Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.

The World’s Wife: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

I got this title out of Pandora’s Jar (review still forthcoming!), and it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped. These are the women’s stories, from myths and classics and fairy tales, reconfigured. Many of these women are new to their tales, like Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Sisyphus, Queen Kong, Frau Freud, and Pope Joan. Others already had their own myths before Duffy arrived to rewrite them: Penelope, Demeter, Circe, Salome. The book begins, for example, with “Little Red-Cap,” whose relationship to the Big Bad Wolf takes a different angle. A few of my very favorites are “Mrs. Midas” and “Mrs. Darwin,” although I’m also captivated by Duffy’s Eurydice, who was so relieved at the quiet of the Underworld and so sorry to see that damned Orpheus again. Clever, clever, cynical Eurydice.

I am pretty confident in calling these persona poems: each takes the first-person perspective of a female hero we’ve not heard enough of until now. Each has its charms and its surprises; I have been slow in writing this review over more than a week–unusual, and a bad hole to fall into usually, but they haven’t left the top of my mind in that time. I think Duffy was the perfect author to do this job, the new highlighting of both familiar traits and of delightful surprises. (Guess what body part Frau Freud assigns no fewer than 31 nicknames to in fifteen lines.) These poems are often funny, often fraught and moving, and always lovely. See these images: “a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” And these judgments: “The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife / which made me worse.” What else has Duffy written? I would read more poetry if it all worked like this: easy to access but inviting lots of processing time, deep and rich and wide.


Rating: 8 teeth of the rich.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

What is Odysseus, in the end – the hero whose final act of vengeful violence is compared, by means of another memorable simile, to a bard stringing his lyre – but the poet of his own life?

This is the first book I read in 2022, and I feel sure it will make the year’s best-of list, so that’s an excellent start. Another happy synchronicity: I bought this book based off a review I read, but find that Mendelsohn is also the author of a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, from a grad school reading list I never got to: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. After this read, that one just moved up the list.

An Odyssey is a memoir focusing on a father/son relationship and a journey, both a literal one and the figurative path to greater understanding facilitated by a yet more famous Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay is eighty-one years old the spring he asks his son Dan if he can sit in on his undergraduate seminar course on Homer’s Odyssey. Dan says yes, and together with a small group of college freshmen, father and son explore a work of classic literature and, as Dan sees it, their own relationship. Just after the course ends, they go together on a Mediterranean cruise that follows Odysseus’s presumed route home from the Trojan War. A year later, Jay would be dead.

I bought this book because I read a lovely review of it (which I now cannot find. I thought it was Shelf Awareness but apparently not), but then it sat on my shelf for some time, I think because the concept sounded a little precious, a little pat. And it could have been, in the wrong hands, but Daniel Mendelsohn was the right writer for this story, and I’m so glad. For one, he has a deep expertise in Homer and indeed in the classics – as I briefly (in high school) aspired to do, he learned Greek and Latin sufficient to read Homer, Ovid and Virgil (etc.) in their original forms, just for a start. He is the kind of thoughtful, introspective student of relationships and families that I most appreciate as a writer. He has the nuance to handle such a premise – father and son study the Odyssey and take a trip together – with the subtlety it needs. Talk about a book matched to its reader: Homer, parent/child relationships, contemplative memoir… and a focus on teaching. The result is a beautiful book that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Here are a few lines that made me pause.

I was going to read Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the elaborately unspooling Histories of Herodotus, the tragedies constructed as beautifully as clocks, as implacably as traps…

How lovely – and makes me think of Amy Leach’s “Pea Madness.”

And so ring composition, which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future – since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.

A single moment containing a character’s entire biography feels like why I read and write.

About competing literary interpretations,

Whatever else it may mean, the fact that both of these hostile camps could make use of the same examples to prove diametrically opposed interpretations suggests a truth about how all of us read and interpret literary texts – one that is, possibly, rooted in the mysteries of human nature itself. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness.

Following a half-page discussion of the etymology of a certain word that I care about,

In time, this wistful word nostos, rooted so deeply in the Odyssey‘s themes, was eventually combined with another word in Greek’s vast vocabulary of pain, algos, to give us an elegantly simply way to talk about the bittersweet feeling we sometimes have for a special kind of troubling longing. Literally this word means ‘the pain associated with longing for home,’ but as we know, ‘home,’ particularly as we get older, can be a time as well as a place. The word is ‘nostalgia.’

This takes me immediately to a Jason Isbell song (forgive the whiplash), “Something to Love,” and the line “don’t quite recognize the world that you call home.” Naturally, this is a song about art and creativity, and it is sung in the voice of a parent speaking to his child. The idea that two people a generation apart – parent and child – necessarily come from different worlds, because of the way the world changes over time, has been a powerful one for me in the last decade or so.

Here’s another passage that gets to the heart of some of (again) my own thinking about parents.

If only they knew the real him, I thought. Glancing around at the others as they listened to Daddy, at the charmed smiles on Brendan’s and Ksenia’s faces, and then back at his face, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, a face so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family, I wondered suddenly whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he showed only this kindly face, and who, therefore, would be as astonished by the expression of contempt that we knew so well as we were by the rare glimpses of the other, softer side. How many sides did my father actually have, I asked myself, and which was the ‘real’ one? Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom only a month or two earlier, I ruefully thought, my Odyssey students had come to know, this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea, was the person my father had always been meant to be. Or, perhaps, had always been, although only with those others, the bellhops and stewardesses. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.

On teaching:

It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way – because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death – good teaching is like good parenting.

This feels like a revelation but also something I recognize because I already understood it. It gets at why passion and excitement make for good teaching. And there’s a profundity to the idea that teaching is about what lives on beyond us. Although shortly after, he’ll make the point that teachers never know who they will reach with which lesson, because these things take years to reveal themselves; just as our own teachers rarely know who they have reached. I think again of Mrs. Smith, who introduced me in high school to Homer and Hemingway.

These moments go on and on. I love a book that offers both lovely lines and thought-provoking ideas.

The only critique I’d make of this exquisite work is some minimizing or simplification of women, especially by contrast to another recent read, Natalie Haynes’s excellent Pandora’s Jar, which was one of the best books I read in 2021, and helped inspire this read. (I regret that my weird reading-and-review schedule has reversed the order in which they appear here.) Haynes set out to address the roles and reputations of women in the Greek myths, and Mendelsohn concerns himself with fathers and sons, so, fair enough. But there were a few moments where I felt Mendelsohn missed a chance to see certain issues of gender, such that it felt like an oversight to me. It’s up for debate, of course, what agency Odysseus gets for his affairs with Calypso and Circe and his flirtations with Nausicaa and others (as opposed to the-gods-made-him-do-it), but to credit his “allegiance to his wife… withstand[ing] the seductive attentions of various goddesses and nymphs” seems a bit rich. I missed a more nuanced treatment of gender relations, both in Homer and in Mendelsohn’s own life. But perhaps this is unfair, considering his stated focus on male relationships.

I’ll be thinking about An Odyssey for a while.


Rating: 9 doors.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s that time again: due to life in general and reading-related issues, I’m taking us back to two posts a week for the foreseeable. They will appear on Mondays and Fridays. Sorry & thanks for your continued interest!


Not sure what prompted me to take in this classic – it might have been The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

randomly chosen atmospheric cover (I read a free ebook from Project Gutenberg)

I didn’t have a terribly successful read, but now I know. I’m going to say that this one didn’t age as well as some writers of James’s era. Two central concerns are sentences and what we fear. First, James’s habit of complex syntax and copious strung-together clauses drove me nuts. I found it quite distracting and frequently had to reread to follow the logic of comma-packed sentences. Check out this completely typical (not extreme) example:

At the hour I now speak of she had joined me, under pressure, on the terrace, where, with the lapse of the season, the afternoon sun was now agreeable; and we sat there together while, before us, at a distance, but within call if we wished, the children strolled to and fro in one of their most manageable moods.

There’s a style there that just doesn’t work for me, and I’ll wager works for few modern readers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, even after I’d puzzled through the sentences: The Turn of the Screw is a horror story, but it no longer horrifies. Reading this book was like waiting for the jump scare that never comes. [Spoilers follow, although I’ll not share the ending.] A governess takes charge of two charming children at an impressive country estate: the little girl who is supposed to be her pupil, and the slightly older boy sort of by accident, when he is expelled from boarding school. Our protagonist can’t understand why, because he (like his sister) is perfect, angelic, cherubic, just the sweetest and smartest etc., etc. But then she has a few sinister sightings of two individuals, man and woman, who turn out to be the ghosts, respectively, of a former servant and the last governess. These two committed the incredible sin of having a romantic and sexual relationship even though they were not only unmarried but (gasp) of different social backgrounds. The idea of who is a “gentleman” (and how we can tell by looking at him) is of great importance. Perhaps you can imagine that this just doesn’t impress me; I couldn’t muster any outrage.

The ghosts have some sort of influence over our dear angelic children, who thereby become sinister by association, although they don’t actually do anything bad beyond wandering around unsupervised. This is no Orphan. In general, ho hum.

(There is also an interesting bit of story-within-the-story here: we open with a bunch of Victorians at a country home for a long weekend, where the governess’s story itself is introduced and then read aloud. I’m always intrigued by this narrative device. We never return to the country weekend, so it doesn’t perhaps do the work it might have done for this book.)

My friend Vince teaches a class on horror films and literature, and he could speak to all of this more effectively than I can, but I recall him saying something about how different eras in horror reflect what we feared at a societal level at each point in time. Here, James is clearly concerned with the innocence of children (and the terrifying lack thereof), and class distinctions. That’s my fairly surface-level read, and frankly, it’s as deep as I feel motivated to go. My friend Liz points out that Stephen King has “ruined” (depending on your position) all the horror that came before, by figuring how how to really terrify us. She’s probably right, too. She cites Frankenstein: the modern reader approaches that classic novel looking for a fright that just never surfaces. I’d say that’s a finer novel than this one, though.

Somewhat in James’s defense, I did finish this novella, after faltering in the middle, because I wanted to see what happened. That’s good for something. The ending held a note of some profundity. Still can’t recommend it, except as an act of completionism, if you want to get a good historical grasp of this genre. Next challenge: what horror story of a similar era is still scary?


Rating: 6 commas, which (on theme) might be one too many, but credit for James’s long influence.

movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, adapted and illus. by Kristina Gehrmann

A little preface to say that I first read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a young person – before high school, certainly – off my parents’ shelf, and it made a serious impression; I’ve read it several times over the years, and I still marvel at it. I know it has a reputation in some quarters for being dry and polemical, and that perspective is valid, but I find it a gripping and affecting novel. I treasure my parents’ copy (and here as well is the painting I did from it, in case it’s not clear that I’m a fan).

So, you understand that I was excited to see a new graphic adaptation offered and positively reviewed at the Shelf.

I think The Jungle was probably an excellent candidate for this treatment. It is a dense and extremely grim story, well-served by the visual form. Kristina Gehrmann’s illustrations are chiefly done in black and white, with occasional red ink for emphasis: the meat-packing industry offers lots of possibilities for red ink, but it is used sparingly and in perhaps unexpected ways here. The narrative is pared down and reduced mostly to dialog. The most surprising changes for me shouldn’t have been, because my colleague at the Shelf did warn me, but I’d forgotten: the story is somewhat gentled, with (as the reviewer says) a lowered body count, but please note that The Jungle gentled is still a hard, hard ride. More shockingly, the story ends much earlier, at about the novel’s halfway point. This was harder for me to swallow. The novel’s second half gets more didactic, it’s true, but I remain riveted, and I think it’s terribly important stuff. A lowered body count still allows for plenty of horrors in this version, but there are one or two (avoiding spoilers here) whose lack really felt like they changed things for me. It feels like this is not the book I love and admire, but volume one of its adaptation. I am unsettled by this amendment.

That said, I think it is a very fine volume one, and far more approachable than the original. I guess if this is what it takes to enter into this jungle’s horrors, then it’s a service. I just really hope readers continue from here – and I would love to see Gehrmann’s volume two.

When we love a book, its adaptations (usually to film, but the principle applies) will inevitably disappoint us, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. And I did appreciate this graphic novel: it is affecting and stark and true to the original in feeling and much of its content. But The Jungle it is not. This just makes me want to reread Sinclair!


Rating: with some effort I award this book 7 boot soles.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (audio)

A classic whodunit from Agatha Christie, starring Hercule Poirot, but told through the first-person narration of a character that (as far as I know) appears for the first time in the Poirot-universe. This means we get to see him from afar at first, and recognize him before the narrator understands who we’re dealing with. It’s pure fun. I love the humor and the characters – all of whom, admittedly, are a bit cartoonish, but in entertaining ways. Perhaps the best part of this audio production is the reading by Hugh Fraser, who plays Hasting in the long-running television series I was raised on. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel is a Hastings-like character, a stand-in if you will, during the period that Hastings is off living in the Argentine. To have the Hastings actor playing the Hastings-like character, bouncing off Poirot in the loveable way that they do, was just a harmonic moment for me.

Also in classic fashion, the mystery here is clever, ever-twisting and chock-full of red herrings, and the murder takes place in a literal locked room. Everyone is hiding something and harboring overlapping and hidden loyalties. The plot is far from central, however, at least to my enjoyment. (As an aside, I might be a special kind of mystery reader. I can reread the same mystery with no memory of the solution; the plot-level puzzle is rarely my focus; I’m there for characters and relationships. But I might be weird in this regard.) It’s all in the people – here, the caricatures – and the humor. Christie is comfort food, and this is quintessential Christie.


Rating: 7 dropped items.

movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

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.

Original Short Stories, volume 1 by Guy de Maupassant

I’ve reviewed a few stories from this volume in the past, but only after years have I finished reading the whole thing. It’s odd to know Maupassant as a literary figure but to have read so little of him. (I taught his story “The Necklace” this past year, but otherwise, these collected stories are the bulk of what I know of his work.) As a general impression, I appreciate his knack for description, and I see what Hemingway admired* and learned from**. The simple, strong statements, including judgments couched as description, felt familiar. I frequently found the stories to be vicious, though, and often rather gratuitously so. Sometimes this brutality felt like justice (“Mademoiselle Fifi”), but often it felt a little senseless. I frequently missed the final ironic turn for which “The Necklace” is so known.

The first four stories I’ve reviewed here pleased me more than the final eight; or maybe it’s that they began to run together. They certainly share subject matter as well as style. Maybe it’s not the moment for Maupassant in my life, or maybe I’ll keep my eyes open for a different collection.


*Hem’s recommendation is actually to read “all the good de Maupassant.” Whatever that means.

**He also thinks he surpassed Maupassant in the end, so there you are.


Rating: 6 expensive oil paintings.
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