News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

1963 Novel 'The Stone Face' Has New Edition — And It Couldn't Be More Timely


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. "The Stone Face" is a 1963 novel by the Black reporter and fiction writer William Gardner Smith. It's just been released in a new edition by New York Review Books. And it tells the story of a writer who, like Smith himself, moves to Paris in hopes of finding a freedom he couldn't find in America. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that this book addresses issues that could hardly feel more timely today.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In recent years, many Americans have been attempting to reckon with this country's harsh racial history. One happy offshoot of this often unhappy reckoning is that we're discovering glories of Black culture that have been forgotten, undervalued or simply ignored. In just the last couple of weeks, we've had Questlove's "Summer Of Soul," about the utopian 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and "The One And Only Dick Gregory," about the suave, groundbreaking comedian who, just as his career began to soar, would skip $5,000-a-night gigs in order to head South to fight for civil rights.

At one point, Gregory's son says his father used to tell him that you can't really understand any aspect of life until you see the other side. You can't understand happiness unless you've been unhappy, can't understand good health unless you've been ill. I thought about this as I read "The Stone Face," a 1963 novel by William Gardner Smith, a Black journalist and novelist I'd never heard of until I came across this brand-new reprint, which includes an elegant and useful introduction by Adam Shatz.

Set in one of literature's most romanticized realms - the world of Americans hanging out in Paris - "The Stone Face" starts out offering a vision of paradise, then reveals the other side. The hero, Simeon Brown, is a Philadelphia journalist who wears a piratical eyepatch after losing an eye in a racist attack. Following in the tradition of Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, he moves to late-'50s Paris and enters expat Bohemia. While his white acquaintances are largely there for pleasure and the good exchange rate, his African American comrades have come to breathe air that's free of racism. As Simeon's hefty pal, Babe, says, "I came over to get out from under. Them people and their prejudice was on the verge of making me thin."

At first, Paris is heaven. As Simeon bops between clubs and eats soul food greens in Montmartre, the French treat him with a respect he's never known. He gets romantically entangled with a beautiful Polish emigre, Maria, an aspiring actress who yearns for what she calls the froth of life. Then one night, he tussles with an Algerian guy, whom the cops arrest, while letting Simeon go. The next day, the Algerian's friends yell at him, hey; how does it feel to be a white man? As he comes to know them better and learns about Algeria's bitter struggle for independence from France, he discovers that in Paris, Arabs - especially Algerians - suffer the same abuse that Black people do in America.

Now, lots of famous American writers have written about life in expat Paris. While Smith doesn't write the memorable prose of a Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway or Janet Flanner, few do. He's a skillful writer who saw beyond his own circle to capture a social rupture in France that persists in today's racial conflicts. "The Stone Face" explores the shifting nature of cultural identity and social oppression. Nobody is wholly innocent.

While Simeon suffered racism in America, in France, the Algerians are the pariahs. As a Polish Jew, Maria survived the Nazis' staggering cruelty, only to encounter the virulent anti-Jewishness of some of Simeon's Algerian friends. Smith builds to a harrowing account of the infamous slaughter on October 17, 1961, when police murdered scores, maybe hundreds, of peaceful Algerian demonstrators, tossing many of their bodies into the Seine.

All of this confronts Simeon with his own privilege in being treated properly. His Black friends all know what's going on, but having found a safe haven in Paris, choose not to risk being deported for interfering in French politics. Ashamed by his own self-protective instincts, Simeon must answer the gnawing question faced by many white people today. When you know that your own comfort is violently denied to others of a different color or ethnicity, what part of that comfort will you sacrifice to fight for justice?

Dick Gregory used to joke that African Americans like football because it was the one time in American life that a Black guy could chase a white guy and 40,000 people would cheer. Just as that line feels as slyly witty today as it did in 1961, so the issues Smith raises in his novel resonate at least as much now as they did six decades ago. Smith may not be Hemingway, but next to "The Stone Face's" portrait of the frothy, but race-torn Paris a moveable feast seems as ancient and fanciful as "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed "The Stone Face" by William Gardner Smith, first published in 1963. Coming up, we remember civil rights activist Bob Moses, who died Sunday at age 86. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "PIANO ETUDE NO. 16") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.