Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Extra long review today.

I have owned this book for years and years. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. I have many times referenced a quotation on page 92: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” (My copy of the book falls open naturally to page 92 and the line is highlighted. It’s pretty weird to have this relationship with a book I’d never read before.)

The novel’s narrator is a young man named David, an American who has been living in Paris. The book opens: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He takes much of the book, however, to reveal what is so terrible about the morning to come. One of Baldwin’s interesting artistic choices here is a disjointed chronology; the story is told from this night-before-the-terrible-morning, in flashbacks, which sometimes jump backward and forward in time, and then we return to the night and the terrible morning. David had been in Paris with a woman named Hella. When he proposed, she left to go travel in Spain; she needed time and space to think things through. She’s an independent woman. In her absence, David accompanies a sort of frenemy, Jacques, to a gay bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the bartender. (Jacques had intended to hit on him, but got distracted.) This is Giovanni, a young Italian man, with whom David finds interesting conversation, mutual attraction, and a very complicated set of feelings: push/pull, desire/revulsion, love/hate. They go back to Giovanni’s room, and they live together there until Hella’s return some months later, when David leaves (saying nothing to Giovanni) to return to her. She has decided she wants to be married, and David is too bound up and self-loathing to stay with the man he loves. Giovanni is distraught. I will not spoil the plot item that is the “most terrible morning of [David’s] life.”

The story is told in David’s first-person perspective, and it is full of angst and disquiet. I don’t think he’s supposed to be remotely likeable. He’s disappointed in his relationship with his father, in his relations with women (including but not especially Hella), in his feelings for men (before Giovanni, there was a boy in his boyhood as well, though he has repressed this memory), in his view of his own masculinity. He struggles with the ideas of home and belonging, both in terms of geography and identity. He is a miserable partner to Giovanni, and we are left with the impression at the book’s end that David will walk away from these events angsty as ever but materially fine, while Giovanni most certainly does not.

Giovanni’s Room has a handful of themes and angles for interpretation, but there are a few that especially interest me.

For one thing, I think the novel is very much about power structures. Jacques, the friend who takes David to the bar, is older and richer; David doesn’t actually like or respect him but wants to borrow (or “borrow”) money. Giovanni’s (also older) boss at the bar holds an analogous power over his employee: as an immigrant, Giovanni’s work prospects are few, and Guillaume is an egregious sexual harasser. David and Giovanni have a twisted codependency, and the power dynamics within their relationship are complicated. Giovanni works while David keeps house (some basic cleaning duties, but he is clearly anxious about the housewifeliness of it all). David comes from a far more secure background, economically, although he’s effectively broke on the ground in Paris because his father won’t send him any money. By contrast, Giovanni is in real danger of homelessness and starvation if anything goes wrong in his life. David withholds emotional intimacy; Giovanni is always chasing after something he can’t get from his partner. As discussed with my friend Vince, though, I think there’s an argument that each is obsessed with the other, in different ways. Then there is Hella, the strong woman who fled a marriage proposal to travel alone: she returns changed, suddenly dedicated to a life in which she explicitly wishes to be beholden to a man. She’s decided it is women’s only option, only way to truly live. (Vomit: but this is the 1950s.) I think in the end, David’s anxieties about manhood and masculinity, and his distress at his homosexuality (bisexuality?), are in some ways about power structures, too.

On a related subject: the elephant in the room here is that Baldwin’s protagonist is a blonde-haired white man. I felt surprise when I discovered this (as do many readers), which bears examination. Who do we expect to write about whom? Clearly I expected Baldwin, a Black man, to write Black characters. (To be fair, he has done so in all the other works of his I’ve read, but that’s not the root of my assumptions.) Baldwin was also a gay man, and an American who lived in Paris: he gave his protagonist these characteristics of his own, but not race. What does it mean, for one thing. And, this is too big a subject to be properly handled within this review, but it’s also part of the ongoing question about representation in fiction: what identities are represented, by what authors (of what identities), who gets to be the “default,” and on from there. Elsewhere Baldwin has written his frustration that, as a Black man, he’s expected to write about “the Negro problem,” and never allowed out from under that bell jar. Here he just turned his back on the topic entirely (or did he?), and if I felt surprise, or even if I felt a bit cheated, this is a good time to be reminded that he doesn’t owe his readers any content in particular. He is quoted in The New Yorker: “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

There is an argument that racial tension does appear in Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni is Italian in France, and there is no question that this is a) racial and b) a disadvantage for Giovanni. Baldwin does not go Heart of Darkness with darkness imagery, not in terms of skin tone: when we meet Giovanni, he is “insolent and dark and leonine,” but that is the only mention I found. There is however a lot of darkness imagery in the story: mainly related to spaces being dark, which can be related to their boding ill, to privacy, to queerness, to the shame David feels about this and other liaisons. Based on the above quotation from Baldwin, it sounds like he either did not intend commentary on race, or he didn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s entirely possible that any such commentary was subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think there’s an undeniable power imbalance between the blonde David and the Italian Giovanni, which is most explicitly about class, rather than race – but since when have class and race ever been extricable? And let’s keep in mind that Italian immigrants to the United States (where both Baldwin and David grew up) were historically considered very much not white, although that would change shortly after this book was published.

Physical spaces, and a sense of home and the belonging that it entails, make up another theme that fascinates me here. (Recall that line marked in my copy.) As I keep reminding my students: pay attention to titles; they are trying to tell us something. This novel is not titled for the story of David, or of Giovanni, or for love, or death; it is titled for the room. Giovanni’s room is the place where he and David live and love together, a life and love which David feels are dirty, and sinful. It is rather obsessively described and recalled, always in negative terms. Small, claustrophobic, dirty, untidy, in a state of change (“Giovanni had had great plans for remodeling the room and there was a time, when he had actually begun to do this, when we lived with plaster all over everything and bricks piled on the floor”), cluttered, garbage-filled, dark. It is like living underwater. Other spaces where David does sinful things are also dark and dirty, as are corridors, alleys, and the spaces under bridges where men tryst, and the bars where they meet. David leaves Giovanni’s room to go to Hella’s. He never has a space of his own. The book opens and closes in the “great house” in the south of France which he must clean before he leaves it. He is embarrassed for the landlady to see the state he’s kept these rooms in. All of this accrues to anxiety about place and about spaces, and the connection between spaces and the activities they contain. None of which even begins to address the American-expat-in-Paris problem, which is a whole genre of novels unto itself (see also Stein, Hemingway, Henry James). Whew.

[I was reminded of Hemingway often. The American expat in Paris; certain aspects of character, like detachment and resistance to intimacy (others have cited Jake from The Sun Also Rises); a writing style that lends itself both to brevity as well as syntactic complexity; an insecure obsession with masculinity. I wonder if I project my own reading history. But no, Baldwin has named Hem as an influence. It shows.]

In addition to home as irrevocable condition, consider this Schrodinger’s cat between Giovanni and David.

‘…you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’…

‘Beautiful logic,’ I said. ‘You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?’

He laughed. ‘Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’

‘I seem,’ I said, ‘to have heard this song before.’

I’ve heard it before, too: the version I like comes via Maya Angelou in a 1987 interview. “You can never go home again,” is the famously quoted version. The completion of her fuller line is instructive. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Okay, I’m revealing my own obsessions now, but I think it’s safe to say that Baldwin shares them (and David, too).

This review has gotten awfully long, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to interpret and interrogate about this novel, brief at under 200 pages and yet deep and rich. What can I say about Baldwin? Go read him yourself.


Rating: 8 glasses.

3 Responses

  1. I’ve wanted to read Baldwin for years and have yet to do so. Last spring I watched the film about him by Raoul Peck. Brilliant portrayal of Baldwin, almost all conveyed using Baldwin’s own words. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend. Your review will get me to finally take the plunge. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the tip, Carol! I haven’t seen this film but I’ll look for it. One of my favorite short stories is by Baldwin, and is available for free online: it’s called “Sonny’s Blues,” and a Google search should let you read it pretty easily. That might make a good (and shorter) way in. I’m so glad you stopped by; thanks!

  2. […] fairly rare that a book insists that I slow down the way this one did. (I think the last was Giovanni’s Room, which is referenced in this one, of course.) I look forward to reading more like this: vibrant […]

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