Once every decade or so, a classic novel is rediscovered from the heap pile of obscurity, casting new light on an author who has been grievously overlooked, undervalued or simply unpublished.
Ambitious in scope, epic in its timebend narratives that range from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to World War II in Italy to modern-day neo-slave narratives and black speculative fiction, and absolutely dazzling in its comical clash between debauchery and redemption, William Demby’s posthumously published King Comus is such a novel for our generation.
Honored with the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, Demby has been recognized as one of the great post-modernist writers—or anti-modernist, according to some critics—whose experimental novel based in Rome, The Catacombs, was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the two important black novels of the 1960s.” Dividing his time between Italy and New York, Demby died in 2013, at the age of 90, leaving behind the King Comus manuscript, decades in the making, of what he called “a world yearning and primed for a new wave of belief.” Thanks to Ishmael Reed Publishing, the recovered King Comus has just been released.
King Comus is Demby’s final masterpiece, a Miltonesque refashioning of the ancient myth of revelry that abandons, in the words of the narrator’s ironic homage to Renaissance pageantry, “certain vain and useless literary conventions as to the nature or not of narrative realism”:
But forgive me for I am rambling and the truth is I don’t know quite how to proceed, for I am an ant traveling over one of those enormous Tapestries of Time, and I shall make mistakes of fact and observation, and may not see in time what was there to see before attempting to climb up yet another mountain of colored thread...and so, therefore, and without further ado and unseemly apologies before the fact, let us now hasten swiftly back in time to a certain night in Vienna, the night of June 8, 1815...
A visionary at heart, and witty, complex and wily in his aspirations, Demby abandoned those useless literary conventions back in the late 1940s, when he decided as a Fisk University graduate and as a former soldier in the “all-Negro horse cavalry battalion” in Italy to leave the United States and return to Rome with a suitcase of fancy clothes, a clarinet and the literary dreams of reinventing himself in the aftermath of World War II.
Based in Rome’s vibrant post-war film and arts community, Demby became a collaborator and translator for Italy’s famed neorealism film directors, including Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini, served as a reporter for various Italian and American newspapers, and soon published a groundbreaking first novel on race relations and fundamentalism in West Virginia in 1950. In its review of Beetlecreek, which had taken its title from a Thomas Wolfe story, The New Yorker hailed the emerging novelist’s entrance onto the literary stage: “It would be hard to give Mr. Demby too much praise for the skill with which he has maneuvered the relationships in this book.”
“Demby’s troubled townsfolk of the West Virginia mining region foreshadow present dilemmas,” fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps noted. “The pressing and resisting social forces in this season of our discontent and the fatal paralysis of those of us unable or unwilling to act are clearly anticipated with the dependable second sight of a true artist.”
The true artist, however, clearly ahead of his times and defiant of any literary or cultural pigeonhole, somehow disappeared from the canons of American literature.
Featuring Demby as his own narrator, aside the soliloquies of his war-time pal Tillman, King Comus unfolds through wildly interchanging and entertaining narratives and sweeping plot lines from the concert halls of Europe, the markets of enslaved Africans in New Orleans and a harrowing escape of an enslaved musician across the Mississippi River to the machinations of a cadre of WWII soldiers in Italy to a re-enactment of Ancient Roman Emperor Constantine’s ’Vision of the Cross” and the reincarnation of Prester John, “that wise Ethiopic king of antiquity.”
“When complexity becomes simplicity, when we think everything is clear, we say, now I understand,” Demby told me in an interview for The Bloomsbury Review years ago. “But the moment it becomes clear, another set of complexities emerges. This is the cycle of history.”
The novel should return William Demby to his rightful place in avant garde 20th Century literature, if only for the reader to experience its epic gospel finale: “A unique once in a lifetime media event featuring thirty-three gospel/rock choirs from all over the world which in spite of the perhaps overly enthusiastic hyperbole of its promoters is now believed by sociologists, advertisers, religious conservatives and gospel/rock fans all over the world to have actually saved our planet from its hysterical rush to nuclear disaster.”
Like John Milton’s 17th Century masque composition, Comus, deeply influenced by the English author’s own trip to Florence, Italy, Demby weaves himself into a musical journey of good versus evil out of the Italian woods and onto the streets of Rome, as three soldiers reunite for a reckoning “to ride at the head of the 5th Army’s armored column as it made its triumphant entry into Rome,” albeit in another age:
They met, Joe Stabat and Luminella di Constantino, his aristocratic Italian wife to be, shortly after our by then decimated and demoralized and all-Negro horse cavalry battalion had finally arrived in the Italian Peninsula War Zone—but without officers, without our horses, and without an official mission, but with our status as an historical horse cavalry battalion under serious reexamination by Army headquarters, and therefore without any clearly identifiable mission and suddenly up for grabs—
In the end, Demby’s reexamination of the cycles of history, its mythological antecedents, and his role in it, remained his identifiable literary mission—and our incredible joy as readers.