James Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s most influential black novelists, spent a long expatriation in France. It was during that time he penned his second novel, published in 1956, that takes place predominately in Paris. Giovanni’s Room begins: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
That memorable sentence launches us into some of the most beautiful, evocative prose I’ve ever read: poetic, brutal in its emotional transparency and relentlessly absorbing. Summer being a time I tend to read classics I’ve missed along the way, I picked up this ground-breaking novel after reading an essay about Baldwin in The New York Review of Books.
Giovanni’s Room is the story of David, a young American man at war with himself over his homosexual desires, caught in a circle of hell between hope and self-destruction. It was written decades before the gay rights movement gained strength, and before the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of disorders (1973). In other words, Baldwin’s plot boldly explored an unaccepted, shocking and forbidden topic at its time of publication.
David’s sexual self-knowledge and feelings of shame ignite early in his life from an incident with a boyhood friend, and it begins his flight from self; however, he never fully succeeds in his denial. In his 20s, he escapes to Paris. At first, he believes he’s safe in his ability to love women due to his romantic affair with Hella. He proposes marriage, and Hella travels to Spain to contemplate whether or not to accept. While she’s gone, David meets the alluring, complicated Italian bartender Giovanni and lives with him until Hella returns.
David tells his story from a rented house in the south of France where he suffers from the aftermath of his relationships with Hella and Giovanni and the mess of what he’s done and what he feels. Looking back, he knows he used them, not with calculation, rather as consequence of his confusion, fear and torment, and it led to Giovanni’s ruin.
Baldwin strings together words and phrases that so perfectly make real David’s inner turmoil we are overwhelmed with understanding and empathy. Halfway through this slim, absorbing classic, David tells Giovanni about Hella. They talk, sleep and then Giovanni goes to his bar-tending job. David says:
Then I, alone, and relieved to be alone, perhaps went to a movie, or walked, or returned home and read, or sat in a park and read, or sat on a café terrace, or talked to people, or wrote letters. I wrote to Hella, telling her nothing, or I wrote to my father asking for money. And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote novels, plays, essays and short stories. You can watch short, interesting videos about his life and work on A&E Television’s bio.com and read more about him on the PBS American Masters website.