Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

Review by Erastes

Warning – spoilers ahoy.

I’m always a little trepidatious about doing a review of such a well-known and hugely reviewed book. I doubt there isn’t anything that hasn’t been said about it, and as such, my amateur ramblings aren’t scholarly, and aren’t deep and insightful. I avoided even reading the foreword, or any other reviews so I can try and put my views out there that aren’t influenced by anything else.

I’m reviewing it purely as a work of fiction—its historical significance is towering, of that there is no doubt, but the foreword (which I read after the book, as you should unless you want to be very spoiled) deals with that in enough detail and I don’t need to rehash it here.

The book begins clearly following a literary bent, written in the first person present tense and then slips into flashbacks of David’s life since he met Giovanni, written in the third person. However this does tend to slip from time to time and there are a few instances where Baldwin slips back in the present tense even within the past flashback which was a bit off-putting.

There are many places in so-called literary novels where sometimes I’m left feeling like I’m the simian left out in the cold, and not knowing whether this was a slip up or dazzling genius made me feel like that. If I’d been an editor, I’d have evened it out, that’s all.

There’s an over-use of French, too. I can speak a bare modicum of the language, enough to buy me train tickets, order a meal etc, but I don’t really need to have whole chunks, or even interspersed phrases of French bunged into a book. Editors have told me that it adds flavour—and I blow a raspberry at this.

They are in France. The people involved are American, French and Italian. They are all speaking French as a common language. This has been explained. I don’t then need words like quais (quays) hostelries (hotels) and many many phrases and words included. I had no idea what people were saying sometime, and I didn’t wish to break off reading to go and look. And as I read most of this out of range of a PC or a dictionary, I am still in the dark.

There is a point where Hella—David’s girlfriend—writes him a letter and that’s littered with French phrases. It works there, because she’s frankly as pretentious as David himself and it’s the way she should have written. But for David to think of words in French in his own thoughts, or for Giovanni to lapse into French when he’s already speaking it? Nom de nom! Imbecile! as Poirot would say.

There’s nothing wrong with the Americans being pretentious, by the way. This is the 50’s and the American abroad would have gone with mind-expanding experiences as much as possible—before returning to their suburban lives. Amply illustrated in Hollywood style in such films as Funny Face where Hepburn joins a group of free thinkerswho hang around in dark nightclubs and express themselves by wearing black and dancing to impossible jazz—and An American in Paris, where artists and performers live in garrets and not-quite-starve due to their allowances from back home.
I coudn’t like David. I wanted to—but (and this is another instance where I don’t know whether I’m barking up the right tree or not) I simply couldn’t. His self-loathing for his bisexuality, and his consequent deep seated loathing of everyone else around him tainted with homosexuality or bisexuality pissed me off. He was perfectly fine doing what he was doing in a foreign country as long as he could pretend it wasn’t happening. Even the pick up, when basically what happened was their eyes met across a crowded bar and they fell for each other like a ton of bricks was marred by David pretending la la la that nothing extraordinary was happening, while being secretly thrilled and disgusted that it was going to.

I can understand that revulsion, I really can. He had fears of becoming “unmanly” (probably because he father set such store on manliness—yes, that’s right, blame the parents!) and I can entirely understand that fear, that he knows he’ll have to return to the USA and will he have to forever be lusting after men, when he doesn’t want to?

In fact, along that line, I found it very interesting that there was such a parallel to how Hella sees her future life unless she finds a companion—the pensioned widows guzzling dry martinis and making eyes at anything in pants, to how David sees his life in the future: following any young boy into the darkness and forever lusting over younger and young men like Jacques does.

But I couldn’t forgive David for being quite as self-hating as he was. He knows he loves Giovanni, and he knows that he could be happy, but then again he knows he can’t be with him forever and he hates Giovanni for having “awoken” that side of his nature, a side he had squashed down for so long since his first and only other homosexual experience. He knows he can never send that part of himself to sleep again.

What really did annoy me about Baldwin’s David was his omiescient know-it-all-ness. He knew what Hella was feeling (although he wasn’t exactly an expert with women)—he knew exactly how his father must be feeling about his long absence in France despite the fact that they couldn’t talk to each other, had never had a proper conversation in their lives and he knew all about Giovanni’s light and darkness.
In fact this was alluded to so many times “a new sense of Giovanni, his private life and pain, and all that moved like a flood in him when we lay together at night” – but this isn’t ever explained. On the surface, we are shown Giovanni as being a modern bi-sexual, moving along from man to man to woman, not really caring a fig about the world’s opinion of him, and the David throws in sentences like the one above and I’m all “what? Where are you getting this? Or at least, if that’s true, how about sharing it with the reader?”

In David’s last scene with Giovanni we are shown some of this, so it’s a little confusing that David attributes his life of pain before he actually knew about it, but as I say, David seems to know everything about everyone.

I don’t know whether it is ironic that his father’s nickname for David is Butch. That could be a coincidence, or simply something that means more now than it did then. There’s also a discussion between David and a girl he picks up – to show his manliness—about stonewalls, which I assume is where the bar took its name.

One of the most telling sentences of the book for me was in the final argument between Giovanni and David, where David says “what kind of life can two men have together anyway?” and this sums the book up quite well. David thinks he’s after a certain kind of life, the American dream, the one with his “manhood intact” and he’s lying to himself over and over and over about everything. When he tells Hella that (by saying he loved her and wanted to marry her) he was not lying to her, but lying to himself, she says (sarcastically) “that makes everything different, of course.”  Goodfor you,Hella.

The only really jarring part that I simply Did Not Get was the sudden intrusion of GOD into the last section. David had shown no religious tendencies. I assumed that he was probably one of the milder American faiths—he’d not said anything else, although he certainly had the inbred guilt of the Catholic that Graham Green weeps in every line. Despite Giovanni obviously being Catholic, there was no mention of God and Church until right at the end—and we get this section:

“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.”

Do Not Get.

I will comment briefly on one aspect of the historical import—I am pleased that this was written by a black man. David is white, blond and isn’t poor. There was probably a shit storm by white and black alike that (shock!) a black man dared to write from the pov of a white man (as I say, I haven’t looked up any literary sources or learned reviews of this book, so I am only guessing going on what I would deem to be normal human prejudice and behaviour) but it resonates with me, as a white bisexual woman who has the temerity to write about gay men.

I’m giving this four and a half stars. It’s clearly an important book, both for gay fiction, and for gay history. It is beautifully written, even if David annoyed me beyond belief, it’s written from his own fucked up and muddled point of view and while I don’t agree with it, it is his mind that rebelling against itself. It’s an “essential read” – obviously – for anyone who wants to write gay historical, particularly in the post-war era of Europe or America. The historical significance actually pushes it up to four and a half stars, because I’d probably give it four had it been written by a contemporary writer.

In a way, this is a very contemporary book. Due to the very limited geographical scope the book explores: Paris cafe society, Giovanni’s Room, there are actually few markers which ground us to a particular time and place. Even the women who talk of sons lost during the war do not immediately tie us to the 50’s – if the cafe owner had said she had lost sons in the first Gulf war, it would not have seemed out of place. Technology is missing—no mobiles and they have no phones where they live, so that gives it away as not being of now than anything else, but read from a certain angle, it could be about modern times, and it’s sad really that David’s repression and self-loathing and longing for a normal life still abound.

No one said to him that “it gets better” because obviously it wasn’t going to get better for him. I don’t think he was ever going to be happy in his skin, and I feel desperately sorry for him. I wish he could have enjoyed what he had without destroying it for fear of a future that may not have happened.

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7 Responses

  1. Heh! Well, at least he did not kill himself right? You have run into one of the tragic gay classics that left me dry. It is stuff like this that lead to so many unhappy gay pulp novels.

    You can even tell how tired gay men thought this type of story was back in The Boys In The Band era from some of their comments.

  2. It’s the theme of self-loathing that gets to me, as you say, it’s very old. He hates himself – and by contagion, blames and passes that hate on to the people he finds himself attracted to–because he thinks that THEY are stopping him from having that manly all-american dream. Stupid git can’t see that itis himself. It is so often held up as a universal trope that it annoys me. So yeah, it got me thinking, but not obsessing like some others have.

  3. My only problem is that many many many reviewers give this book a pass based on it’s historical value.

    That is fine. When no one would dare write a single thing about the type of person you are good or bad then I guess negative attention is better than none at all.

    My only thing is you can find not only successful gay people quietly living their lives but successful gay couples out there living their lives during this period. We find out about more of them all the time.

    Historically… yes of course it was not then and never ever ever ever was easy to live as a gay person anyplace back then.

    BUT of all places to write about and make it SO HORRIBLY DREADFUL.

    Paris? One of the two openly decadent gay ghettoes pre World War 2? Berlin being the other place most noted back then.

    One of the very very few places people actually lived openly as gay men and women… and instead of exploring how those things worked back then and how far the tolerance went and how these people lived their lives instead of any of that we simply get your standard issue “gay means never being happy” stories.

    He could have easily written about the same damn thing taking place in Harlem and it would have been at least a bit more understandable and less disappointing to me at least. I just felt as a contemporary reader this was more miss than anything else.

  4. I have never managed to like this book, I read it way back when I first discovered that I was a literary fag hag and felt I had to earn my credentials. There was an absolutely stunning Radio 3 adaptation into a radio play, broad cast a few months ago and the end is absolutely chilling – catch it if you can.

  5. I think that actually Baldwin did not write from the POV of a white man at all in this book, although it is of course correct that the narrator was a white gay man. But the author and the “I” of the book are not the same. I think that Baldwin identified with David as a gay man (and with Giovanni and Jacques and even Guillaume as well), but he portrays him as full of the same negative characteristics that he attributes to white American devils in his other, more racially charged work. You are right to identify all the weaknesses in David’s character. James Baldwin the author meant you to see that.

    • Hmm,that’s interesting. I knowthatauthors often put their own views into their character’s mouths but I have to say, if an author uses first person perspective, I’m going to take the “I” as his character first and foremost,I’d never assume that that was the author’s view. I’ve found out since,for example, that many of Heinlein’s character’s views are also his own, but it doesn’t always run that way. Many of my books have racist or sexist or really unpleasant characters and Ihope that no one can put them at my door. I don’t think that David’s weakness is a weakness in the book, how dull it would be if all characters were perfect.

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