James Baldwin's 90th birthday falls this week, and to mark the occasion, I've been listening to him read. The source? "Calliope Author Readings," a set of two CDs, recorded in the early 1960s and featuring, among other highlights, two tour de force performances by Baldwin from his novels "Another Country" and "Giovanni's Room."
It's a delightfully low-tech wonder — no tricks, no frills, no sound effects; just those measured intonations, and the power of his words.
The same is true of the six other writers in "Calliope Author Readings," all but one of them dead now. These recordings (they are also available for download) were originally released as a series of seven-inch records to be sold in bookstores, and they feature a who's who of mid-20th-century American fiction: James Jones, John Updike, William Styron, Philip Roth.
Bernard Malamud reads his late 1950s story "The Mourners" in a quiet Brooklyn tenor, while Nelson Algren, (whose voice, like Malamud's, I had never heard before) shares passages from "The Man with the Golden Arm" in a flat Chicago accent, high and breezy: "'People don't even act like they know what they're doing anymore,' she complained aloud to the narrow room."
And then, there's Baldwin, who burns down the house.
"But suppose something, somewhere, failed," he cries out, describing the New York subway, "and the yellow lights went out and no one could see, any longer, the platform's edge? Suppose these beams fell down? He saw the train in the tunnel, rushing under water, the motor-man gone mad, gone blind, unable to decipher the lights, and the tracks gleaming and snarling senselessly upward forever, the train never stopping and the people screaming at windows and doors and turning on each other with all the accumulated fury of their blasphemed lives, everything gone out of them but murder, breaking limb from limb and splashing in blood, with joy — for the first time, joy, joy, after such a long sentence in chains, leaping out to astound the world, to astound the world again."
That's the kind of headlong moment meant for a public reading — which is, of course, only enhanced by the textured pacing, the preacher's resonance, of Baldwin's magnificent voice. But even more, it expresses Baldwin's ambition, Baldwin's vision, his sense that literature was both lament and testimony, a way to (yes) enlarge ourselves.
Such a sensibility is all over "Calliope Author Readings," which the co-creation of novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz and her husband Harry. And yet, for all the life, the vibrancy, in both the selections and the readings, they also function for us now as something of an elegy.
It's not just mortality, the fact that so many of these writers are gone, although that's part of it; more to the point, it's that they recall a particular moment in American literature, when we still had faith as a culture in the idea of the big novel, in the notion that literature might not just open up, but also, as Baldwin puts it, "astound the world."
"At last he could stand it no longer," Malamud murmurs in the closing lines of "The Mourners," which details the conflict between a landlord and a decrepit older tenant, himself the representative of a former world. "With a cry of shame he tore the sheet off Kessler's bed, and wrapping it around his bulk, sank heavily to the floor and became a mourner."