May 25, 2022
Starting Giovanni’s Room
I’ve finally started the first novel of the summer semester: James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room, his follow-up to Go Tell It on the Mountain and, rather than a novel about the Harlem ghetto, it’s one of post-war Paris. And white people—likely Baldwin’s way of making the subject matter more palatable to a 1950’s audience: since this has to do with gay people, he did not make it about black people. According to Hilton Als, Giovanni’s Room is an ultimately hopeful book that considers LGBTQ experience as not defined by heteronormativity and whiteness. Hm, I have my doubts about this.
I have the first two chapters down, and Baldwin’s dense prose style is certainly rewarding for the careful reader. The protagonist, David, begins the novel by looking out the window of a rented house in the south of France, and he appears to be at a crossroads in confronting his own identity. He is full of shame and trepidation, and Baldwin paints an atmosphere of dreadful anticipation. David confronts his reflection in the window, suggesting this novel will be a confrontation of self that will begin with his return to Paris the next morning.
So far, David’s problem seems to be his flight from his own identity. He seems easy to anger; he is a cis-poseur—only playing the heterosexual, yet seeming to not fool anyone but himself. Chapter one outlines his aborted affair with Joey—a “friend” he had a one-night stand with, then ditched out of “shame and terror.” He goes on to mistreat Joey, a whipping-post for David’s own shame. It’s this experience that begins David’s flight from himself and leads to the crossroads where he finds himself at the beginning of the novel.
Chapter one also provides familial exposition: David’s mother died when he was five, and he was left to the care of his contentious Aunt Ellen and his father. A poignant image is the photo of David’s ever-watching mother from the mantle, a pale delicate woman who, for David, seems to hide an unexpected strength equivalent to his father’s wrath. While his father never speaks of his dead mother, his aunt spoke highly of her, so often that David begins to feel unworthy of being her son. It seems his self-censure and shame began early. The chapter concludes with an argument between David’s father and Ellen about the former’s not being a very good role model for his son. Apparently, he’s a bit of a ladies’ man, and Ellen is very critical of his carousing lifestyle. Yet, his father remains unapologetic and perhaps even a bit proud, saying that: “‘all I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher.’” The suggestion here, it seems, is that his father wants David to be a man’s-man, which just seems to exacerbate David’s own shame, causing him to despise both Ellen and his father, even if he wasn’t conscious of the exact reasons. These incidents cause David to become “secretive and cruel” to others, and most crucially, to himself. Finally, David does not receive the guidance he needed from his father, suggesting perhaps that the reason he is homosexual is that his father was never a father, but treated David like a buddy.
David’s early conclusion was to rely on his own willpower to master his own destiny: “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something that shamed and frightened me.” To do this, he decides, he will remain in “constant motion.” Yet, his self-decptive flight only takes him so far. He is at a time where he can no longer flee, but must confront himself. This seems to be the dominant theme: the author’s attempt to come to terms with and ultimately accept just being.
Chapter two introduces Giovanni and Jacques, part of le milieu—or the homosexual underground—that David did not want to be a part of, but seems to be drawn to. The latter is an enabler, an old, sickly queen living in Paris who seems to be something of a predator: attracting young men with his wealth, using them, then discarding them. David seems to be able to play him by stringing him along with the hope of a deferred liaison. David admits his own contempt for Jacques, but the former’s need for money is what brings him to Jacques at the beginning of the chapter. David’s need is serendipitous, as this is what allows him to meet Giovanni.
. . .
- Als, Hilton (September 5, 2019). "'Giovanni's Room' Revisited". The New York Times Style Magazine. Retrieved 25 May 2022.
- Baldwin, James (2013) . Giovanni's Room (Kindle ed.). New York: Vintage. p. 9.
- Baldwin 2013, p. 12.
- Baldwin 2013, p. 15.
- Baldwin 2013, p. 16.
- Baldwin 2013, p. 19.
- Als 2019.