Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

What’s it about?

Giovanni’s Room, first published in the UK in 1957, tells the story of David, a young American, living in Paris. His fiancé has travelled to Spain to do some soul searching and while she is away, he meets and become infatuated with a beautiful and mysterious Italian barman named Giovanni. What proceeds is a love story destined to end in tragedy.

What did I think?

The first thing that struck me as I read this book was the utter fearlessness it is written with. To author a story about a gay love affair in the 1950’s, let alone as a black writer publishing only your second book, takes a conviction that most of us lack. This self-belief is evident in the writing. James Baldwin is clear, precise and certain in his style and it allows the story to grip you from the first page until the last. Many books which were written as far back as the 50s tend to show their age in one way or another, whereas I felt like this book maintained a contemporary feeling throughout. It is a testament to the talents of James Baldwin. Some of the descriptions of love, it’s complexity and the pain it can cause are the best I have read. It is a writing style I loved and left me with a feeling of melancholy when I did finish the story.

“Perhaps he is a fool or a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both.”

The exploration of sexual desire and the pain that repression of feelings can cause is stunning. A particular scene, in which David has a one night stand with a woman he clearly holds very little interest in, is just the right amount of uncomfortable and expertly dissects why David is doing the things he is doing but also the impact it has on Sue, the unfortunate other member in the one night stand. David’s repression of his own sexual identity not only hurts himself, but ultimately it hurts anyone who becomes close to him. Giovanni, Hella (David’s fiancé) and Sue are all unwitting victims of David’s inability to process his feelings and desires. Each of these people are ultimately left significantly hurt as a result. Of course, it isn’t as simple as David accepting he is gay and coming out to all of those around him. In many places in the world it was illegal and even if it weren’t illegal it would lead to marginalisation and persecution by society. It only became legal in all the United States of America in 2003 for two people of the same gender to have sex, whereas it was 1967 in the UK before homosexuality was ruled to be legal, over twenty years after this book was published. Even today, the LGBTQ community faces persecution in a variety of ways across the world. This illustrates that what James Baldwin wrote about so expertly in the 1950s is as pertinent today as it was then. Therefore, while some of the decisions David makes are highly questionable, it is easy to understand why he makes them. One can only imagine the pain James Baldwin was channelling as he described David’s angst and hurt at trying to come to terms with who he is as a person and the mistakes he undoubtedly makes as a result. This is one of that factors which makes this book so powerful and impactful and it is only through this brutal honesty that James Baldwin can really make us, the reader, understand to any sort of degree.

“’Love him, said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! In the dark.”

Another interesting aspect of the book, although ultimately brief is Baldwin’s approach to the women in the book. There are a few quotes early in the book which are disparaging towards women and I was left wondering if, as progressive as this book is in many ways, was it dated in its views on women’s rights? And perhaps in some ways it is. However, one scene demonstrates that James Baldwin was certainly cognisant of the issue. In it, David says to Hella “I don’t see what’s so hard about being a woman. At least, as long as she’s got a man.” A typical view of the time but Hella challenges David on this. She replies, “Hasn’t it ever struck you that that’s a sort of humiliating necessity?” And continues later, “But it does seem – well, difficult – to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven stranger before you can begin to be yourself.” David is clearly hurt by the implication and replies “Since when have I been gross? Or a stranger?” But Hella refuses to back down and correctly points out “Well, you may not be a stranger now. But you were once and I’m sure you will be again.” I found this whole interaction so insightful and interesting. Throughout the book, Hella had been portrayed through the eyes of David as slightly meek and a ‘typical woman’ but here Baldwin shows us what David clearly can’t see. She knows she must marry to be given any credence by society and the injustice of that. She is more intelligent that David and more in tune with the world she lives in. This is yet another example of James Baldwin holding up a mirror to the society he sees and forcing it to assess itself.

The ending of the book, although telegraphed from the first page, is no less pertinent or effective. It is truly a haunting scene we are left with as David is left alone to face up to the realities of his life and trying to find a way to rebuild. Hella has gone, after discovering David in a bar with a sailor he was having an affair with everything is brought out into the light, she is left decimated and returns to the United States to try and start again. I won’t say exactly what has happens to Giovanni, but it is a truly a tragic turn of events for which David must take some responsibility for. The ending of the book left me feeling hollow. I felt as if I had experienced some sort of loss in finishing the story. Not many books create this feeling for me, and none so effectively.

One last point I want to make before wrapping up this piece is that James Baldwin authored a story about a gay love affair without a single black character. As a black man in the 1950’s, the sheer bravery and audacity of this should inspire in you a respect richly deserved. The brutality directed towards the black community in these times is undeniable, but the discrimination ran a lot deeper than that also. Black people were expected to write stories about black characters, and they were only supposed to be about certain things. To ‘stay in their lane’. James Baldwin wrote the story he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it and the effect is astonishing.

This is one of the best books I have ever read. The masterful exploration of sexuality and repression intertwined with beautiful prose, fascinating characters and a vibrant Parisian setting create an overall piece of work which is startling, powerful and unforgettable. I could have written twice as much about this book. It’s depth for a shorter novel is astounding. To my great shame, I was ignorant of James Baldwin’s work before reading this, but it is my mission now to read everything he ever wrote. You too need to invite this brilliance you’re your life if you haven’t yet done so.

Thank you for reading!

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