Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin
This novel is a gay fic classic, published in 1956.† An all-American boy in Paris, David known (ah, the irony) as Butch, during the 1950s tells his story. Davidís in flight from the person heís most afraid of, the man inside him he fears isnít a man at all, because of his illicit desires.† Davidís father, his role model, is a womanising alcoholic who didnít want a Sunday School teacher for a son.†
I think of France as a place of tolerance for practices forbidden in less enlightened countries like uptight Britain and America.† It is after all where we hoped Maurice and Alec went to escape Edwardian England.† Graham and Stephen in Out of Bounds too sought refuge where their relationship went from criminal activity to something unremarkable. †
Baldwinís post-war France is different.† Itís sordid and secretive, where men exploit boys, stealing youth, beauty and dreams.† They despise them, and themselves, self-loathing arising from deep-seated fear.† Love doesnít enter into it, except as an impossible ideal, not between men scared to admit how they feel.† Men who hate themselves cannot love another.† Itís very sad.
David fatefully meets Giovanni, a beautiful Italian barman. Giovanni survives in Paris as best he can, patronised by Guillaume, a rich man of aristocratic background.† Giovanni inhabits a horrible, dirty, tumbledown room on the far outskirts of the city.† Itís a form of self-punishment.† Davidís American girlfriend, Hella, has left him alone and penniless to go find herself in Spain. †He accepts Giovanniís invitation, reluctant yet with every fibre of his inner being screaming Yes, to spend the night in the room.† David stays three months, the duration of Hellaís absence, locked into a difficult relationship with an increasingly needy and volatile male lover, still denying his sexuality.
David takes fright when Giovanni declares he doesnít know what heíd do should David leave him.† But David says he always made it clear heíd go back to Hella upon her return.† He lies to Giovanni, telling him heís never been with a boy before.† Yet there was a school friend, Joey.† One summer night near Coney Island something was awakened in David by touching him that lay dormant, until he met Giovanni and went to stay in his awful room.
Neither man appears to understand whatís going on between them.† I certainly found it difficult to untangle.† The book has beautiful prose laden with intense imagery.† It conveys well a mood of gathering despair, men treading water who might slip below the waves any minute, yet I remained somehow slightly detached from it all simply because I couldnít connect with either character on a deep enough level to feel them as flesh and blood people.† Itís almost too stylised, so I never forgot I was reading a book.
We know right from the beginning the love affair is over.† David tells the story over one long night, from another room in the South of France, a death watch for his beautiful Italian boy who faces the guillotine at dawn for a crime revealed at the climax of the story.† The familiar theme of doomed gay love, two men who cannot be allowed to live happy ever after because they choose to love another man.
Itís a short book, but I didnít find it an easy read.† Baldwin writes almost poetically so you need to think about every line. David lies to himself and Giovanni pays the price.† David understands too late Giovanni was the love of his life.† But he was too cowardly to allow himself freedom of choice.† He uses Hella, who genuinely loves him, so her life is ruined too.† He thinks she can save him, when the reality is only David could save himself, by being honest and losing his fear.† Itís a dreadful, tragic mess.† David remains trapped in Giovanniís room for life.† Recommended but be prepared to work at it.† One thatíll repay coming back to.
Published by: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN: 0140184120
Buy Giovanni's Room (Twentieth Century... from Amazon here