A summer or two ago I bought a Penguin collection of books on love, and after culling from my TBR any books I just wasn’t going to get round to reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin was the only one that remained.
At 150 pages and while I find myself once again in a slump, it seemed like the perfect book to pick up. So, on when the classic playlist (which I accidentally over Bach-ed) and spent a delightful Sunday afternoon relaxing.
“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. ” GoodReads.
David, the protagonist, narrates the novel recounting his relationship with Giovanni, a man he meets while his mistress is travelling through Spain deciding if she wants to marry him. While David never confirms it, it is clear he is battling with accepting his own sexuality, fleeing from his affair with Giovanni as soon as Hella – his mistress – returns from Spain. “Doing things in France which you would not dare do at home, […].” p.95
This sets off a chain of events that leads to Giovanni’s death. Giovanni who gave all that he had to David, and who David doesn’t realised he loved until Giovanni dies.
“You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you can never go back.” Giovanni, p. 104
Giovanni says this to David, explaining that America will never be the home he remembers, yet as the novel goes on it is clear that Giovanni is the home David can never return to. As soon as David abandons Giovanni and love, he will never be able to claim that love back. On leaving Giovanni he is denying himself, and caving to the pressure society places on him to be a straight man.
Because of that pressure David’s actions are always understandable, society tells him his truth is wrong, so he fluctuates, runs away, and can you really blame him? He wasn’t kind to Giovanni, and society isn’t kind to either of them.
This is an interesting discussion for today, but considering this was written and published in the 50s I find it even more impressive. I loved this novel for its discussion of social alienation, and while it didn’t consume me I found its painful poetry beautiful.
Have you read Giovanni’s Room?