A review of Among the Blacks: Two Works by Raymond Roussel and Ron Padgett

The translation is a delicate, accomplished work that captures perfectly the placid emptiness that lies at the heart of Roussel’s world. A flurry of outlandish and bizarre events is related to the reader, but in a manner that is formal, denotative and infuriatingly indirect. As with all of this writer’s artificial creations, no event or incident is ever really emphasised or given prominence over any other; all is surface charm.
Reviewed by Paul Kane

Among the Blacks: Two Works
Raymond Roussel and Ron Padgett
Avenue B
October 1988

Ron Padgett, a poet of the New York School, is part of the generation that immediately succeeded John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, and he shares with these two – and their contemporary Harry Mathews, come to that – an admiration for Raymond Roussel. This book includes two short works, both taking “Among the Blacks” as their title. We get a translation of a Roussel story called “Parmi les noirs”; and we have Padgett’s own memoir about growing up in a society in which racism was prevalent.

Roussel’s story is concerned with its narrator’s friendship with Balancier, author of a novel which is also called “Among the Blacks” (yes, this may seem confusing). In the novel a mariner called White is shipwrecked and captured by a horde of cannibalistic Negroes that are led by Bootable, “a great old man black as ebony, with a fierce and bloodthirsty face.” Eventually White is able to escape from his captors and make contact with a group of European travellers, at which point “his return could no longer be doubted, now that he was among his own kind.”

The translation is a delicate, accomplished work that captures perfectly the placid emptiness that lies at the heart of Roussel’s world. A flurry of outlandish and bizarre events is related to the reader, but in a manner that is formal, denotative and infuriatingly indirect. As with all of this writer’s artificial creations, no event or incident is ever really emphasised or given prominence over any other; all is surface charm.

Padgett’s memoir is at first sight a different beast entirely and it grew, he writes, “out of the nagging need to come to grips with the frustration of being a white American who had grown up in a racist environment and who, despite his rejection of racism at an early age, had rarely felt unselfconscious in the company of a black person.” He writes of the black people whom he has encountered in his life: the gardener who worked for his family when he was a child, a girl who was in his class at school, his many and various friends.

One of the most insightful and (the word must be used) excoriating explorations of race has been a book called A Rap on Race, which consisted of a series of dialogues between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead. Padgett has something of the emotional honesty and personal integrity of those two great souls. Quoting a rather gauche passage from a diary that he kept when he was 15 years of age, he says that “reading such entries today, I cringe with shame, but I also feel proud of that boy who was struggling to find a way out of his inherited racism.” To write openly and honestly about a subject as loaded and fraught with misunderstanding as race, without either giving offence or succumbing to a fatal guardedness of tone, you need both courage and courtesy. Padgett is a man who can sincerely say, “I love it when people unlike me like me”, and he has these qualities in abundance.

These two works, apparently so unlike except in name, share certain qualities. There is a dependence on a kind of guided serendipity (whether it be the proto-Oulipian procedures that Roussel used to write his tale or Padgett’s incisive mining of memory). There is the truth of Blake’s old line that “the most sublime act is to place another before you”, an act that Padgett ably carries out here, in his twin role of translator and memoirist. Most of all, these two works are about an extrication from circumstance.

Among the Blacks: Two Works is a wonderful book: immensely readable, full of integrity and sincerity, aesthetically and morally edifying. It is a good book by a good man.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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