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Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)

Written by Polina Kim (We Read to Share)

Title of piece: Giovanni’s Room

Author: James Baldwin

A review of an LGBT classic, one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. James Baldwin was a writer of many things: essays, novels, plays, he was also the voice of the American Civil Rights movement. After moving to a New York City neighborhood populated with writers and artists, he began to start writing a novel, although he was great at reading and writing from an early age. He took different jobs to cover expenses, and in 1945 he got a fellowship, that really helped. His first novel was published in 1953-Go tell it on the mountain. It was semi biographical and talked about his issues with his father, and religious struggles. Giovanni’s room was published in 1956. James Baldwin then continued to establish himself as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century with more novels. However by the early 1970s, he had witnessed a lot of violence caused by racial hatred, for example the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. Many critics say that was the start to the change in his thoughts, and how it affected his work is visible in No Name in the Street. Baldwin died on December 1st 1987. historical context So obviously Baldwin had a lot of difficulties publishing this book. For a start it was homosexual. Baldwin claimed that his agent Strauss had told him to burn the manuscript. She denied this. Another editor Carlisle wrote back a letter saying that although the writing was good, it didn’t have a lot of credible characters and wouldn’t serve Baldwin’s reputation. He was expected to write books about Black people’s experiences. This was a novel about two white men. Another thing to consider is the general perception of homosexuality at the time. Some quick facts about America in the 1950s.

-In 1950 Harry Hay and several other men founded the Mattachine society, that was involved in two landmark gay cases, prominently police harassment. -Second, the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental illness. -In 1953 Eisenhower issues an order that said gay men and lesbian people could not work in governmental agencies. Basically because of the climate at the time, people were mainly closeted, so they thought gay people could be blackmailed to give away national secrets to the communists. -In 1960s every state had a law against sodomy. Sodomy laws are laws defined as “ unnatural or immoral” sexual acts being treated as crimes. Anti sodomy laws are defined as serving or intended to prevent or punish sodomy according to Merriam Webster. So what about French homosexuality in the 1950s? This is something Richard Dyer says: ‘The post-war period was markedly homophobic. The anti-gay legislation introduced under Vichy in 1942 was maintained, and the Paris police began cracking down on homosexuality from 1949 on; anti-gay laws were to be strengthened under Charles de Gaulle.’ So yeah, can it be said that Paris was a safe place for gay people? No. But the arts scene was relatively inclusive. In Giovanni’s room, there’s a gay bar, and everyone pretty much knows that this is a gay bar, but there’s just so much internalized homophobia that everyone just disapproves. Let’s talk about that when we get onto the analysis part. The characters don’t hold hands when they walk on the streets, so even though people know that they are maybe dating, they don’t speak out about it. Summary The novel starts off with David reminiscing about the events of his life, and it is revealed to us that the love of his life Giovanni is dead and it is David’s fault. Slowly we go back and explore what happened and perhaps why it happened in David’s opinion. This section because it’s a summary has spoilers obviously, so in case you haven’t read the book and want to without these spoilers, you have been warned. I’m going to keep this as short as possible. David is American, his first sexual encounter was with his friend Joey, they both found themselves pulled towards each other, but after David was very ashamed and basically avoided his friend for the entire summer, because he felt terrible that he slept with a man. His mother died when he was five and he was raised by his aunt and dad, and had a difficult relationship with both. He leaves America for France, and finds himself destitute, so turns to Jacques to ask for money. Jacques is relatively old, gay, rich, and lonely. He lends people money so that they hang out with him. Together with David they go to a gay bar owned by Guillaume, Jacque’s friend. The bartender serving them is extremely attractive, he’s an Italian man named Giovanni, and Jacques asks David to introduce him, and though David initially agrees he finds a connection with Giovanni himself. Jacques and Guillaume are jealous, so they keep making jokes about them being gay, which is kind of weird since all of them are gay, but the jokes make both David and Giovanni extremely uncomfortable. David ends up living with Giovanni in his room, which is a super important setting, more about that later. We also discover that David has a fiancée called Hella but she’s currently in Spain, even though her eventual return looms over the two men. Giovanni and David share some tender moments, but David is always detached and ashamed, he doesn’t give himself fully, it’s almost like they’re both in relationships with bodies rather than people. Guillaume becomes jealous of their relationship and accuses Giovanni of being a thief and fires him. While Giovanni is at his lowest, because he no longer has a source of income, and David is pretty much just reliant on his father, David gets a letter that Hella is back, call that imperfect timing, although is there ever a perfect timing for a man’s female fiancée to come back home while he’s exploring his homosexuality? David leaves without warning and then he and Hella really hit it off, they go around cinemas, walk around, it’s really nice, until they run into Giovanni. Who has been telling people to search rivers for David’s body. He thought he was dead. They get into an argument, David stomps on Giovanni’s feelings and basically just leaves, even though Giovanni was sweet and loving. David comes back to get his stuff, they have another sad and intense scene, where if Giovanni had asked David to stay he likely would have, and then that’s it. It’s over for them. Time passes, and then we discover from the newspapers that Giovanni killed Guillaume, and David speculates. He thinks that Giovanni went to beg him for his job back and was willing to sleep with him, but then he couldn’t bear the old man, and so he strangled him with the robe. Later Giovanni is caught and sent to the guillotine where he’s executed and David is left to grieve and reflect on what went wrong. 170 pages of pure intensity about this tragic love story condensed.

Analysis So for this section, I decided to just point out individual things that I thought to be important parts. Characters, setting, internalized feelings, representation, all of that. Let’s start with Hella, the unknowing fiancée. She’s alone travelling around Spain, but after months of travel she comes to the realization that society only recognizes women in relation to men, this sexism makes her uncomfortable but she decides to marry David, thinking that this is the only way for her to be okay in the world, with the social pressures and lack of opportunities.

“What do you want, Hella? What have you got now that makes such a difference?' She laughed. It isn't what I've got. It isn't even what I want. It's that you've got me. So now I can be—your obedient and most loving servant.'

Hella is extremely candid with her words, and you can feel her sadness through these words, it’s as if she is trying to convince herself too that she’ll be happy. Onto the second important character- Giovanni, he was happily married but his first child was stillborn, so he spit on the cross and left his perfect life in a small Italian village for Paris. He believes his poverty and struggles are Jesus’ punishment.

“I was vividly aware that he held a brick in his hand, I held a brick in mine. It really seemed for an instant that if I did not go to him, we would use these bricks to beat each other to death. Yet, I could not move at once. We stared at each other across a narrow space that was full of danger, that almost seemed to roar, like flame. 'Come,' he said. I dropped my brick and went to him. In a moment I heard his fall. And at moments like this I felt that we were merely enduring and committing the longer and lesser and more perpetual murder.”

The relationship is a complex and nuanced one, but of course, could there be another? David resents Giovanni leaving him, while he roams around, and because of his feelings about motherhood, he feels like he’s the “woman” in the relationship and he really hates that. He begins to hate the room, it’s not that big, they’re in constant close quarters so emotionally things get difficult. Giovanni opens up to David, while David pretends it’s his first encounter with a man, which it is not. Giovanni definitely senses that David conceals some aspects of his life from him. There’s also differences in nationalities, “When Giovanni wanted me to know that he was displeased with me, he said I was a 'vrai américain'; conversely, when delighted, he said that I was not an American at all; and on both occasions he was striking, deep in me, a nerve which did not throb in him. And I resented this : resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing.” Throughout the book, there are a lot of generalizations made, I think it’s because of David’s character. He’s, I think, most people would agree a terrible person, he thinks only about himself and his self preservation. I can understand the latter because of the pressures, but the way he treats people around him is abhorrent, and he seems to view everything as good and bad. His feelings? Good. But his desires? Bad.

“You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will. You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands In front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs ! “

Giovanni says this, and I believe this to be accurate too. I think David, because he sees in black and white, he wants to see himself as pure, because he loves the feeling, but because he thinks it's unnatural and spends a lot of energy repressing it, since he thinks it's impure, that’s also part of the reason why he doesn’t commit to the relationship.

“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 little 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?”

Their argument, I think, was potentially the climax of the book, because Giovanni opens up and reveals what he truly thinks about David’s bad sides, even though he loves him. Before, I think Giovanni treated him as someone truly perfect for him, but now that the spell is wearing off he can even see the reasons for the flaws in David. He’s not as good as he thought. Or maybe he realized that and just chose denial. There’s a feeling of living on borrowed time throughout the book, especially since we as the readers know about the impending doom. One final line that really broke my heart was:

'Now that you are leaving—you want the windows closed. Bien sûr.”

Again this was Giovanni to David, when they are parting. When the windows were open there was air and a sense of partial freedom, now the windows are closed and there’s no going back. Before the windows were open because David was non committed and he could still go back to the room, but now he was leaving with Hella.

David has, without embellishing it and being ‘professional’ about it - mummy issues. His mum died when he was five, and I think that definitely played a role. He’s so scared to be the “wife”. Yet when they talk about this with Hella he doesn’t think about his own feelings, and he doesn’t understand why it’s so hard for women. Maybe that’s part of the reason he doesn’t question his relationship with Hella sooner. For someone so self absorbed in their troubles, he really doesn’t think about himself. He doesn’t want to be a woman, but doesn’t understand why. And he’s homophobic, he hates this part of himself, even while sleeping with men. In the room he feels safe enough, but he grows to hate the room too. I think that’s an allegory to his feelings about himself and how he finds solace in his relationships and they’re a part of him, but he judges these feelings, making life hellish. He judges everything, and he’s not a very pleasant narrator. Future Reading Recommendations:

Other James Baldwin novels, Orange is not the only fruit, Gabriel Ernest, Room with a view

My thoughts

The shortness and intensity of Giovanni’s room will stay with you for a long time. The writing is beautiful, and I definitely want to consume more of Baldwin’s works in the future. I loved how it covered a broad range of subjects so well, and I liked the tragedy. I hated it of course on an emotional level, but I thought it was a nice change, the darkness, we have a tendency to constantly romanticise in YA, and it’s all happy supportive families, and lots of love towards those coming out, but it’s not the case all the time, and I think it’s good to have a wide range of emotional representation in literature. Plus if someone is coming out and then it doesn’t go according to the books, that’s an even tougher blow. Tragedies happen, and it’s life. The only reason I lowered the rating of the book, is because I felt like there could have been more tender moments, and the ending and David’s final feelings worked out a bit better, but I understand this aspect too, sometimes egoists like David don’t change their characters, and that’s real too. Characters aren’t obligated to emerge as a different person by the end of the book.

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