Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”He grasped me by the collar, wrestling and caressing at once, fluid and iron at once: saliva spraying from his lips and his eyes full of tears, but with the bones of his face showing and the muscles leaping in his arms and neck. ‘You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying moralities. And you--you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is this what you should do to love?’”
James Baldwin in Harlem.
David is an American living in Paris attempting to find himself. His girlfriend Hella is in Spain taking some time to think about whether she wants to commit the rest of her life to David. Meanwhile David is out of funds and his father is willing to let him starve a bit in the hopes that he will come home. He is, after all, getting a bit old, pushing thirty, to still be looking for himself. There is this legitimate fear that he will never find himself, and if that is the case he might as well come home and rejoin the real world of marriages, careers, and cocktails.
He meets Giovanni, not because he is looking for someone, but because he is paying the price of borrowing money from Jacques, an old lecherous American business man who will lend you money, but it will cost you time entertaining him with your presence and your conversation. Hopefully you are not so desperate that it will cost you even more. Jacques finds Giovanni attractive and hopes that David can convince the young man to have a drink with them.
The best laid plans of salacious old men rarely bear fruit. They have to be patient and wait for the specter of starvation to land them a pliable playmate. This is one of those times when it all backfires on Jacques, but he will continue to spin a web and wait for a bobble in finances. After all, Paris is an expensive city and with so many young men on the verge of destitution he only has to wait for a tug on one of his many sugared threads.
David goes home with Giovanni.
”I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.”
Giovanni’s Room comes to define David’s whole Parisian experience.
”The table was loaded with yellowing newspapers and empty bottles and it held a single brown and wrinkled potato in which even the sprouting eyes were rotten. Red wine had been spilled on the floor, it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy. But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening, it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder one realized that it was not be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.”
James Baldwin in Paris.
David is astute enough to recognize that this is not just a fling for Giovanni, but a true attempt to not only find love, but to also escape the past, the present, and an increasingly gloomy looking future.
”I understood why Giovanni had wanted me and had brought me to his last retreat. I was to destroy this room and give to Giovanni a new and better life. This life could only be my own, which, in order to transform Giovanni’s, must first become part of Giovanni’s room.”
David, operating with a safety net, can afford to have an “unnatural” fling, after all he is in France not America, but for Giovanni this is a heart and soul relationship. As David dances around his own desires and the realization that he must eventually straighten up and become a devoted member of heterosexual America it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to do about Giovanni.
”The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore, And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?”
Hella, like a lifeboat on the horizon, writes to say she has made her choice. She is coming back to Paris to be with David.
Elation and dread suddenly tinge the unraveling of all of his loosely conceived relationships.
Under the guise of some bizarre logic David decides he must be with a woman, as if to create a demarcation line between Giovanni and Hella. It doesn’t really matter what woman, just a woman. The lucky winner is Sue, but David doesn’t get away without a dagger of remorse pricking his darkening soul.
”’Maybe you’ll be lonely again,’ she said, finally. ‘I guess I won’t mind if you come looking for me.’ She wore the strangest smile I had ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety--as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.”
I’ll leave the rest to you fair reader. There are more twists and turns and the fates of many rest on the resolve of one man and whether he can be honest about his own nature.
The Elegant Mr. James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s publisher gave him some advice in regards to this manuscript. He felt he must “burn the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his readership among black people.” Fortunately, he was wrong. Critics, thank goodness, were kind to the book because of Baldwin’s reputation and status as a writer. Sure this book makes the list of best gay/lesbian books ever written, but it also makes the list of many BEST BOOKS ever written.
I’m going to come out of the closet and say I’m a heterosexual male, although why... I’m not sure... except that I’m just wired that way. The same way that the various sexually self-designated people are wired to be attracted to a multitude of diversely sexually oriented people. To say this is a gay novel certainly is not an attempt to denigrate the book, but it does seem to limit the scope of the vision. There is viciousness, lust, loneliness, deception, sorrow, tenderness, despair, and ultimately tragedy that makes this book easily one of the top 100 best books I’ve ever read. Every reader will find something of themselves in this book, maybe not the part of themselves that they want to hold up to the mirror, but certainly a fragment, disdainful in nature or worthy of pity, that can not be denied.
This really should be my second or third reading of this novel, but somehow it has been on my radar and fallen off my radar numerous times over the years. A helpful nudge from John Irving in his book In One Person convinced me that I needed to quit dawdling and read this book. The Paris of the 1950s doesn’t exist anymore, but luckily for you and I it is still vibrantly alive in the pages of this book.
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