In the midst of the challenge to find the American voice, I picked up Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage. A perfect David Bowie favorite, I thought. The chameleon of Britain would of course appreciate essays by the man who became a brilliant NYTimes’ book critic and hid his African heritage from the world. I wonder if Bowie knew or suspected?
This brief (160 pages) volume contains multitudes: flavors of the South, of European immigrants, the frenetic scene of NYC after World War II.
Since he mentioned his military service, I wondered, did he serve in the white or the black Army? He was white in the Army but black in the U. S. census in 1930 and 1940.
Early on, Broyard writes a long passage on the reasons for going into analysis: “I was aware of something like static in my head, a sense that part of me was resisting, or proceeding under protest. There was a dissonant hum or crackle, a whispering in my molecules. … it was as if my brain had something stuck in its teeth.” My response: You were passing. Don’t you think that “something stuck” might be your African blood?
Self-loathing may be at work when he writes, “… jazz was just folk art. It might be terrific folk art, but it was still only local and temporary.” Is he kidding?! He compared jazz to the drumming and chant- ing of a man in New Guinea trying to sway his fellow villagers.
Some of the best insights arise in the years before he began to pass.
Though I was a good student, I knew I could never be as smart as those Jewish boys who were strangled by their smartness. They were bred to it—their minds had the quickness of racehorses. They had another advantage too: While I was essentially cheerful, filled with a distracting sociability, there was a brooding sadness in the most brilliant of the Jewish boys that turned them inward and made them thoughtful. I saw them as Martians, creatures from a more advanced planet. Next to them I would always be a southerner, a barbarian.
And later: “Just as Negroes knew about jazz, Jews were expected to know how to write reviews.”
I thought of my father when I read those passages. George Petry also revered Jewish people (while hating pretty much every other group) because of their respect for education.
Both men felt doubly inferior in the eyes of New York society because they were southern and black. Of course by the time Broyard wrote Kafka, he had stopped being black — at least to everyone besides himself.
This tension crept in more often than he realized at the time. He talked with Delmore Schwartz and Dwight Macdonald about “the primitive,” which to them included Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway.
I was a bit uneasy because my piece [“The Hipster”] was about jazz and the attitudes surrounding it, and I didn’t want to be typecast as an aficionado of the primitive. I wanted to be a literary man, like them. I felt too primitive myself to be talking about the primitive.
But he’s not too primitive to spend hours in Spanish Harlem. He can “pass” there without fear of exposure.
Kafka serves up the occasional pretentious dish: “I used the word stridulation, and as Dr. Schachtel was not familiar with it, I treated him to a dissertation on galvanic sounds.”
stridulation = a shrill grating or creaking sound, chirp
galvanic = as if produced by an electric shock
As if to balance the condescension, he offers this from a friend, “I can’t tell this particular story—I can only edit it.”
What ever his disabilities, Broyard could write.