When you presented to your publisher the manuscript of your second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), you received the following reply: “Burn it!”. The work portrays a delicate and tense love relationship between two men, in the 50s – as well as conveys the many ways in which hypocrisy and intolerance, when dominant, force the emergence of a subculture in which some relationships take on a predatory nature, marked by mistrust, fear and self-loathing.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, consisting of three chapters, we are introduced to the narrator protagonist, David, a young American who had moved to Paris. At the time the story begins, David finds himself alone in a rented house in a village in southern France. As night falls, the character watches as his reflection disappears gradually on the window: “I seem to be fading away before my eyes,” he will say later in the narrative. This is the worst night of his life, and David reflects on the path that led up to that moment. He tells us he will leave for Paris the next morning, when Giovanni will die.
The account that follows is a true voyage au bout de la nuit, a confrontation with himself, which, in a game of light and shadow, refers to the fading reflection of his face in the window: as David is forced to face his affection and his image reflected on the glass, this image and this affection themselves escape him, trapped in a fragile play of light and doomed to the brutal guillotine blade. Also caught between what is hidden and what is revealed, between what one accepts or denies, the plot is revealed gradually to the reader, and follows the same pace at which David’s reflection on the window glass goes out. “I am trapped in my mirror the it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation (…) I long to crack que mirror and be free (…) The key to my salvation, which can not save my body, is hidden in my flesh ” says the narrator.
In flashback, we are transported to David’s childhood and adolescence, in the United States. The narrator describes briefly the events before his trip to Europe – this trip which is a mixture of escape and search for himself. “If I had had any intimation que the self I was going to find would turn out to only be the same self from Which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed home”. David concludes: “Perhaps home is not the place but simply an irrevocable condition. “
What follows is then a detailed description of the first meeting between David and Giovanni, a young Italian worker, in a Parisian bar. “And here my baby cam indeed, through all that sunlight, his face flushed and his hair flying, his eyes, unbelievably, like morning stars.” In contrast to what the narrator perceives as just a sordid environment of purchase and sale of alcohol and sex, David describes us the delicacy of Giovanni’s raw (and pure) affection (“all of the light of gloomy tunnel que trapped around his head”).
The couple go then to live together in Giovanni’s room, a romance that will last for the space of a spring. With the arrival of David’s bride to Paris, the protagonist is faced with the imminence of a choice repeatedly postponed. If, in the first part of the book, you convey the faint movement of David’s gradual acceptance of his sexuality and his love for Giovanni, in the second part, consisting of five chapters, we see the character fall in a cliff of denial and self-loathing – feelings that are projected in the protagonist’s growing repugnance for Giovanni’s room and for all that this space represents (“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea”; “I underwent a sea change there”).
You masterfully use subtle scene changes (or even simple perceptual changes in this same scenery by a character), in order to evoke the transformation undergone by the protagonist. Giovanni’s Room, which had served as a refuge from the squalor and hypocrisy of the world outside, now takes on an increasingly negative connotation. At the same time, the change of seasons reflects this change in the protagonist’s state of mind: a light spring shared by the couple is replaced by a dark and cold winter. “With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”
The feeling of being trapped in his own body, stuck in his desire and in his affection, is projected in the feeling of suffocation David undergoes in that shared space: David experiences as a kind of sinking the feeling of increasingly being imprisoned in Giovanni’s Room (“fleeing from his body, I confirmed and perpetuated his body’s power over me”). The room is a scene that comprises different and interwoven layers of meaning: refuge and individual freedom, imprisonment and social oppression, innocence and guilt.
There is something wild in your writing, Jimmy, something clean (but fierce), conjuring up Henry James and the Harlem Renaissance. The text’s elegant roughness constructs its object without compromise: “’If dirty words frighten you, (…) I really do not know how you have managed to live so long. People are full of dirty words. The only time they do not use them, most people I mean, is when they are describing something dirty.’”
In your essays, you berate American white men for their hypocrisy, their refusal to admit the “darker side of life”, and their fear of the “terror inside”, “the horror within”. In an essay written in 1949 for the Zero magazine, entitled “Preservation of Innocence,” you criticize boldly how American fiction portrayed homosexual relations. “These novels are not concerned with homosexuality but with the ever present danger of sexual activity between men” (James Baldwin Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, Library of America, 1998). In an interview with E. Auchincloss and N. Lynch in 1963, you also boldly said that, because they “fear” homosexuality, American men “do not know how to go to bed with women either” (“Disturber of the Peace”, Conversations with James Baldwin, University Press of Mississippi, 1989, p. 64-82).
Giovanni’s Room combines strength and intensity in its use of sexuality as a metaphor for the search of identity, a search that comprises self-affirmation and personal rebirth (“a sea change”), as means to take responsibility not only for oneself, but for all the other human beings. Giovanni’s Room is for David – with its quality of underwater space and its disorderly darkness – the refused womb of his aborted rebirth.
The book’s tragic tone never slips to melodrama, and captures the reader’s eye, directing it to the point that you want to explore. It is true that the tragedy of the story fits in the conventional plots involving gay characters in American fiction of the mid-twentieth century (in which the deviation from the dominant morality is treated with empathy, but at the end is punishable by death). Nonetheless, your book is daring, because it resists stereotyped definitions of homosexual love – and does so through the personal struggle of a character who refuses to himself the audacity of such resistance.
“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning.”
– James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
About the book
- Vintage, 2013, 176 p. Goodreads;
- Penguin Great Loves, #17, 2007, 150 p. Goodreads;
- First published 1956;
- My rating: 5 stars.