Home > 1950, 20th Century, American Literature, Baldwin James, Classics, Highly Recommended > The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

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

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.

  1. October 9, 2020 at 10:04 am

    I read this novel years ago – it’s still on my shelves, a hardback from Michael Joseph, London, the original publisher – and didn’t like it. I wonder now if I was struggling with David’s sexuality, unable to barrack for Giovanni over Hella. While notionally bohemian, I’ve always had a secret longing for ‘the white picket fence’.

    Like

    • October 9, 2020 at 10:13 am

      I can understand how you can get impatient with David, like you want to shake up Newland Archer and tell him to elope with Ellen Olenska.
      Both look like they are cowards, unable to go after their great love. It’s even worse for David because letting down Giovanni doesn’t mean he can go back to his state of denial. He has to acknoledge that he’s gay.
      But both know that the path they’d openly choose would put them at odds with society and not everyone is cut out to heartily embrace being an outsider or worse, an outcast.
      Baldwin never makes excuses for David’s behavior. He just puts him under the microscope and asks us to look at him and see him as a ball of contradictions.
      PS: this is really an outstanding book, whether you like the character or not. See how you still remember it, years later.

      Liked by 1 person

    • October 9, 2020 at 8:48 pm

      If you’re not too far away from your hardback copy, would you mind checking out if the typos in the French words are there too? That’s be nice and Tom’s comment, I wonder how the original was.

      Like

      • October 10, 2020 at 1:55 am

        I saw this almost as I was going out the door, sorry. But I’ve put GR in my bag and if you send me some page no.s I’ll check them out next time I take a break.

        Like

        • October 10, 2020 at 8:48 pm

          Thanks.

          I have the kindle edition, so I have kindle pages but let’s try.

          – Part I chapter 3 p46 “helas” instead of “hélas”

          – Page 30 “cest fort ça” instead of “c’est fort ça”
          – Page 31 “ma cheri, comment vas tu?” instead of “ma chérie, comment vas-tu?”
          – page 32 “A la votre” instead of “A la vôtre”
          – page 36 “Vive l’amerique” instead of “Vive l’Amérique”
          – page 39 “je m’en fou” instead of “je m’en fous”.

          Thanks again!

          Like

  2. October 9, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    It really is such a wonderful book, I have to get back to it at some point. And, as you say, I love the fact that James Baldwin refused to allow himself to be put into a ‘black issues’ box.
    My goodness, I cannot believe all the mistakes in a published edition. I mean, I sometimes get lazy when tweeting to introduce accents everywhere (works OK on my phone, where I have French, German and Romanian as alternative languages, but it’s more fiddly on my laptop) – but obviously that would not be the case if I were to publish a book!

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    • October 9, 2020 at 6:04 pm

      It’s a stunning book, in all aspects. The story, the analysis of David’s feelings, the descriptions of Paris and the style. Baldwin is compassionate but factual, with an outstanding intellectual honesty.

      Yes, these typos were dreadful. Tom suggests that they were in the original and that they kept it for that reason. But what’s the use of an editor, then?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. October 9, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    On your suggestion I read this for the 1956 Club, hopefully I’ll have a review up before the week is out. I totally agree this is a masterpiece – a stunning work. Thank you for pointing me towards it Emma!

    Like

    • October 9, 2020 at 5:59 pm

      I’m happy to hear that you loved it too. I’m looking forward to reading your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. October 9, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Yes, truly a masterpiece. I love how Baldwin doesn’t shrink away from showing all the complexities of David’s character, but I don’t think Baldwin was capable of not being entirely honest (and eloquent) in his writing. It’s really unfortunate that Penguin was so uncaring about getting the French words and phrases right.

    Like

    • October 9, 2020 at 5:59 pm

      He’s such a precise and honest writer. I like that he doesn’t put difficult things under the carpet but faces them right on. To be true to life, David must have his weaknesses and moments when the reader doesn’t like him.

      About the French: Tom says in another comment that these mistakes were in the original but for me, they are typos more than anything else and don’t bering anything to the text. (By that I mean that they don’t alter the speech of the character, it’s just written the wrong way)

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 10, 2020 at 2:40 pm

        Hmm. To me the French mistakes sound more like sloppy copy-editing, not fidelity to original text…

        Like

        • October 10, 2020 at 5:32 pm

          I should say, by “original text” I mean the 1956 Dial Press first edition.

          Why were these errors not corrected back then? Interesting question. Someone with access to the appropriate Baldwin biography might be able to find an answer.

          But the mistakes have now been part of the novel for a long time.

          Like

          • October 10, 2020 at 10:55 pm

            That is an interesting question and hopefully there’s an answer somewhere. I do understand the reluctance to make changes now especially without the author’s approval, but I still wonder if that Dial edition serves James Baldwin well?

            Like

  5. October 9, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    I fear the mistaken French goes back to the original text. It is too late now for a publisher to change it. They would be damaging the historical document.

    Like

    • October 9, 2020 at 5:56 pm

      I thought about that but all the mistakes are “visual” and not something you’d hear from a foreigner who makes mistakes when they speak. It’s not that the sentences sound wrong, they’re written wrong. I don’t see why this could not be corrected.

      Like

      • October 9, 2020 at 7:10 pm

        Oh, it could be corrected.

        Maybe do it in footnotes.

        Like

        • October 9, 2020 at 8:49 pm

          Hopefully Bill will check out his original copy and let us know if there are typos there too.

          Like

  6. buriedinprint
    October 9, 2020 at 6:49 pm

    I’ve read some of Baldwin but not this one, although I’m looking forward to doing so, at some point. Over the summer I read a collection of stories by Black American writer Randall Kenan, who died at the end of August and who had written a good deal of non-fiction about James Baldwin (and I believe taught his work for several years at an American college). Kenan also wrote his own book, in response to The Fire Next Time, titled The Fire This Time (2008), which might also be of interest if you’re looking for more Baldwin-spirit. (But obvs not fitting the #1956club mandate!)

    Like

    • October 9, 2020 at 8:46 pm

      I really recommend Giovanni’s Room.
      I’ve also read Going to Meet the Man, Go Tell It on the Mountain and If Beale Street Could Talk.
      I purchased The Fire Next Time after reading Mabanckou’s comments about it. I think it’d be interesting to read The Fire This Time too. Thanks for mentioning it to me, I’ll put it on the wish list.

      Like

  7. Jonathan
    October 9, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    I also remember reading this years ago. I liked it but never read anything else by Baldwin…don’t know why.

    Like

    • October 10, 2020 at 8:29 pm

      I’d recommend Going to Meet the Man (short stories) or If Beale Street Could Talk.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. October 10, 2020 at 8:34 am

    One of my favorite books of all time. LOVE James Baldwin. Genius. 🙂

    Like

    • October 10, 2020 at 8:35 pm

      I love his books too and this one is exceptionnal.

      Like

  9. October 10, 2020 at 7:37 pm

    I’ve never read anything by Baldwin but you’ve certainly sold me on this book. It sounds terrific. Just have to make sure not to get that Penguin edition – I can’t believe such a reputable publisher would make so many basic errors

    Like

    • October 10, 2020 at 8:37 pm

      I hope you’ll read it as it is really excellent.

      I guess that most English speaking readers don’t notice the typos in the French anyway. It was annoying for me, that’s for sure.

      Like

  10. October 12, 2020 at 11:11 am

    As the other blogger who reviewed this book for the 1956 club said, Baldwin has certainly been back in favour this past couple of years, with new editions of books and movies. And I’ve been meaning to read one of them ever since.

    My understanding of French is so basic, I wouldn’t notice the typo’s/inaccuracies, but I have observed that many classic ebooks can be quite sloppy in that regard.

    Like

    • October 12, 2020 at 9:18 pm

      Thanks for commenting, I’m going to read your review now.

      It is truly an amazing book. I guess that Baldwin’s work often resonates with the news.
      Have you seen I Am Not Your Negro? It’s excellent.

      While he’s famous for his activism and his non-fiction, he’s a talented writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. October 12, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    This was on my list for this week but didn’t manage to read – but your review has certainly pushed it up the pile! It feels like I need a whole other week of 1956 club titles.

    Like

    • October 12, 2020 at 9:19 pm

      If I may say, Giovanni’s Room and The Roots of Heaven are amazing books for the 1956 club.

      GR is really short and worth reading, I hope you’ll like it too.

      Like

  1. October 11, 2020 at 9:32 pm
  2. October 12, 2020 at 12:00 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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