James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Published 2007 by Penguin Books, 150p (first published 1956)
David, the main protagonist in Giovanni’s Room is one of the most irritating characters I have come across lately; it’s one of those so self-centered and so self-sufficient men that could easily make you put down the book with exasperation. But I haven’t; I finished the story and after having spent some time thinking of the historical context when the book was written and Baldwin’s personal history I concluded I had actually enjoyed the complexity and the themes of the book.
Giovanni’s Room is about passion and homosexuality, about shame and guilt and mostly about what happens when we deny and repress our desires and end up by failing to love and be loved.
James Baldwin was born in 1924 and grew up in Harlem. He spent his youth facing poverty, parental abuse and racism. When he realized he was gay, aware of the prejudices of the American society at that time he moved to Paris. He was 24. There he fell in love with a Swiss man, Lucien Happersberger, to whom he would dedicate Giovanni’s Room.
The story is about a young man, David, who moves to Paris determined to live a conventional and peaceful life. He has a girlfriend, Hella, whom he met in a bar and eventually proposed. Moments of frustration and second thoughts follow the moment Hella leaves to Spain to think to future and marriage and David meets handsome bartender Giovanni and starts a passionate adventure.
This homosexual episode is not the first one in David’s life. As a teenager, feeling lonely (David’s mother had died when he was 5 and he grew up in Brooklyn with his distant father and his unmarried aunt) he accepted a sleepover at his friend’s house to turn into a sexual experience. The next day, ashamed and scared he left without saying a word and a few days later he started bullying and upsetting Joey, his friend, until he left the neighbourhood.
This is certainly what my decision, made so long ago in Joey’s bed, came to. I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well – by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.
His effort to stay disconnected is a too heavy burden so wanting to find himself David gives up school and leaves to Paris, convincing his father it was the best decision he could take at that moment.
I met Giovanni during my second year in Paris, when I had no money… I did not, then, know many people in Paris and Hella was in Spain, David begins his confession; in desperate need of money he calls Jacques, a homosexual acquaintance and they meet for dinner in a gay bar. It is there where David meets Giovanni, the new bartender.
I wished, nevertheless, standing there at the bar, that I had been able to find in myself the force to turn and walk out – to have gone over to Montparnasse perhaps and picked up a girl. Any girl. I could not do it. I told myself all sorts of lies, standing there at the bar, but I could not move. And this was partly because I knew that it did not really matter any more; it did not even matter if I never spoke to Giovanni again; for they had become visible, as visible as the wafers on the shirt of the flaming princess, they stormed all over me, my awakening, my insistent possibilities.
That was how I met Giovanni. I think we connected the instant that we met. And remain connected still, in spite of our later separation de corps, despite the fact that Giovanni will be rotting soon in unhallowed ground near Paris. Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils.
Soon after they meet, David moves into Giovanni’s room, which is as messy and dark as his life.
I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity and pride.
David will soon realize he is not happy; Giovanni is often hysterical, misogynistic and possessive and the passion between them is shadowed by doubts and fears. David seduces a woman to prove himself that he is not gay but he still cannot find his peace. Gradually, all the frustrations and the repressed feelings will make everything crash; David seems unable to love. All the lies he tells, the untrue messages he sends to those who care for him reveal his insecurities, his inability to love and to respond to love either it comes from a man or a woman.
Giovanni’s room raises important questions on sexuality and desire and the impact they have on identity and well-being. Being a homosexual black person in the fifties was not an easy choice and Baldwin’s novel deals with concepts like shame and guilt to underline the homosexuals’ constant emotional state, their never-ending oscillation between desire and convention, between norms and stigma, between self-destruction and happiness.
Complement Giovanni’s Room with Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, an intense autobiography that explores sexuality, the need for love and home and the insights of an adopted child.