Dec 8, 2009

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

First published in 1956, Giovanni’s Room is a classic of lgbtq literature. It’s the story of a young man called David who, in Paris, meets and falls in love with an Italian waiter named Giovanni. The story is set during the night before Giovanni is to be executed (for reasons readers are later given), but it spans several years, as David reminisces about his childhood in America, his first experience with another boy, and his brief but intense relationship with Giovanni.

There were many reasons why I loved this book, but the main one was that it’s not often that I find writing that touches me as much as much as James Baldwin’s did. As you can tell by the fact that the “bits I liked” section is longer than the post itself, I completely fell in love with his prose and must now read everything he’s ever written. He captures longing, pain, regret and shame better than anyone else I’ve read before.

I didn’t want to tell you too much about the plot, but as you might suspect due to my use of the word “execution”, this is not a happy story. It’s a beautiful one, yes, but it’s also painful and filled with loss and regret. It’s as much a book about love and longing as it is a book about homophobia. David and Giovanni’s relationship is doomed from the very start because both have interiorized and try to live up to an ideal of hypermasculinity that has nothing to do with who they truly are. As much as they try to achieve true intimacy, there is always a barrier between them.

There were several passages in the book that made me cringe—passages in which David expressed his contempt for older gay men, for example, or where Giovanni gave his opinion of David’s girlfriend, Hella, and of women in general—but they were not gratuitous; they were part of the point. It’s not that Giovanni’s Room is endorsing these attitudes; it’s that they’re an essential part of a world (and of a mindset) whose tragic consequences the book portrays. Some of the love scenes between David and Giovanni are achingly beautifully, but all are trained by the self-loathing that both—well, David in particular—can’t help but feel.

I wish there had been someone around to tell them, “There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing dirty or shameful about this love you feel.” Though I know it would take more than that, a lot more, when directly or indirectly, the whole world told them otherwise. It kills me that fifty years later, countless people are still taught to believe the same; still forced to live in shame because of who they love.

Bits I liked (a whole lot):
I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out if this astonishing, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

'And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty—they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.'

He locked the door behind us, and for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other—with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door to get out of here at once, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as if he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.
Reviewed at:
Fizzy Thoughts (Jill=awesome. Thank you again for sending me this book!)
A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

28 comments:

  1. You pulled wonderful excerpts here. They really capture the essence of this bittersweet classic. It probably sounds a little over the top but I remember sobbing the first time I read this book. Keep intending to re-read with a more critical eye but time has never permitted. And I am not so sure now that I want to have that reading experience anyway. Maybe just keep my initial emotional response.

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  2. I have read other reviews where readers were similarly moved by Giovanni's Room. This was an excellent review and the snippets you picked really seemed to highlight your response. I have not read it but intend to, have you read any of Baldwin's other work?

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  3. I'm not familiar with this book at all, and how sad since it sounds amazing! Thanks for a great review as always, Nymeth. Your reviews tempt me into many a purchase.

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  4. Oh Ana, what a beautiful, beautiful review of what sounds like an achingly beautiful book. I haven't read anything of his books, and it sounds like I've definitely been missing out. Actually, the last time I was at the library I almost checked out one of his books (No Name in the Street, I think it was called...it was a memoir-ish sort of book), but figured I wouldn't have time to get it read. Now I wish I'd just gotten it.

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  5. I read this book about ten years ago (maybe longer?) and remember thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you for this review, I had forgotten so much about this book that I might have to re-read it. :)

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  6. Where do you find these books??? I'm really curious.

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  7. I have a different Baldwin book waiting in the wings (Go Tell It On The Mountain), but I can't wait to get to this one!

    Lezlie

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  8. Those excerpts were really moving. It sounds like a beautifully haunting story. I would love to read this,even though it sounds so sad.

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  9. This sounds really interesting! It's a classic GLBT book that I've actually never heard of!

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  10. The book sounds lovely, and your review really does it justice. Your line, "completely fell in love with his prose and must now read everything he’s ever written" made me laugh because I think we've ALL been there! How amazing to find a new-to-you author!

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  11. This sounds like a very touching story. I can't believe that I've never read anything by James Baldwin. That needs to change.

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  12. Those are lovely bits indeed! I haven't read a Baldwin book but I'll sure look out for this and other titles from the author because of this post.

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  13. Yay! I'm glad this was a winner for you. I'm still surprised by how powerful of a writer he was...yet still relatively unknown.

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  14. I had planned to read one of his other books next year, but may have to add this to my list, too. The Harlem Renaissance was such a beautiful time for writing, altogether! How did you come across this one?

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  15. Sounds like a heartbreaking read and I did enjoy the bits you pulled out. Thanks for such a thoughtful review as always.

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  16. Your reviews are always so thought provoking and insightful, Nymeth.

    I read an article in my local newspaper today about a Uganda law that is about to be passed that will make the penalty for homosexuality death and those who aid or harbor anyone who is homosexual may face prison sentences. It makes me both angry and sad that such hatred and ignorance exists today in many places around the world.

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  17. James Baldwin is one of the (many) gaps on my bookshelf that I am determined to fill in! Your review is wonderful, as always, and the excerpts you chose exquisite. No excuses now--thank you.

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  18. Seriously , how do you get these books . Always something new, something different :) I will definitely try to get this book.

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  19. Awesome review! This sounds like a book I would like and I like that you mention that the writing is very emotion-provoking. I love books that get deeply rooted into my heart and mind. I am going to look this one up and add it to my list. Thanks!

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  20. James Baldwin is such an awesome author and I am such a bad girl for not reading more of his work. I really enjoyed Go Tell It On The Mountain.

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  21. I read this earlier in the year (part of my Penguin Great Loves boxset) and its haunting and heartbreaking beauty still resonates. I have read some very powerful short stories by Baldwin and have a copy of Go Tell it on the Mountain that I would love to read next year.

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  22. "It kills me that fifty years later, countless people are still taught to believe the same; still forced to live in shame because of who they love."
    I'm right there with you.
    but things *have* changed since then, and I firmly believe that in a not too far future, homophobia will be regarded by the majority just as racism is.
    It just takes a long time to change the world.

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  23. I hadn't heard of this book before. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. Discrimination is still quite pervasive all over. I added this to my TBR.

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  24. This story sounds so very moving. I just read another post recently on this book. Thanks so much for the great review.

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  25. Those excerpts hooked me. This sounds amazing.

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  26. I was online today navigating through the virtual library trying to find some classic African-American written novels that I had not yet read, and I ran accross Giovanni's Room by Baldwin. Though I am familiar with who Baldwin is, for some reason I missed this one. Thanks for this great review! I am looking forward to curling up under the covers and reading this one. The excerpts you chose were fantastic, and I am a little nervous to delve into it any further, but believe me, I will!!!

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  27. It's a beautiful book in many ways. The cadences of Baldwin's prose are amazing. The story touches one. But here's a thought. Many people have commented on the fact that James Baldwin, primarily known as a pretty angry black man (also gay) chose as his protagonist for this story a white American expatriate in France, and the story is told first person from David's perspective. A common conclusion is that JB wrote about a white gay American because he didn't want to be pigeonholed as a Negro writer. But I think that JB, while certainly understanding his narrator David, detests him. All the accusations of the other characters in the book towards Davis as an American are very close to Baldwin's attacks on White American devils in his other works, for example The First Next Time. So although I can certainly sympathize with David on a personal level because of my own experience, the closeted guy choosing between Giovanni and Hella ... I also feel the sting of Baldwin the author's implicit condemnation of his narrator.

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