“Giovanni’s room” by James Baldwin

A pillar of queer literature.

I waited so long to review this book because of its significance, in history and in my personal life. Giovanni’s room is the first “serious” novel I read about queer people falling in love, being together and as all firsts, I cannot forget it. I remember reading it on the train to Paris, my first trip there, surrounded by these old ladies who would not stop chattering.

In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Paris, dear Paris that is our background for this haunting novel. The city of love finds our American protagonist, David, reflecting on his whiteness and on the differences between Europe and America. As we can understand pretty early on, being American and not having travelled in Europe before gives you quite the culture shock and David spends most of the time uncomfortable with these differences.

This is a novel about shame and the lack of it. David is ashamed of his feelings, his desires and he judges those who are comfortable, happy with them as deviants. To describe a group of enthusiastic and effeminate men, he uses rude terms : parrots and then he sees them as peacocks occupying a barnyard. Even worse is David’s description of a young man in drag, such a horrible description that I admit kind of spoiled the book for me: “his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not – so grotesquely – resemble human beings.”
It’s clear how David is not the most likeable of characters and how Baldwin is not trying to portray him as such. Giovanni, on the other hand is a lot more lovable and easier to sympathise with. He’s charming, funny and passionate. Most of all, he is not ashamed of what he feels and he is not afraid of chasing after his dreams, which is a trait David both admires and is scared of. All that happens to him in the book is already explained in the beginning, so getting attached to him is pointless. Even so, we cannot help but feel that David, more than Giovanni, deserved all the bad things that eventually lead to his execution.

Interestingly enough, this is one of the two works by Baldwin where all the characters are not people of colour. This was because for the author it would have been too much to tackle both the agony of being queer and being black in one take alone. The novel is one of suffering, of shame and of self reflection. It’s an absolute heart wrenching but necessary book.

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