Lu : Invisible Man par Ralph Ellison, publié chez Random House en 1952; et Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem sous la direction de Michal Raz-Russo, catalogue de l’exposition éponyme présentée à The Art Institute of Chicago du 21 mai au 28 août 2016.

Le quatrième de couverture du roman d’Ellison indique : « […] one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our time ». Dans l’introduction de cette édition publiée en 1981, soit une trentaine d’années après la parution de l’originale, Ellison démarre par une question : « What, if anything, is there that a novelist can say about his work that wouldn’t be better left to the critics? They at least have the advantage of dealing with the words on the page, while for him the task of accounting for the process involved in putting them there is similar to that of commanding a smokey genie to make an orderly retreat, not simply back into the traditional bottle, but into the ribbon and keys of a by now defunct typewriter. » Dès lors, on sait que l’on se trouve effectivement en présence d’une « dactylo » exceptionnelle.

Certains diront qu’il est impossible de comprendre la réalité des Afro-américains si on ne l’a pas vécue, à plus forte raison lorsque l’on fait partie de la majorité blanche, de cette réalité parallèle de l’oppresseur. Soit. Ellison déploie cependant toute l’agilité de sa plume pour décrire, à la première personne, l’infinie douleur de l’esclavage, de l’humiliation, du désarroi, cette crainte obsédante de voir tous ses efforts anéantis même après s’être plié à toutes les injustices.

« Suddenly hot and breathless, I saw a window across the room and went over and stood looking out. We were up very high; street lamps and traffic cut patterns in the night below. So she doesn’t think I’m black enough. What does she want, a black-face comedian? […] Maybe she wants to see me sweat coal tar, ink, shoe polish, graphite. What was I, a man or a natural resource? » (p. 303) « What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste! » (p. 266)

Photo : Sans titre, Harlem, 1948, Gordon Parks, p. 101.

Le cynisme de la situation ne pourrait être plus sinistre. Pourtant, entre des moments tous plus intenables les uns que les autres, mais si justes, la prose cinématographique d’Ellison ne cesse de nous relancer vers le paragraphe suivant.

« At the corner I turned into a drugstore and took a seat at the counter. Several men were bent overt plates of food. Glass globes of coffee simmered above blue flames. I could feel the odor of frying bacon reach deep into my stomach as I watched the counterman open the doors of the grill and turn the lean strips over and bang the doors shut again. Above, facing the counter, a blonde sunburned college girl smiled down, inviting all and sundry to drink a coke. The counterman came over. » (p. 177)

Photo : Sans titre, Harlem, 1952, Gordon Parks, p. 122.

Jouant du rythme des mots lancés sur le papier et non pas tant des rimes, mais de la répétition subtile des sons, cette prose qualifiée de « symphonique » semble annoncer le hip-hop.

« The room was quiet as a tomb – until suddenly there was a savage beating of wings and I looked toward the window to see an eruption of color, as though a gale had whipped up a bundle of brightly colored rags. It was an aviary of tropical birds set near one of the broad windows, through which, as the clapping of wings settled down, I could see two ships plying far out upon the greenish bay below. A large bird began a song, drawing my eyes to the throbbing of its bright blue, red and yellow throat. It was startling and I watched the surge and flutter of the birds as their colors flared for an instant like an unfurled oriental fan. » (p. 181)

Photo : Sans titre, New York, 1952, Gordon Parks, p. 121.

Et que d’images puissantes créées en quelques phrases !

« Moving into the subway I was pushed along the milling salt-and-pepper mob, seized in the back by a burly, blue-uniformed attendant about the size of Supercargo, and crammed, bags and all, into a train that was so crowded that everyone seemed to stand with his head back and his eyes bulging, like chickens frozen at the sound of danger. Then the door banged behind me and I was crushed against a huge woman in black who shook her head and smiled while I stared with horror at a large mole that arose out from the oily whiteness of her skin like a black mountain sweeping out of a rainwet plain. And all the while I could feel the rubbery softness of her flesh against the length of my body. I could neither turn sideways or back away, nor set down my bags. I was trapped so close that simply by nodding my head, I might have brushed her lips with mine. I wanted desperately to raise my hands to show her that it was against my will. I kept expecting her to scream, until finally the car lurched and I was able to free my left arm. I closed my eyes, holding desperately to my lapel. The car roared and swayed, pressing me hard against her, but when I took a furtive glance around no one was paying me the slightest attention. And even she seemed lost in her own thoughts. The train seemed to plunge downhill now, only to lunge to a stop that shot me out upon a platform feeling like something regurgitated from the belly of a frantic whale. » (p. 157-158)

Photo : Sans titre, Harlem, 1952, Gordon Parks, p. 111.

Sans jamais perdre de vue, cependant, toutes ces nuances de noir et de blanc.

« I walked slowly on, blinking my eyes in the chill air, my mind a blur with the hot inner argument continuing. The whole of Harlem seemed to fall apart in the swirl of snow. I imagined I was lost and for a moment there was an eerie quiet. I imagined I heard the fall of snow upon snow. What did it mean? I walked, my eyes focused into the endless succession of barber shops, beauty parlors, confectioneries, luncheonettes, fish houses, and hog maw joints, walking close up to the windows, the snowflakes lacing swift between, simultaneously forming a curtain, a veil and stripping it aside. A flash of red and gold from a window filled with religious articles caught my eye. And behind the film of frost etching the glass I saw two brashly painted plaster images of Mary and Jesus surrounded by dream books, love powders, God-Is-Love signs, money-drawing oil and plastic dice. A black statue of a nude Nubian slave grinned out at me from beneath a turban of gold. I passed on to a window decorated with switches of wiry false hair, ointments guaranteed to produce the miracle of whitening black skin. « You too can be truly beautiful, » a sign proclaimed. « Win greater happiness with whiter complexion. Be outstanding in your social set. » I hurried on, suppressing a savage urge to push my fist through the pane. A wind was rising, the snow thinning. » (pp. 261-262)

Photo : Sans titre, New York, 1952, Gordon Parks, p. 123.

Lors de sa parution : « While Invisible Man was immediately celebrated, and won the National Book Award in 1953, some black critics argued that its depiction of black life in the South lacked moral earnestness and ran counter to the interests of the black working class. Other black reviewers accused Ellison of using classic literary formulas that would guarantee appeal to white elite readers. Later commentators, among them members of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s deplored the lack of racial rage. Some argued that the mere fact that Ellison had written much of the book outside of Harlem (in an office in midtown Manhattan, among other locations) essentially made him an outsider. » (Michal-Raz Russo, Visible Men, p. 27)

« Not black enough » comme le disait lui-même le héros d’Ellison. Malgré ces critiques, Ellison (1913-1994) et Parks (1912-2006) sont aujourd’hui reconnus pour leurs brillantes carrières d’écrivain et de photographe, respectivement, et comme précurseurs du mouvement des droits civiques. Dans ce contexte, leur collaboration de 1948 à 1952 constitue un épisode fascinant dans leurs parcours. Peut-être chacun d’eux était-il, heureusement : « […] no longer afraid. Not of important men, not of trustees and such; for knowing now that there was nothing which [they] could expect from them, there was no reason to be afraid » ? (p. 249) Comme The Way the Crow Flies d’Ann-Marie MacDonald, Americanah de Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Commonwealth d’Anne Patchet, et tous les romans de Dominique Fortier, Invisible Man témoigne en tout cas de cette audace de faire autrement.

Grand, grand merci à Monique et Pierre d’avoir déniché ces deux livres et me les avoir offerts comme un époustouflant duo de clarinette et contrebasse.