a very crazy place
by Douglas Messerli
John A. Williams Clifford’s Blues (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1999)
“I keep wondering what the world will be like when this is all over, when the inmates of this great insane asylum get free of the
keepers. And what about the rescuers who’ve waded in blood to save us? The world will be, I think, a very crazy place.”
Clifford Pepperidge, in Williams’ Clifford’s Blues
When I read in the news that fiction writer John A. Williams had died in July, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, I immediately felt that I needed to read a work by the author, something which I’d previously never found the time to do. I thought that perhaps I might read his well known bestseller, The Man Who Cried I Am, which might be interesting to discuss within the context of the racial issues which I was considering in the 2015 volume of My Year. That book, however, appeared to be out of print, and the copies that did exist had been marked up to rare book prices. Most of his other titles also appeared to be rare, with the only readily available title being his 1999 work, Clifford’s Blues. I had no idea what this fiction was about, but quickly ordered it on from Amazon.
As one might imagine given the two-volume break down of this My Year volume, with its emphasis on identity and how those issues have been represented throughout the 20th century and into our own times, a great many books stood on my nightstand ahead of Williams’ fiction, numerous volumes of which concerned the Weimar years in Germany, the rise of Nazism, and the terrible consequences of World War II and after.
When I finally got round to reading Clifford’s Blues I was startled to discover that it too was concerned—like Stephanie Baron’s New Objectivity art show, the study of sexuality in Berlin by Robert Beachy, the four works I had written about Stein’s wartime experiences, and Martin Sherman’s play, revived in Los Angeles in 2015, Bent, along with two recent volumes on Eichmann—with issues of homosexuality, artistic expression, and the brutality of the wartime years, remarkably, moreover, from the point of view of a black man. As I read the book over several weeks, I begin increasingly to feel, as I have felt so often over the years about many of the writings, events, and performances I have encountered over the years, that coincidence, fate—whatever you want to call it—had led me to this work. I was destined to read it, and perhaps could only come to comprehend its value and significance in the year of Williams’ death.
Accordingly, I have the very personal relationship with Clifford’s Blues that I feel toward many works, but that is difficult to describe. It is almost as if this fiction was written to be read by me at the this time in my life, and while I am sure that sounds inordinately selfish, I cannot dismiss my feelings of being part of a pre-ordained audience for this creative effort. It spoke deeply to me at the very moment when I needed to read it.
That is not to say that Clifford Pepperidge, the desperate hero of Williams’ fiction, is someone with whom I might immediately identify. Growing up the rural south and tortured by his experiences with white racism, escaping to the famed Storyville of New Orleans before high-tailing it to New York where he briefly worked with seemingly legendary black bands such as Sam Wooding’s, with whom he travels to Berlin where, in the whirl of that Weimar city, Clifford and his fellow players discover an open audience and appreciation they might never have encountered in the US. That Clifford is a piano player and singer, puts him into the position of a central figure, which, along with his sexuality, makes him a memorable character within the context of his Berlin years; yet that very “recognition” puts him in terrible danger when suddenly he discovers himself, apparently a man of no great political perception, stranded in a country which has suddenly turned racist and homophobic. If we might be terribly saddened about his situation, we feel somewhat distanced by his self-pity, the tears and prayers he proffers early in the book—in part because we know the future that millions of others, in even more vulnerable and terrifying situations, must face. Indeed, although Clifford cannot know it, he is almost immediately put into a situation that makes him better off than almost in anyone else in the terrible world that Dachau represents.
Dieter Lange—a queer (and in the context of this fiction, this is the right word) pimp—recognizing the musician, immediately pulls him out of the line for pink triangles, and gets him not only a better designation, but a job working as his butler. Unbelievably, Lange, having joined the Nazi party, has become head of the camp canteen and, in order to free himself from any sexual insinuations, has married a stupid, plump farm girl, Annaliese, who presumes that Lange’s sexual inattentions and proclivities (he prefers anal sex) are absolutely normal. By drawing Clifford into his household, Lange finds himself not only a desirable sexual partner when his Anna isn’t around, but a man who can cook, manage his store (and later keep his books) and even entertain for the couple. Moreover, as we soon discover, in Clifford, the ambitious Lange has a wonderful entertainer for private parties which, at least temporarily, provides him his further social connections with the likes of Major Bernhardt and his wife Lily.
Anna, however, turns out to be not so dumb, as she quickly discerns, through an incident in which she accidently observes Clifford slapping her husband’s face, the relationship between their black servant and her lover; and simultaneously she begins a secret affair with Bernhardt. The politics, accordingly, shift, as Bernhardt, now in the know, gains the upper hand, using Clifford and a few other musicians from the camp to establish a small jazz band who, in stolen tuxedos, perform at his home until the Nazi administration finally outlaws all black bands.
Because of the “specialness” of Clifford’s world and the fact that Williams evidently felt that he need mention all the significant historical black figures from Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Ma Rainey, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Kid Orey, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, to all the major Nazi figures such as Eichmann, Goering, and Himmler, I was originally a bit put off by the author’s beginning narrative, feeling that the list of texts he references at the end of this novel were a kind of academic expression of his fictional virtuosity.
But as the narrative slowly grows through Clifford’s diary entries, we begin to encounter numerous fictional characters that reveal the various aspects of this daily growing factory of death. The vast accumulation of data, ultimately—the daily addition of information, events, and tortures—not so very different from Stein’s fiction Mrs. Reynolds, ultimately begins to build up a fiction that is absolutely remarkable in the sense that we get to know the camp terrors and the increasing frenzy of the Nazis to arrest nearly anyone, of any ethnic background (Poles, Russians, Gypsies, etc), religious beliefs ( Jews, the Jehovah Witnesses, etc), color (the Americans and African Blacks), sexuality (mostly homosexuals), and German criminals that did not accord with their idealized notion of Aryan superiority. At the same time, through Cliffords’s experiences and writings, we perceive the not-so-gradual breakdown of the German leaders’ lives and psyches.
Sexual affairs gradually transform into orgiastic encounters (Clifford is forced into threesomes with Anna and her friend Ursula, and later with her husband and her), the desire of quick profits increasing grows into utter greed (as Lange grows more and more wealthy in his accumulation of foodstuffs and materials, others take over his illegal activities, using him merely as a front), and fear and boredom is transformed into nightly drunkenness.
Bit by bit, both the reader through the narrator see his friends die, masses murdered, and thousands of others tortured through experimental medical tests. Through it all, Clifford himself gradually loses his soul, having to force himself into a place in which he can no longer feel. Having lost his gentle sexual companion, Memmo (a gay member of the Jehovah Witnesses) and a totally innocent friend, young black boy, Pierre, who, near death, finally commits suicide, the black musician tries to eliminate all emotional responses, and nearly wastes away in the process. Used, again and again, by others within Lange’s house and throughout the camp as a sexual object, a route to escape (at one point he is kidnapped by two Germans who try to escape to Switzerland with him), and, most importantly, but just as troubling, as a witness, Clifford becomes a shell of a human being, who can only observe the surrounding horrors with muted amazement.
The communists, socialists, and Russians, particularly, some of the strongest of the Dachau prisoners, include him in conversations wherein they reveal horrific actions and name the perpetrators, hoping that, if he survives, he may able to testify to the horrors everyone there has experienced. Their daily memorization of names and places cannot but remind one of “living books” of Bradbury’s fiction and Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451.
Williams’ journalistic fiction is particularly good in not only the slow accumulation of its details, but, again like Stein’s Mrs. Reynolds, in the presentation of events regarding the Americans, seen by everyone as the potential saviors, but whose approach to those in complete desperation appears almost to move in glacial speed:
They’re coming, but it’s taking forever. The days
seem like weeks, the weeks like years. We’ve even
gotten used to the bombers going and coming. They
have little to do with us except for the companies of
Himmelfahrtskommandos that march to the trucks to
dig bombs out of Munich’s belly (while singing
“Lille Marlene,” which they hope will get them some
bread and marmalade, maybe a cup of coffee from a
civilian). We want the planes to come, not by the
thousands, but by the hundreds of thousands—but
every time they come, a mess of prisoners goes into
Munich to die. Why the hell can’t they bomb this
place, bomb all the camps, destroy the factories and
rails everywhere, since the prisoners are dying anyway?
Yet, if Americans are the heroes to everyone in camp, Clifford knows a kind a truth that no one really wants to hear: that things are far from perfect in his own country, fearing that even if he is freed, his return home will not necessarily mean a better world for him.
Finally, with Anna recovering from typhus and Clifford, himself, infected by Lange with a case of syphilis, the two sent out on foot toward the American line, hoping that they might reach safety and escape the camp’s certain death sentence.
We never know whether or not they reach safety or find a new life beyond the one to which they have been sentenced. And the saddest thing of all, it seems to me, are the book-end letters to Clifford’s entries between two figures from the 1980’s future, presumably a jazz musician and a publisher, who have found a better life than in the US than Clifford had even known.
On a trip to pick up his daughter, who has just spent her junior year of college abroad, a figure named Gerald Sanderson (nickname “Bounce”) describes how is has come into the possession of Clifford’s journal, which he has copied and passed on to his publisher friend, Jayson James.
Between jocular greetings, the two discuss their admiration for what Clifford has written, without, somehow, really being able to speak openly of his horrifying testimony. And in James’ comments, particularly, the author seems to acknowledge how this awful communication might be received by any potential readers at the end of the frightful 20th century:
I’ve now finished reading the diary you sent—some
package! I will try my damndest to get it into the right
editorial hands, but do understand that we have a severe
generic problem in this business….
The diary is a heavy thing, Bounce. Bet you a sideline
ticket on the forty the next Super Bowl that they’ll be
celebrating that war from the invasion of Normandy
until its end—without looking too hard behind or
between the lines. People don’t know, and probably
don’t care, about the black people in those camps,
not that there’s any honor in having been in one. You
wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy.
Have we truly come to that, I pondered? Yes, probably. I wonder how many copies of William’s Clifford Blues its small press publisher, Coffee House Press, sold: 500, 1000, 2000?
I can only tell you that after a year of reading so many works of such perversity and despair, it is still nearly impossible to comprehend the horrors that our fellow citizens, who lived through the 20th century, perpetrated upon one another. And it is comprehensible perhaps, if despicable, that we no longer want to hear about them.
Why do I still feel, I often puzzle, as if it is my responsibility, born after all, after that War’s end, to read, listen, and explore these nightmare realities?
If I am nothing at all like Clifford Pepperidge, I know I might have been, I could have been. And I myself, accordingly, am tortured by his and all the others’ suffering.
Los Angeles, November 11, 2015
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