Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

 Source of book: I own this.


I originally selected Giovanni’s Room as one of my Black History Month selections. Having read it, though, I’m not sure entirely whether it fits in that category. To be sure, James Baldwin was black, and indeed one of the best authors I have discovered reading Black History. However, Giovanni’s Room is not what I expected, and not really like anything else of Baldwin’s I have read. Go Tell It On The Mountain, his first, largely autobiographical novel, was quite good, if difficult to read because of its depictions of domestic violence. (His family was messed up, to be sure.) Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of essays, is thoughtful and thought provoking. Baldwin was brilliant and his writing gave me new perspectives on a number of things. In both of these books, race is at the center. Blackness is a central theme. Both are intensely personal to Baldwin, of course.



 Giovanni’s Room is also personal to Baldwin, for a somewhat different reason. But what was most unusual about the book (compared to the others) is the fact that all the characters are white. All of them. And the closest the book comes to talking about race per se is the precarious position in society that the titular Italian immigrant has. Instead, the book is about sexuality - sex and love and power and masculinity. 


James Baldwin was gay, a fact that made him a bit of a pariah with certain other elements of the Civil Rights Movement. Joseph McCarthy had lumped LGBTQ people in with Communists - intentionally - at the same time that a pseudo-scientific theories made non-cishet existence into a pathology. Thus, Baldwin’s sexuality was, at best, considered a distraction and a millstone on the movement. 


In his 20s, Baldwin emigrated to France, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Thus, much of his work, while it made an impact in the United States (and has grown in reputation since his death), was actually written as an outsider, an ex-pat (a term only white people get to use without challenge…others are “immigrants.”) Giovanni’s Room is set in the Paris of the post-war period. David, the narrator, is the American son born into some wealth which his father sparingly doles out to him. The book starts with some mysterious references to Giovanni, who is about to be executed for an unstated crime (we later find out it is murder), before David flashes back to tell the rest of the story. 


David is engaged to be married to another glamorous white American, Hella, who has gotten cold feet and gone on an extended tour of Spain without him. (Now, we would say she went to “find herself.”) David is a closeted bisexual - or perhaps just straight-up gay? - and is involved in the gay nightlife scene in Paris. That scene, with its bars and its code words and subculture, is technically legal in Paris, unlike in the United States of the time, but it is still seen as unsavory and unmentionable. To help pay his bills, David is attached to Jacques, a disgusting old “fairy” as David calls him - he preys on beautiful young men, using his money and influence to control them. Going to a gay bar with Jacques, he meets Giovanni, a new bartender, recently arrived from Italy. (As we find out later, Giovanni got his fiancee pregnant, but the child was stillborn, so he is fleeing his past - and perhaps his sexuality.) Giovanni falls hard for David - who is likewise attracted - and the two of them leave Jacques behind to move in together in “Giovanni’s room” - a tiny, filthy servant room in what used to be a grand house. Later, when Hella returns, now ready to marry David, he throws Giovanni over for Hella. However, he is consumed with guilt and longing - and self-loathing because he considers his homosexual affairs to be “unmanly.” Hella suspects something is wrong. When he leaves her early one morning, she tails him and finds him in the arms of a sailor, leading to a heartwrenching breakup. In the meantime, Giovanni loses his job, ends up with Jacques, then is cast aside like the disposable boy toy Jacques considers everyone, and spirals downward. He tries to get his old job back, but that goes badly, ending with Giovanni killing his former employer. (David speculates as to how it went down, but we do not know for sure.) 


The somewhat lurid plot notwithstanding, the book is most powerful in its examination of what happens in David’s head (and to a lesser degree, in Giovanni’s.) All tied up together in this book are social alienation, sexuality, masculinity, and LGBTQ interactions with mainstream society. Both David and Giovanni are outsiders - as immigrants and also as gay/bisexual men. Giovanni seems to have embraced his orientation far more than David, who is not just publicly closeted, but also in his own mind. He cannot reconcile his sexuality with his concept of “masculinity,” which is - as it usually is in our society - tied up with being “not feminine” and “not taking on the role of a woman.” And, it should also be said, with “being a conquering man of a beautiful woman.” In the end, the gay subculture is all Giovanni has, while David endeavours to code switch back to heterosexuality. Which, obviously, doesn’t go well for him either. In the end, David seems incapable of actually loving anyone, even himself. 


Baldwin is such a moving writer in this book. His descriptive power takes you on a journey both through gay Paris and through a tortured and damaged psyche. As good as the other books I have read of his were, I was particularly enthralled by his craft in this book. Giovanni’s Room is his second novel, and he seems to have really found his voice in it. Here are some of the ones I loved the most. Early in the book, David is looking back on what went wrong between him and Hella - even the first time, when she left for Spain. 


And the very last night she was here, the very last time I saw her, as she was packing her bag, I told her that I had love her once and I made myself believe it. But I wonder if I had. I was thinking, no doubt, of our nights in bed, of the peculiar innocence and confidence which will never come again which had made those nights so delightful, so unrelated to past, present, or anything to come, so unrelated, finally, to my life since it was not necessary for me to take any but the most mechanical responsibility for them. And those nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached - it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. 


I was thinking, when I told Hella that I loved her, of those days before anything awful, irrevocable, had happened to me, when an affair was nothing more than an affair. Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of those boyish, zestful affairs - which are, really, when one thinks of it, a kind of higher, or anyway, more pretentious masturbation. 


Flashing back even further, having told of his first same-sex encounters as a teen, David talks about the drunk-driving accident that nearly kills him, and his father’s inability to handle emotions. They both agree he should go to Europe for a while, and see if things can straighten themselves out. 


Once I was out of the house, of course, it became much easier to deal with him and he never had any reason to feel shut out of my life for I was always able, when talking about it, to tell him what he wished to hear. And we got on quite well, really, for the vision I gave my father of my life was exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately needed to believe.

For I am - or I was - one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all - a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named - but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. 


It is this need to avoid facing his sexuality that keeps him from facing reality. Instead, he develops a habit of hurting those who he is attracted to - because they bring up his uncomfortable feeling of being unmanned. His first description of Jacques is more charitable than it becomes later in the book, and he gives a hint as to why he loathes Jacques deep down. 


Jacques is not too bad. Perhaps he is a fool and a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both. In some ways I liked him. He was silly but he was so lonely; anyway, I understand now that the contempt I felt for him involved my self-contempt.


Once he is firmly involved with Giovanni, David expresses his fear that Hella will find out. Giovanni is puzzled, considering David had gotten it on with men while he was with Hella. 


‘It’s just that she’ll be terribly hurt if she does find out, that’s all. People have very dirty words for - for this situation.’ I stopped. His face suggested that my reasoning was flimsy. I added, defensively, ‘Besides, it is a crime - in my country and, after all, I didn’t grow up here, I grew up there.’

‘If dirty words frighten you,’ said Giovanni, ‘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.’


That line was worth a snort. Every bit as perceptive is a passage on American tourists, with their cookie-cutter clothes and seeming disconnection from pleasure or embodiment. And then, there is this line:


Yet I also suspected that what I was seeing was but a part of the truth and perhaps not even the most important part; beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudeness, was power and sorry, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.


That seems to ring true about the hollowness of White American culture, in so many ways. 


In the middle of the story, feeling insecure about his masculinity, David has a one-night stand with Sue, in what has to be one of the most horrid sex scenes in literature. Baldwin’s writing is just phenomenal here - he captures so much of David’s desperate need to prove he isn’t gay, to regain his former equilibrium before Hella returns, and the loathing he feels for himself and poor Sue as he uses her. Sue has her own baggage, knowing David does not love her, and mired in hopeful despair about finding the man who does. Here are some bits. 


I felt a hardness and a constriction in her, a grave distrust, created already by too many men like me, ever to be conquered now. What we were about to do would not be pretty. 


I took off my shoes and lay back on her sofa. I tried not to think. But I was thinking that what I did with Giovanni could not possibly be more immoral than what I was about to do with Sue.


It was a gesture of great despair and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come. 


It gets worse as it goes on. It is sex that should never have happened, sex that hurts both of them, and the kind I hope never to have.  


Later, after Giovanni loses his job - without it, he has no right to stay in France - dang undocumented immigrants, right? - he and David try (and fail) to face the coming breakup. There is a line about home here that was achingly sad. 


He smiled, ‘Why, you will go hime 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.’ 


Once Hella returns, and the cowardly David ghosts Giovanni, they run into each other by accident. Just before this, David and Hella have an interesting conversation about gender. 


‘I don’t see what’s so hard about being a woman. At least, not as long as she’s got a man.’

‘That’s just it,’ said she. ‘Hasn’t it ever struck you that that’s a sort of humiliating necessity?...it does seem - well, difficult - to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven stranger before you can begin to be yourself.’


The end of the book contains two excruciating breakup scenes. The first is between David and Giovanni. 


‘She’s not a little girl,’ I said. ‘She’s a woman and no matter what you think, I do love her…’

‘You do not,’ cried Giovanni, sitting up, ‘love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will!’


And then, after Hella discovers his secret, she (more calm than Giovanni, for what it is worth - dang emotional females, right?) quietly tears what is left of his life apart. 


‘If I stay here much longer,’ she said, later that same morning, as she packed her bag, ‘I’ll forget what it’s like to be a woman.’

She was extremely cold, she was very bitterly handsome.

‘I’m not sure any woman can forget that,’ I said.

‘There are women who have forgotten that to be a woman doesn’t simply mean humiliation, doesn’t simply mean bitterness. I haven’t forgotten it yet,’ she added, ‘in spite of you. I’m not going to forget it.’


‘But I knew.’ she said. ‘I knew. This is what makes me so ashamed. I knew it every time you looked at me. I knew it every time we went to bed. If only you had told me the truth then. Don’t you see how unjust it was to wait for me to find it out? To put all the burden on me? I had the right to expect to hear from you - women are always waiting for the man to speak. Or hadn’t you heard?’


David makes the excuse that he didn’t even know it himself. Which, maybe. But probably not. I have no idea exactly where Baldwin drew from for this book - was he David? Was he Giovanni? Or was this just a brilliant psychological study? Because it is that. 


There are some fascinating literary parallels here too. While I haven’t read much in the way of the “passing” novel (where a black character passes as white) other than Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, there do seem to be some connections. Just as David has the burden - and ability - to “pass” as straight, he also has the fear of being “outed.” In both the racial and sexual sense, the consequences could be deadly. I was also reminded a great deal of - believe it or not - Henry James, the great master of the “Americans in Europe” ex-pat novel. Like James - who was also queer - Baldwin used the clash of cultures to illuminate the psychology of his characters. And the endings in both cases are catastrophic both in the exterior and interior worlds. 


While Giovanni’s Room was different than I expected from Baldwin, it was a rewarding book, and went places that seem shocking now, let alone in the 1950s. 


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