Published in 1962, Another Country is set in the Bohemian underworld of New York, exploring race, sexuality, poverty and wealth existing side by side.
Rufus Scott is a Harlem jazz musician, fallen on hard times as we meet him wandering the streets, sleeping in a movie theatre during the day. Prior to this he was a success. People knew his name; they still do but now they look at him in horror, shocked at what he has become. Seven months prior, he met southern girl, Leona, at a club and began an ill-fated love affair that triggered his self-destructive nature and ended badly for both of them.
Meanwhile, Rufus’ friend, Vivaldo is a frustrated novelist, working in a bookstore to pay rent. His friend Richard has just sold his first novel and has what looks like the ideal life: married to the beautiful Cass, with two sons. When Rufus goes missing after a night out, his frantic sister, Ida comes to Vivaldo and Cass for help in finding him. It is the relationship between her and Vivaldo which Baldwin uses best to illustrate racial attitudes of the time:
Now, as she walked beside him, trim and oddly elegant in a heavy, dark blue cost, and with her head covered by an old-fashioned and rather theatrical shawl, he saw that both her vanity and her contempt were being swollen by the glances which rested on her as briefly and unforgettably as the touch of a whip. She was very, very dark, she was beautiful; and he was proud to be with her, artlessly proud, in the shining, overt, male way; but the eyes they passed accused him, enviously, of a sniggering, back-alley conquest. White men looked at her, then looked at him. They looked at her as though she were no better, though more lascivious and rare, than a whore. And then the eyes of the men sought his, inviting a wet complicity.
Where Rufus, in his relationship with Leona, struggled to deal with the attention as a black man walking with a white woman, Vivaldo owns the privilege of a white man. Despite moving in together, the barrier to intimacy is caused by Ida. Seeing this relationship mainly through Vivaldo’s perspective is particularly interesting as his frustration grows. Ida refuses to accept his ‘I don’t see colour’ attitude; he begins to suspect she’s having an affair.
Into this mix is thrown the failure of Richard and Cass’s marriage as his literary success is reached through sacrificing his talent to produce a novel which earns him a fortune but is far less worthy than he had hoped for. The knowledge that both Cass and Vivaldo don’t rate his work becomes as corrosive to his marriage as Rufus’ inability to deal with the perceptions of others poisons his friendships and, ultimately, leads to a tragic end for both he and Leona. Eric, an old friend who’s been living in France with his lover Yves, returns to New York and becomes the catalyst for change amongst this group of aimless misfits. Sexuality becomes blurred as the friends rely on one another for comfort of one sort or another: sex, alcohol, drugs, friendship.
This novel is an immersive experience that flows effortlessly. There are so many beautifully written passages that are evocative of both time and place, and yet never once does the prose feel forced. Around halfway through the book is a sentence in which Baldwin is describing Ida’s voice as she sings in public for the first time. In some ways it could be used to describe his own writing in this novel:
This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms – while still leaving them standing mightily, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and give life, and kills.