Claude McKay’s ‘Romance in Marseille’ Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Romance in Marseille
Claude McKay
Penguin Classics
February 2020

Claude McKay has long been considered one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, yet some of his best work is only now appearing in print, more than 70 years after his death.

In addition to the works for which he was known during his lifetime, the Jamaican-born poet and writer penned a novel in 1941 with the candid title
Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem, which was only discovered in 2009 by a grad student digging through his archive. (It was subsequently edited and published by Penguin Classics in 2017.)

By contrast,
Romance in Marseille was always known about by McKay scholars, but it didn’t appear in print until this year. A combination of homophobia, fears around obscenity, and doubts about the book’s commercial viability led to its being shelved during McKay’s lifetime. A renewed effort to publish it in the 1990s came to naught, and its publication now comes more than eight decades after it was first drafted (between 1929 and 1933). Thank goodness for that, because the book is a stunning, pioneering example of norm-defying literature.

The story follows the misadventures of Lafala, an easygoing sailor of African origin who sets out to see the world. Falling foul of a sex worker who robs him in Marseilles, he stows away aboard a boat, is discovered and locked in an icy cold toilet for the duration of the voyage. Upon arrival in New York both of his legs are amputated due to frostbite.

The story opens with Lafala lying in his hospital bed recovering from surgery. A solidarity-minded African-American patient puts Lafala in touch with a lawyer who sues the shipping company on his behalf and obtains a tidy sum, with which Lafala promptly returns to Marseilles to seek his fortune. He’s minus two legs, but he has a new ‘respectability’ and wealth that makes him a controversial star in the freewheeling, rambunctious world of Marseilles’ Quayside neighbourhood.

Wide open in the shape of an enormous fan splashed with violent colors, Marseille lay bare to the glory of the meridian sun, like a fever condemning the senses, alluring and repelling, full of the unending pageantry of ships and of men… Port of seamen’s dreams and their nightmares. Port of the bums’ delight, the enchanted breakwater. Port of innumerable ships, blowing out, booming in, riding the docks, blessing the town with sweaty activity and giving sustenance to worker and boss, peddler and prostitute, pimp and panhandler. Port of the fascinating, forbidding and tumultuous Quayside against which the thick scum of life foams and bubbles and breaks in a syrup of passion and desire.


Blue Painting by Mondschwinge (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

McKay’s use of language is magical. The award-winning poet wields words with a majesty rare in contemporary literature. There’s a classical ponderousness to the language, which in McKay’s hands renders the text epic rather than boring. The storyteller approach he adopts is one familiar to those literary masters who know that they’re writing for posterity. Did McKay know? I think he did not, that the verbal artistry poured out of him in the way it does from all writers who write because they can’t not write.

There is a playfulness to his tone and style, an unselfconscious ability to weave between literary styles in a manner that transcends genre and politics. A chapter may open with the omniscient symphonic power of a literary classic; but mere paragraphs later McKay turns back on himself, allowing his characters to dally in self-abasing and obscenity-laden humour.

Romance in Marseille is deeply satirical, but the double-edged nature of its satire is subtle. Part of its satire is directed toward the conventions of genre itself. By weaving between styles, by dancing along the line between dirty humour and literary high art, political intrigue and candid sexuality, it’s as though McKay is showing off a talented capacity to toy with multiple approaches to writing the complex lives of his marginalized characters. His correspondence with friends, scornful of his editors, reveals someone who derided the stilted constraints of his too-conventional, profitability-conscious, race-sensitive editors, yet was forced to balance a tough line between pleasing them (in order to get published) and poking fun at the gateways of literary convention they guarded.

In Romance in Marseille he pours out pages of patois-laden, Black-power tinged dialogue set amongst the harbourfront bars frequented by mostly non-white sailors; but then he suddenly re-situates his protagonists in epic tones as though he were writing a Dostoeyevskian socio-political classic, or a historical saga. There is a bard-like, fairy tale quality to his storytelling at times. He is both showing off his capacity for these different forms, as well as poking fun at their boundaries, experimenting with the fluidity of the western (white) canon.

There is, of course, a satirical element which is more overtly political. The greed and bigoted narcissism of white folk are portrayed in sweeping, damning prose that is both deeply humorous and deeply, incisively astute. Along his journey Lafala meets ardent Communists and disillusioned unionists; self-serving gangsters and back-to-Africa revolutionaries. He meets scheming white corporate officials, scheming white lawyers and fellow downtrodden sailors from around the globe.

Indeed, there’s a rich diversity to the 1920s world McKay depicts, but he’s keen on poking some degree of fun at all of them. He backgrounds all of his characters sympathetically, illustrating the diversity of oppressions that lead people to choose their different paths in life. Yet he refuses to take any of those paths too seriously, deflating his protagonists’ ardent convictions with humorous jabs that reveal the contradictions and double standards they all possess.


Photo ancienne de : La Joliette de Marseille (Bouche-du-Rhône, France) indéterminé – Guides Diamant : Marseille, Aix et environs, éditions Hachette, 1925. (Public Domain / Wikimedia)

Above all there’s a liveliness to McKay’s prose, a sense of motion that seems to escape even the author’s control on occasion. A bar scene – and there are so many, so colourfully portrayed – erupts into rambunctious lively partying; characters yelling threats and jokes at each other; dancing, drinking, flirting, fighting. Remarkably, the prose still radiates power eight decades later, and makes such scenes feel like they just happened yesterday. You can feel the rising crescendo of drunken enthusiasm palpably. The descriptive power of the dockside bar scenes is breathtaking, and reads with a vivid on-the-spot realism that can only come from someone who experienced such nights themselves.

The plot, such as it is, is almost secondary. The book’s real value lies in the vivid scenes it depicts and the rich, lively characters it portrays. There’s an episodic quality to the book which doesn’t diminish its worth at all – one feels at times like one is reading a series of interrelated vignettes with recurring characters; a Robin Hood saga in which the recurring drama lies in outsmarting the voracious whites, vying for amorous affection, and escaping unscathed from another night of uncontrolled drinking and carousing.

There is plot tension of sorts – will Lafala actually get the balance of his fortune from the white folk who are scheming to take it away from him? Will he outsmart, or get bamboozled by the many dubious characters he surrounds himself with? Will he actually manage to leave this city he loves so much, and follow his dream of returning to Africa? Is his love interest. Aslima. really in love with him, or is she just scheming to separate him from his money? It’s hard to actually invest in any of these plot threads, though, because the book’s true pleasure lies in simply absorbing its delightful prose and revelling in the vividly sketched scenes of 1920s Marseilles.

Had it been published during McKay’s lifetime, Romance in Marseille would also have stood out for its pioneering depiction of gay and lesbian characters. Not one but two of the book’s major characters are queer. La Fleur Noire is a lesbian sex worker who has a steady relationship with another woman, while having sex with men and women for money. She vies with Aslima, Lafala’s primary romantic interest, for primacy among sex workers along the Marseilles docks.

This competition with the book’s primary female character risks caricaturing La Fleur as a lesbian villain, yet as the story nears its end she sets aside their rivalry and reaches out to help Aslima in a time of need, underscoring the solidarity of women against the violent and scheming misogynies of men. (As the editors note, this was McKay’s first real effort at portraying complex female characters in his work, and Aslima is also a beautifully wrought complex personality, full of desire and contradiction and deeply grounded vitality.)

Big Blonde is the book’s other queer character. He’s a “splendidly-built” white sailor who’s been accepted into the Black diasporic community of the docks. He too has a steady love interest in one of the book’s other recurring characters, a man named Petit Frere. Theirs is the story’s most touching relationship: they dress up for romantic dinners and dates while also participating in the rambunctious rowdiness of the bar scene.


Photo ancienne de : la Cathédrale de Marseille (Bouche-du-Rhône, France). indéterminé – Guides Diamant : Marseille, Aix et environs, éditions Hachette, 1925. (Public Domain / Wikimedia)

But even more than offering well rounded queer characters – and ones that avoid any sort of grisly demise (both novelties in a book written in the 1920s) – what’s most striking about the diverse sexualities among McKay’s cast is their easy and overt acceptance by the community. There’s a jocular ease among the other characters when it comes to acknowledging and talking about queer relationships; they’re accepted and treated with a blasé nonchalance that is refreshing for a book of its period. Other ostensibly straight characters even flirt and feel sexual desire toward them, evincing an aura of fluid sexuality that would not commonly be seen in print for decades to come. (McKay himself was widely known to be bisexual, with queer themes emerging in some of his later poetry as well.)

The queer relationships occupy a fairly minor part of the book, to be sure, but it is their solid integration in the narrative – and the fact they actually have a role to play (McKay draws out an important plot development during a dinner date between Big Blonde and Petit Frere which spans an entire chapter) – that renders them so real and authentic.

Also noteworthy is McKay’s use of a Black man with a disability as the novel’s main protagonist. For an author who was, as the book’s editors note, “among the New Negro authors most identified with black male vitality”, it was a daring departure to centre a legless protagonist, particularly for the period in which he wrote. McKay resisted his own editors’ demands to depict Lafala in “a more pitying light”. What he sought in his work was to produce “a realistic comedy of life as I saw it among Negroes,” he wrote to a friend, with “characters [who] yarn and backbite and fuck like people the world over.”

The story’s main drawback is one that is perhaps not surprising coming from a male author of his period. It’s peppered with misogynistic episodes and commentaries which, while infrequent, detract from the reader’s broader enjoyment. While some of these might be understood as McKay’s attempt to offer a “realistic” dose of dialogue, one episode in particular which occurs at the book’s end leaves the reader wondering what McKay intended to convey with his book’s denouement. Indeed, an earlier draft (also discovered in his archives) apparently had a different ending, so one wonders whether his own thoughts around how to conclude the narrative remained unresolved.

Ahead of its time in terms of the representation of queer identities and persons with disabilities, the narrative seems to struggle between portraying women as complex, active characters on the one hand, and mere foils for misogynistic males on the other. That said, McKay did choose to situate two sympathetically depicted female sex workers with complex personalities as main characters; something we still see far too rarely in present-day literature.

The story’s unabashed queerness and occasional obscenity-laced dialogue, as well as McKay’s normalizing narrative of disability, caused his editors and literary agents some concern, and were ultimately among the factors which led to the book not being published. They were not the only factors, but the fickle and sensitive McKay had a tendency to respond to discouragement and rejections over his literary projects by abandoning them – or in one case, forever destroying an entire novel manuscript by tossing it in the fire after its rejection – and moving on to something totally new.


Portrait of McKay in 1920. Photographer unknown. (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

The book’s publication today is a boon for modern readers in the form of the buried treasures he’s left for us in his archives, which have caused both a renewed appreciation for McKay as well as a reevaluation of his literary legacy (and of queerness within the Harlem Renaissance). Yet it’s unfortunate it never saw the light of day during his lifetime. One can’t help but wonder what impact such open and normalizing narratives around disability and queer relationships would have had on early 20th century literature, had they managed to evade the censor.

The book’s editors – Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell – offer a lengthy and fascinating introduction which situates it within McKay’s broader oeuvre, and which also delineates the disparate strands of history, biography. and politics which helped inspire and shape the narrative. Lafala’s character was in fact inspired in part by two actual African American stowaways who lost their legs under similar circumstances, and sued the guilty shipping companies with varying degrees of success.

The book is appended with a rich collection of explanatory reference notes addressing points of dialogue or now-forgotten historical references in the text. The editors also chart the complex story of its burial in the archives, and more recent resurrection in published form. The context they provide helps underscore the miraculous survival of this “bravest and liveliest” of McKay’s works.

But don’t read Romance in Marseille because it’s a classic. Read it because its language is beautiful, because its words will take root and its vivid scenes provide a fertile field for the imagination. Read it because it’s hilarious, because the wry and satirical tones of McKay’s social critique hold up nearly a century later. And read it because its message – at once personal and political; identity-empowering and universalist—is still, decades later, as damnably true as when it was first written.