Friday, March 10, 2017

FFB: A CASE OF RAPE by Chester Himes (in French, as UNE AFFAIRE DE VIOL,1963; in English: Targ 1980; Howard University Press 1984; Carroll & Graf 1994)

As James Sallis tells us in the introduction to the Carroll & Graf paperback of this novella, the only edition of which I have a copy, Himes wrote this in 1956 while wrestling with Mamie Mason, his working title for what would be published as Pinktoes. MM was meant to be funny, if in the grim way that Himes's work tended to default to; apparently to serve as a release valve for his more sober observations, he wrote this treatment for a much longer novel, to deal with a situation where four US men of African or (in three cases) very much "mixed" African and European ancestry were accused of the rape and murder of a Euro-American woman in Paris in the then present-day. Not, as Sallis suggests, on balance a laugh riot of a premise, though as one reads, one is clearly put in mind of, through rather barbed observations reminiscent of, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and (though this was less obvious to me at first, as I've read little of Himes's autobiographical fiction or nonfiction, nor much about his life) Himes himself...and apparently William Gardner Smith and Ollie Harrington, whose work I've been unfamiliar with, and of a woman with whom Himes had a long and tumultuous affair during his years resident in France. 

Not solely as a roman a clef does this have its satirical  bite, as Himes mocks, sometimes more subtly than in other instances, all the comfortable intellectual and emotional positions (only a few, if some, involuntary) indulged in by the four defendants, the dead woman, a friend of sorts of the four defendants and the deceased who writes a book about their case, and the larger culture in France, the US and around the world. A complicated set of circumstances and actions on the part of the five principals, and the estranged husband of the woman, lead to the very unfortunate events that don't quite amount to what the four men are accused of, but, typically in Himes's work, no one is purely innocent, including those in the society around the defendants who would blithely assume far too much...Himes is cutting toward all his characters, and a few of his own blanket assumptions undercut his argument just a little, but almost all of his points pierce and truly. It is noted by Sallis and a few other commentators how little anyone is concerned with the death of the woman so much as whether she was raped, but this both is and isn't fully part of what Himes is getting at (his understanding of the interplay of social hierarchy, and particularly how exploitation in various directions simultaneously can occur, is acute if at times a bit reductionist in a few details, if less reductionist than too many others' analysis then, now and always); one is very much aware how much Himes is enjoying tweaking the blithe misunderstanding of others but not solely enjoying the tweaking for its own sake, demonstrating a rough, judicious compassion while not being willing to let anyone slide.  Since he wrote it as a treatment, it is in a formal sort of prose not unlike Kafka or Borges or perhaps most like Karel Capek, as the anger is always admixed with an unwillingness to, again, let anyone off too reminds me of these writers in translation, or a bit of Donald Barthelme. 

Not always a comfortable read, as it was the work of the man quoted by Hilton Als in The New Yorker, assessing Ellison and Baldwin thus: “At times my soul brothers embarrassed me, bragging about their scars, their poor upbringing, and their unhappy childhood, to get some sympathy and some white pussy [maybe a wildly off guess about Baldwin there--or perhaps shorthand] and money, too, if they could. It was a new variety of Uncle-Toming.”  But definitely worth the look, and worth it to me to look further into his work beyond the crime-fiction novels for greater understanding of its context. And, for that matter, to look into the work of his other contemporaries touched on.

For more of this week's books, please see 
Patti Abbott's blog.
2003 paperback


George said...

I have a copy of A CASE OF RAPE by Chester Himes somewhere around here. I'll have to dig it out and read it. Back in the 1970s, I've read the Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones series: A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up, The Big Gold Dream, The Heat's On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man with a Pistol.

Todd Mason said...

Sallis suggests that PINKTOES was the only major seller at first publication he had, and of course no few smarmy jackasses refer to his turning to, if not actually "devolving to," "pulp" with the Coffin Ed and Gravedigger novels, allowing for condescension to Himes, crime fiction and pulp fiction simultaneously (the kind of multivariable snobbery and worse that is at the heart of this book, in fact, albeit for higher stakes than even lit crit)...I think I really need to read more by and about Himes.

Mathew Paust said...

I need to read me some Himes.