Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin

Ladymol's Review

I'm in a dilemma. This is a classic of gay fiction by a widely acclaimed author. I was hugely disappointed, but now I'm afraid that I'm missing something!

At times, this book reminded me of Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall: it told you lots of really well written things about people and events you had no interest in, but almost nothing about those you were!

David is an American in the 1950s. He's a waster, basically, and I suspect that this is where some of my dislike for this book lies: he sponges off his father, borrows from friends, has no intention of working, but seems to think he's important enough to destroy the lives around him.

Once, in his youth, David has a one-night stand with another boy, Joel. When he wakes from this encounter, David's self-loathing is so extreme that he mercilessly bullies Joel at school, until the younger boy is forced to move.

This behaviour pattern continues into adulthood: David desperately repressing his gay leanings in order to have the prescribed life of wife and children.

However, when his fiancťe is away on a trip to Spain, some dissolute friends (off whom he also borrows money) invite him to a gay bar. He goes and meets Giovanni, the beautiful, enigmatic barman.

From that night on, he and Giovanni are inseparable (living in Giovanni's room, which becomes a metaphor for their relationship).

The novel is told entirely in the first person by David, a writing style that only works well when the narrator is empathic - ie, we get not only his version of events but at least a hint of how other people are feeling. We don't really get this with David. We never really find out anything about Giovanni: why he loves David; what he wants from David, why the events unfold as they do. The descriptions of the relationship are utterly frustrating. Worse than the familiar "we went to bed and made love", which we've seen in so many books, this is even less descriptive that that! As the whole premise of the novel is this man, David, deciding between heterosexual and homosexual love, you would think a little more might be forthcoming. We never really know what they do; for all I know it could be chaste holding each other on the bed.

The whole novel is about a man holding back, repressing himself, and as a novel about repressed desires, it is certainly powerful. But I think a novel needs more than to just be powerful. I think it needs to be satisfying. I think that this novel is very much of the "gay relationships by their nature must be doomed" school. Perhaps when it was written, authors could only get published if they did have this agenda.

I wouldn't put anyone off reading this novel. It's certainly not bad, and is well written and does have some affecting moments (all moments with Giovanni are very affecting; he's an interesting creation). It does fill in some gaps in the history of gay literature.

It just left me frustrated and angry and feeling that I needed to "fanfic" the plot - ie, take the characters and bend them to my will, to make this a satisfying gay novel. I don't even need happy-ever-after endings! But I do need resolution. This novel didn't give it at all.


Cerisaye's Review

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

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