GIOVANNI’S ROOM BY JAMES BALDWIN

I remember Stephen Fry [who is gay, if that has somehow escaped you] once describing his perfect woman. Amusingly, this imaginary woman bore [almost] entirely male characteristics, like small breasts, short hair etc. Likewise, if I was asked to describe my ideal man he would be pretty and petite, with long hair, long eyelashes, shapely hips; a woman, in short, with a penis. And that penis? Well, if I could get rid of that he would be even better.

There are lots of things about myself that confuse me, that I am unsure of, but my sexuality is not one of them. I have never been in two minds about that. I find that some people, these days, scoff at that idea. There is the expectation that girls and boys [more so girls] will go through a confused phase, usually in their teens. I didn’t. Men, or typical men, have many admirable qualities but their bodies, their sex, have never appealed to me. You might anticipate, then, that there are aspects of the book under review here that cannot speak to me. And, yes, I think that is the case. I would accept that a narrative that prominently features homosexuality and bisexuality, that is, at least partly, about the pain caused by repression, will not resonate with me to the same extent that it might someone who has had similar experiences. However, I would also say that good literature is able to draw you in, to make you believe in, identify with, the most alien [a term I use literally, rather than negatively] ideas or concepts or ways of life.

It may seem like a strange thing to say about a novel that is often described as moving, harrowing, and brave, but, for me, Giovanni’s Room is, more than anything, really very clever. There are lots of stories about young people lost [existentially speaking] in a foreign country, many dealing with the torment of being torn between two lovers, but Baldwin manages to bring a freshness and greater intensity to these subjects, actually ratchets up the sense of tragedy, by having his narrator torn between a man and a woman, which, in its turn, gives extra significance to the fact of his being far from home. There is a suggestion, and it is mentioned in the text, that perhaps David [the central character and narrator] is doing what a lot of people do on holiday, or when away from home, i.e. indulging a part of himself he would not otherwise acknowledge. Giovanni’s Room is, in this way, much like Henry James’ The Ambassadors. In The Ambassadors the errant son, Chad, has a choice to make between returning home and settling down to a comfortable, financially stable life or remaining in Paris to continue his exciting existence there. In Giovanni’s Room the choice is almost identical, except that while in James’ novel it is Paris that represents freedom, and America that represents conventionality, in Baldwin’s novel it is Giovanni and Hella [David’s two lovers] who take on those roles.

I have read elsewhere that Giovanni’s Room upsets or enrages or disappoints many gay people. And I can see why that would be the case, because David is not accepting of who he is [or part of who he is, anyway]. Indeed, he is almost disgusted by it and at various points in his testimony quite viciously lambasts and lampoons certain kinds of homosexuals. Yet had he been comfortable with his inclinations the novel would not be as absorbing as it is, it would be reduced to a question of how does one choose between a man and a woman, between femininity and masculinity, both of which attract you? Now, that might seem like an intriguing question, but David’s situation is more complicated, more interesting, because he knows, one senses, which of the two he wants to be with, which one he loves, but doesn’t know which will be better for him, in the long run. David’s dilemma isn’t about genitals, but about how he sees himself, who he can picture himself as being. He can’t, much of the time, see himself, accept himself, as someone who will be, openly and happily, in a relationship with a man. Crucially, it is not pressure from outside, from friends and family, which makes him shy away from committing to Giovanni, but pressure from within himself. I found that fascinating.

In terms of Baldwin’s prose, it has the Hemmingway-like quality that so often characterises American literature, while being, at times, also lyrical. As one would expect of this kind of thing there are some nice insights and snappy lines and aphorisms. There are, too, one or two memorable scenes, my favourite being David’s first homosexual experience. What is so impressive about this scene is that it perfectly captures the fear, the nervousness, the tension involved in early sexual experiences, and simultaneously manages to be erotic; it struck me this way despite me not being able to directly relate to the situation of being with someone of the same sex for the first time. However, while I loved the opening of the novel – including this scene, David’s subsequent rejection of the boy, and his relationship with his father – I feel that it sets a standard that is not maintained; the book remains enjoyable and engrossing, as I outlined previously, but it does not, for me, fulfil the promise of its first third.

Before explaining why Giovanni’s Room falls down somewhat, why it cannot be called a consistently great novel, I ought to point out, because it is a criticism levelled at the book, that there is a great deal of bombast and melodrama in it. Yet I don’t, myself, find that too much of an issue; I am, largely, ok with melodrama. I mean, sure, there are times when I have been reading Balzac and I’ve got very tired of characters bursting into tears and wringing their hands every two pages, but it has never bothered me to the extent that it appears to do with some readers. Yes, Giovanni’s Room is ridiculous, is overwrought, but novels, in my opinion, are meant to, at least some of the time, deal with higher [or extreme] emotions, with the stuff that makes us cringe. Besides, people, from my experience anyway, are melodramatic, especially when things go wrong or they find themselves in a tight or tough situation.

My biggest criticism of the book, its most fatal flaw, is that I found Giovanni insufferable. I’m not entirely sure why that is, why he aggravated me so much. I guess I couldn’t understand David’s attachment to him. He is described as beautiful, certainly, and we’re all suckers for a beautiful face, but we’re meant to believe that the bond between the two men runs deeper than lust; and yet Giovanni comes across as pretentious and pettish and infantile. I dreaded him opening his mouth, although thankfully he doesn’t do so very often. Furthermore, I didn’t understand his character, I could not get a handle on his reactions, his motivations. This is in contrast to David, regardless of how unsympathetic many find him, and Jacques, both of whom are psychologically sound. Giovanni, despite being so central to the story, feels entirely one-dimensional. Indeed, while David claims to find queenish, theatrical gay people distasteful, it’s odd that he falls for the one character in the book who is closest to that description.

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