Jed Goodfinch is young, gay, black and trying to make a go of it in West Berlin in the 1980s in Darryl Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. The book is a provocative exploration of city, sexuality and self, written with the intellectual verve and dry wit that Pinckney is known for.
Your previous novel, High Cotton, was published more than 20 years ago. I don’t want to say what took you so long, but . . . what made you want to tell this story now?
When the Times asked Frank Conroy why it took him nearly 40 years to publish a second book, the filmmaker Jay Anania told him to say that he’d been out doing errands.
Your narrator, Jed, refers to Christopher Isherwood and his fictionalized account of being a British expat in The Berlin Stories. There is so much Isherwood wasn’t able to say when that book was published in 1937. Do you think there are still taboo subjects in fiction?
Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood’s memoir of his years in the early 1930s in Germany, came out in 1977. As a concordance to The Berlin Stories, he goes through everything he couldn’t say back then or where he feels he copped out and gets furious that he was not able to be open. That was my window those boys had been whistling up to, though I pretended that they were signaling girlfriends!
Although Isherwood was what we would now call a sexual tourist, an upper-class gentleman who trawled among working-class youth in need, he was brave enough in his way, and he really did fall in love with the boy he could not get out of Nazi Germany. In The Berlin Stories, Sally Bowles is not the narrator’s beard, or even a hetero fling. Isherwood finds a way for the women in Herr Issyvoo’s life to pronounce him unsatisfactory as boyfriend material, leaving him uncompromised and free to be the observer. It’s hard for me to think people who read the story, “On Ruegen Island,” could not figure out what is going on in it, even in 1937. Are there still taboo subjects? We want to say no, but of course there are and some for good reason, so it seems to me.
Where is the title Black Deutschland from?
Years ago I had a plan to write about black American soldiers stationed in West Germany. And in the early 1980s there were a couple of gay films about blacks on the West Berlin scene. And for years now black Germans have been making themselves more visible as a group. Black Deutschland went from being a title I had for nonfiction to the title of a novel. I saw recently that a documentary from a few years ago has the same title. Fortunately, titles cannot be copyrighted.
Jed experiences several key historical events, such as the death of Harold Washington and the end of a divided Berlin. What are the challenges of integrating historical incidents into a work of fiction?
Victor Serge, a wonderful writer who believed in Communist revolution but not in Stalin, said that the truth of the novelist cannot be confounded with the truth of the historian or chronicler. Maybe so, but the best fiction becomes history, a way to imagine the past, much as narrative history can have the drama of fiction: character, motive, plot. A lot depends on how recent or long ago the history is, just as genre determines to what uses a given history will be put. There are novels with historical settings and novels about a specific historical event, certain Civil War novels—or look at the number of works taking off from the assassination of JFK. Where would we put Slaughterhouse Five? In American literature, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime stands out for me as a defining moment in creating a world on the page inhabited by both fictional and historical characters.
Looking back over this year and in to the future, do you think there will be ever be fictional accounts about Ferguson, about the shootings in Colorado or the anti-Muslim backlash in the U.S?.
Is the appetite for stories built into language, and even those about what we know can take us to someplace we’ve not been before. Writers can come from anywhere; the challenge is to find a way to write. People do and will continue to do so and change the language yet again.
You’ve worked in theater, as a book reviewer and a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books. Where do you see overlaps in the types of writing you do? Are there subjects that beg to be written about in a certain way?
Book reviewing can sometimes give the young writer the validation of seeing his or her name in print. From where do we get the belief that this life is possible? It’s harder to write about what you like than what you don’t. To grow up at The New York Review of Books, working for Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, was an education. And I appreciate the encouragement I was given in its pages to reflect on African-American literature. Fiction and criticism have the same source: a wish to add to the literature that you care about.
My experience in the theatre has been as an adapter, dramaturg and text machine for the director Robert Wilson, whose work fascinates me in its beauty. Because of Wilson, I was able to stay in Berlin. My first job with Wilson was to try and make Heiner Mueller, a distinguished East German playwright, sit down and produce the text Bob was expecting for The Forest, a piece they were doing with David Byrne. I failed, but in chasing Mueller from one cigar-filled bar to another I got an extraordinary seminar in German literature. I’d never before met anyone who hated Thomas Mann.
In your book Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature, you focused on three writers you thought were under-read or underappreciated. Are there other writers—black or white, male or female, gay or straight—that you think deserve another look?
Elizabeth Hardwick once noted that Newton Arvin, a gay professor at Smith in the days of the closet, brought back Melville, while the equally closeted F.O. Matthiesson at Harvard ignited the Henry James revival. Somebody being found again is usually the first time around for most everyone in the audience. Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf was my introduction to her work. But I wasn’t alone in my discovery of Bloomsbury. Its principled bohemianism spoke to multiple constituencies in the 1970s. Maybe Mrs. Woolf had never gone out of fashion. Jean Rhys was making a true comeback around the same time. Feminism brought her back. Similarly, many black writers were being republished. When I was a student, the past was giving up its treasures in mass editions. New translations, new literatures in translation. I am enthralled by reprint series—Library of America or New York Review Books, Modern Library or Penguin. Oxford paperbacks. The New Directions backlist fills me with emotion. There is so much out there, you have to assume that you are missing many great things. I am glad for most of what has returned, among them Nella Larsen, a Harlem Renaissance novelist I much admire.
Reputations come and go for different reasons. I was talking not long ago to two very brilliant young writers who were entirely clear that Norman Mailer is out, out. Maybe the ideal reader is in your future and you write for that, for the in/out, in/out. Sometimes you’re just out. Gore Vidal was always trying to promote Frederic Prokosch and not really succeeding.
You just edited James Baldwin’s later novels for a new Library of American edition. What did you learn about his work that you didn’t know before?
Baldwin’s late novels used to be in my mind as his failures and although I am still unconvinced by If Beale Street Could Talk, the other two are worth going back to, because Baldwin always manages to infuse his prose with the magnetism of his personality, no matter what else is going on.
I read that you worked briefly for the American novelist Djuna Barnes. What was that like?
In High Cotton, the narrator works briefly for Djuna Barnes, which was based on actual experience. I was Fran McCullough’s secretary at Harper & Row. She was the kind of editor who took care of her writers. So she hired me out to Miss Barnes as a handyman. Miss Barnes had lost none of her fire or style. But some writers you have to read when you’re young. I wouldn’t dare read Barnes again. Or Gertrude Stein.
You have lived in New York and in England with your partner, James Fenton. Describe your ideal day in each place.
We are only in New York now, in Harlem, where James has managed to make an English cottage garden. My ideal day is to find that we have both woken up and are together and well enough. I am not being corny, and if I am I do not mind it.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.