Portraits of various postWW II Paris-based writers capture the idiosyncratic personalities of literary notables but fail to cohere into a panorama. Campbell, who has written a biography of James Baldwin (Talking at the Gates, 1991), eagerly introduces his readers to a large group of American, French, and British authors. He opens with Richard Wright, expatriated just after the war, and his 1946 encounter with Gertrude Stein, then moves into a discussion of the important intellectual exchanges between Wright and Jean-Paul Sartre. Wright's presence drew Baldwin to Paris; the two soon had a falling out, however, which Campbell details sensitively. The author meanwhile develops another narrative, beginning with his fellow Scot Alexander Trocchi and the literary journal Merlin. Campbell describes the crucial role that Trocchi and his confederates played in the dissemination of Samuel Beckett's work and their eventual alliance with the notorious literary pornographer Maurice Girodias and his Olympia Press. (Beckett himself is only a shadowy presence here.) How does Campbell connect Wright, Baldwin, and their associates, on the one hand, with Trocchi, Girodias, and their publishing ventures on the other? The short answer is, he doesn't. Campbell explores the figure of the Negro delineated by African-American expatriates, as well as the derivative phenomenon of the ``white Negro''—making a strong case for French existentialist Boris Vian as its prototype, while also treating its celebration by the early Beats. He sketches the atmosphere of Cold War persecution and paranoia that gradually destroyed Wright and his cohorts, while also causing troubles for Olympia, with its porn-heavy list, but these parallels remain underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Campbell's effort has value as a series of miniatures that brings together such strangely similar contemporaneous artifacts as the novels of Chester Himes and The Story of O. Campbell is onto something—perhaps a third try with this material is in order.
Read full book review >