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The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 32 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

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