (59). Margolies goes on to speak of Himes's two separate French audiences: the intelligentsia, who consider that "Himes has plumbed the savage-sick essence of America," and the wider population, presumably in it for cheap thrills and racial caricature.
Margolies's statement suggests how crucial audience expectations, both real and imagined, have been in the assessment of Chester Himes's work in the United States and France. Himes's detective fiction novels were a contract job ordered specifically by Marcel Duhamel, a major force in the circulation of Himes's writings in France in his position as the head of Gallimard's famous Série noire. Duhamel's advice led Himes to a profitable career in detective fiction, if not to producing "art." As his first French translator, Duhamel was well aware of Himes's early attempts at perfecting his "'art' of the novel." His "five 'major' works" had only brought him a "very minor American reputation," and such intellectual analyses of Himes's works as offered by the French intelligentsia, Margolies notes, "ha[d] scarcely been expressed . . . over here" (59). Himes's writings did not quite fit the social and political values expected from protest fiction. They were dismissed for lacking in aesthetics, political value and cultural authenticity. French expectations in these areas, in turn, were instrumental in building Himes's reputation, partly thanks to the influence of a relatively small circle of literati. Boris Vian occupies a unique position among them with I Spit on Your Graves and The Dead All Have the Same Skin, two graphic tales of passing that Vian pretended to have translated from manuscripts by an unknown African American author. These novels were both an expression of French sensibilities on the American "Negro problem" and a commentary on them. Vian's background as a jazz critic hints that these novels should be read as humorous riffs on the debates over racial authenticity shaking the French jazz scene at the time. His literary hoax profoundly disturbed this discussion by revealing the utter artificiality of its terms and creating the critical vacuum within which Himes was able to "free himself from the 'art' of the novel." Himes found that the idiosyncrasies of French discussions on race and culture made it possible for him to take part, as noted by Jonathan Eburne, "in an ongoing French public discourse surrounding the status of writing as a political and ethical practice" (807) from which he had been all but banned in the United States. In order to do so, Himes rejected engaged writing as defined by the protest genre, [End Page 247] and adopted a controversial absurdist style that both fit his French readership and gave him the freedom of movement necessary to make his own unique contribution to literature. If this process would eventually produce the Harlem series, its early movements can be discerned in The End of a Primitive, a novel Himes wrote between France, England, and Spain.
Terms of Engagement
The protest novel label was attached to Himes from the publication of his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him...