Giovanni’s Room. A black man writing about homosexuality in 1950s America. Its certainty controversial, but does it still hold the same fascination now in 2017? I read this book as part of my literature degree and found it to be one of the most heart-wrenching novels I’ve ever read.
This novel is about love and suppression, cultural identity and the divided self. Its a tragedy; we know this from the very first pages: ‘I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so… Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and his morning, on the guillotine.’ Baldwin’s writing, at a time moving towards post-modernism rejects linear structure. The plot is laid out to us in the very first half of the novel. This represents his rejection of binary oppositions.; the heterosexual and the homosexual; the ‘Them’ and ‘Us’.
Baldwin writes about a young American man, David, who escapes to Paris in what I imagine is a desperate attempt to flee from his suppressed frustrations. He recounts his time growing up; in his motherless house that was full of ‘shadows’ and his father who seems forever burdened by the death of his wife. It is perhaps important to note that David sees the women in his life as depressing figures, rather then figures of love. His Mother only ‘figured’ in his nightmares, her hair full of ‘worms’ and ‘as brittle as a twig’. His aunt who, he lived with, is often ‘dressed to kill’ and is constantly at war with his father. Even his fiancee Hella, he admits is just ‘something to be moored to.’
Its depressing yet curiously captivating.
David recounts his first sexual encounter; a night with his best friend Joey, whom bought him both terror and joy; the terror that comes with the realisation of sexuality and the joy of finding love within another human being. However, ‘that lifetime was short’ and by morning, terror overcomes lust thus pushing Joey to the recesses of David’s mind; ‘as awful as a decomposing corpse.’
After this event and this sudden realisation of identity, David follows his father into drunkenness and into weekly binges in attempt to squash his frustrations. As a result of this, David suffers time in hospital following a car accident and makes the decision to drop out of college and find a new life in Paris.
David’s escape to Paris mirrors Jame’s Baldwin’s own move to Europe in order to escape both racial and sexual prejudice in the United States. This offers a different reading of Giovanni’s Room as having auto-biographical undertones- What might the reactions have been if David’s character was black, and not white?
However, this is not just David’s tale. Giovanni is the young Italian Parisian who is certainty ‘out’ and is looking for something substantial rather than the fragmented relationship he has with his boss. Giovani is a romantic and it seems David awakens something within him; just as much as he awakens David’s suppressed desires. The pair clash intellectually but their passion for each other is undeniable. Giovanni’s physical room because a safe space for David to search his identity; both culturally and sexually and he finds himself torn between the luxuries of identity in Paris and his soon-to-be wife Hella who arrives in Paris near the end of the novel.
It is once Hella has arrives that misery and doubt seems to consume David. He knows he will never be fully satisfied with a woman but the stigma and prejudice surrounding homosexuality is just not something he can allow himself to be a part of.
The ending of this novel is truly tragic but it is such a beautiful read and the combination of the two leaves a clear message in the face of discrimination and homophobia.