Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin, 1956)



It’s safe to say that this book left me a little lost for words. What a wonderful introduction to James Baldwin! The prose is exquisite; it makes you ache, scream, crumble with its intensity. How Baldwin managed to pack such a power punch, such raw emotion, in 150 pages, is beyond me.

David is as enigmatic as characters come, oscillating throughout between his impulses and dissonant convictions. He dreams of being the true American man – wife, white picket fence, tucking his future children into bed every night. While drifting about in Paris, he becomes enraptured by the eponymous Giovanni, an Italian bartender also living there. He succumbs to his urges and begins a relationship with Giovanni, until his fiancé Hella, who has been travelling in Spain and is unaware of David’s predilections, returns to begin a life with him.

Giovanni’s Room is indeed a love story, though it feels well-judged to say it is more about the failure of love, or, indeed, the failure of emotion. David is simultaneously exhilarated and repulsed by his feelings for Giovanni. For all his wanderings, he has not come to know himself – or, more likely, has not built up the strength of conviction to move past the profound self-loathing he harbours within himself. Though Giovanni’s character, on the contrary, is at relative peace with this part of himself, the discourse we are exposed to throughout the novel, particularly in the conversations between the two men, reveals a great deal about what it meant to be gay in the 50s – you were either one way (middle-aged, lecherous, rich), or another (petite waiter or rent-boy). There was nothing in between. No other option, no other way to be. The sexual politics of the time were no doubt pretty messed up, though by no means unrecognisable. And so we feel for David.

The prose shook me to my very core. What fluid, seamless, gorgeous writing. The yearning, the confusion, the treachery – the dazzling complexity of the conflicting sentiments involved – are portrayed with such effortlessness, and the visceral observations of love, of companionship, are deeply affecting:

“Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.”

The story behind the novel’s publication is noteworthy, too, with Baldwin’s publisher initially advising that the homosexuality theme would alienate him from his African-American audience. Baldwin’s decision to make his protagonist white also merits mention. On this, he said:

“I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

Giovanni’s Room really is writing at its most bold, most beautiful. I already look forward to revisiting it.

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