The Best New Novel Was Written 90 Years Ago

Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille is a modern masterpiece. Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Did you know they’re doing “spoiler alert” warnings in books now? There it is, printed in the first pages of the preamble to Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille: “New readers are advised that this introduction makes details of the plot explicit.” It’s interesting to imagine what prompted this forewarning. Had readers been rage-tweeting about plot points of novels being “spoiled” by scholarly intros? Or was the publisher, Penguin Classics, merely protecting itself from hypothetical complaints? I’m embarrassed by the implication in either case — we’re readers, not babies! But I don’t blame Penguin Classics for following the golden rule of public relations: When in doubt, play it safe.

Mostly because Romance in Marseille plays it safe in no other ways. Reading it, I got the sweaty, panicked sensation of wanting to “do something” with the information I had (“This book is incredible”) before anyone else did. This is how I imagine it feels to be a jewel thief who finds a key to the museum, except what I’m empowered to “do” with this hot tip instead of stealing a fortune is composing a review. Well, I made my bed.

Lafala is a sailor born in West Africa (an unspecified part of it) who moves to the port of Marseille and gets fleeced by a Moroccan prostitute. Filled with self-loathing over the incident, he stows away on a ship to New York but is caught and imprisoned next to a toilet, where he gets frostbite. Upon arrival, both lower legs have to be amputated. It’s just like one of those shirts you see for sale to tourists on Canal Street: WELCOME TO NEW YORK. NOW GO HOME. A clever and unscrupulous lawyer (Jewish, of course, in the book’s sole nose-wrinkling stereotype) gets wind of Lafala’s case and together they sue the shipping company. Lafala receives a windfall and heads back to Marseille to take up a footless moneyed version of dockside life — and to locate the treacherous siren who jilted him.

The book is newly available, but McKay, who died in 1948, started writing it 91 years ago. Its history is a rat’s nest of logistical bloopers. First the book was called The Jungle and the Bottoms. The manuscript was abandoned for a couple of years while the author suffered from syphilis and other distractions. Then he moved to Morocco and took it up again, reworking the story and retitling it Savage Loving. This he swapped for the current title after his agent deemed Savage Loving too obscene, before abandoning the novel again, seemingly for good, in 1933. McKay barely mentioned it in his 1937 memoir and apparently forgot about the project entirely until an 87-page draft popped up again in the hands of a collection to which McKay had donated his papers. (He was not an ardent organizer of his own work.) McKay left a longer, 172-page draft in possession of his only child, who eventually donated it to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The shorter one wound up at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The two have now been reconciled for the first time to yield the book as published. Romance in Marseille, in other words, was never actually a lost or forgotten novel; it was just peculiarly hard to track down.

If you skipped the introduction and surrendered access to Google, you could easily mistake it for a novel written last year. It’s about bodies, disability, sex, Islam, slavery, and capital. There are lesbians. There is gender-bending. There is socialism. All of this in 130 pages — custom-designed, it would seem, for the modern obliterated attention span! But as with any novel, the themes are only bits of thread unless woven into a dazzling tapestry of a character, which is what we have in Lafala.

In one of many brain-rupturing pieces of data embedded in this edition’s introduction, it turns out that Lafala was based on a real person of McKay’s acquaintance: a Nigerian seaman named Nelson Simeon Dede who had stowed away on a steamer from France, gotten captured, lost both feet, won restitution, and returned to Marseilles with prosthetics and an upgraded net worth. McKay recognized the stowaway as a piquant racial metaphor for the philosophical condition of the fugitive. Lafala, his fictional version, is handsome, charismatic, “very black,” not particularly saintly, and pretty zen about the distribution of his fortunes and misfortunes. In the misfortunes column he’s got the trauma of being locked in a freezing toilet-jail and having both legs sawed off so that he can never dance or breezily stroll again. On the plus side, the money isn’t terrible and having cork prostheses is interesting and women love to fondle his stumps. Life is a tragic joke, is Lafala’s operating thesis.

After the amputations have healed, Lafala sails back to Marseille courtesy of the same shipping company that de-footed him. He’s eager to be back where the “thick scum of life forms and bubbles and breaks in a syrup of passion and desire.” The port city is home to a thicket of bums, peddlers, pimps, fishermen, sailors, barflies, idlers, dockers, gangsters, leftists, and families, and the news of Lafala’s fortune travels quickly. He’s set upon by a wide range of mercenaries, most of whom he cheerfully repels. At a café he spots Aslima — the prostitute who originated this whole fiasco — and confronts her. She apologizes and claims some responsibility for his lack of feet; after all, if she hadn’t robbed him, he wouldn’t have had an international meltdown. They call a truce and become joyfully re-entangled, but the prostitute’s motives are murky. The “hardiest hustler” on the shore, Aslima is a canny handler of the local male population. Is she aiming to regain Lafala’s trust only to rip him off again? Is she in it for love this time? Will she return to Africa with Lafala, as he wishes? Only chapters eight through 23 will tell.

Prose-wise, there are a lot of superlatives to be highlighted in those chapters. In Romance in Marseille there is the best description I’ve ever read of human legs, as well as the best description of waking up and feeling like shit, the best description of erotic satisfaction, and — to dip into extravagant specificity for a moment — the best description of a Corsican pimp fretting that his girlfriend is mentally distancing herself from him.

McKay, who was born in the hills of Jamaica in 1889, was a headliner of the Harlem Renaissance. The son of farmers, he’d worked up an interest in English poetry — Milton, Keats, Shelley, Pope — thanks to his older brother, a schoolteacher, and an English neighbor who encouraged McKay’s literary experiments. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1912, enrolled at Tuskegee and Kansas State College, and left the South two years later for New York. His first American poems were published a few years later, and his first novel, Home to Harlem, was the movement’s first official American best seller. But he spent nearly as much time out of the country as in it, traveling from England to Russia to Germany to France to Spain to Morocco over the course of 12 years.

Home to Harlem got mixed reviews. Langston Hughes loved the book. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that it nauseated him and made him feel like taking a bath. It depicts what McKay called the “semi-underworld” of single black working-class men in New York City after World War I: a landscape of pool halls, cabarets, SROs, labor disputes, and women in Champagne-colored stockings. Like Romance in Marseille, it’s a picaresque starring a working-class single man. Unlike Romance, the world — its characters, its economy — is entirely black. It’s very good, and it reads like it was published in 1928, which it was — not a complaint, just a fact. Marseille, on the other hand, is a novel out of time.

*A version of this article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The title is … not a misleading title, exactly, but Romance in Marseille does conjure the image of a genteel divorcée on a soul-affirming Mediterranean frolic instead of an otherworldly queer fuckfest. The cover design colludes in this trickery with its illustration of a demure lady and an expressionless man, neither of whom can be found in the text. But hey. Maybe it will fool some demure and expressionless people into reading the book. They won’t know what hit them.
The Best New Novel Was Written 90 Years Ago