Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Giovanni's Room"

I finished reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956). Although this novel is a bit shorter than Bone, it actually took me about a week to get through it.

I had actually never read anything by Baldwin, although I took a class in African-American literature when I was at Brown. I'm planning to read Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) at some point, although it isn't on my Classics Club list (we'll call it a write-in).

On the cover of Baldwin's novel, a review for The Saturday Evening Post indicates that "Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme and treated it with great artistry and restraint."

In fact, Baldwin's theme is not particularly (much less "very") "special": he has written a novel about love, desire and betrayal. His protagonist, David, however, meets, desires and falls in love with a man, Giovanni, even as he is in the process of becoming engaged to marry a woman, Hella.

The issue of "restraint" is an interesting one: recently, I rented "A Single Man," a movie starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. As the cover of that film indicates, it is based on a story by Christopher Isherwood.

I confess, I stood perplexed for several minutes as I looked at this cover. I was pretty sure Christopher Isherwood was homosexual, and that most of his work revolved around that theme. And yet, here is the film's cover:

The film was touted as a story of love and loss and grief. And it is. The gay protagonist's partner dies suddenly in a car accident, and he spends the bulk of the film coping with that loss.

At one point, he has dinner and a few drinks and dances with an old friend with whom he once had a brief relationship (Julianne Moore). That's the image depicted on the cover.

I doubt that anyone looking at this cover would be able to glean what the film was about. If I hadn't known about Christopher Isherwood, I wouldn't have had a clue. I would have assumed it was about a heterosexual relationship between the two characters pictured on the cover.

I can't help but wonder at the motivation behind the packaging. I sort of doubt that any dyed-in-the-wool heterosexual American couple looking for a "nice" romance story would pop this one into the DVD, realize what it was about, and think, "Oh, well, okay."

Some would, obviously, but many wouldn't. And I think everyone would feel the cover was highly misleading.

This is what I think is at issue in the reviewer's characterization of Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room as a text marked by restraint: the assumption that, if you're not speaking about heterosexual relationships in American society, you need to speak in a kind of "code" or show "restraint" by masking your actual subject matter so that the heterosexual "norm" isn't alerted to its own instability.

You're not supposed to make anyone overtly uncomfortable.  Homophobia manifests itself not only as a form of violence against gays, but also--and more often--as an unspoken insistence that being "out" should nevertheless entail remaining "invisible."

Too often, those are the terms of social tolerance.

I don't think Baldwin's novel adheres to this maxim of "restraint" at all, actually. I think his text is quite frank in its depiction of homosexual desire and I think his exploration of David's conflicting sense of his own masculine and sexual identity is complex and interesting.

Baldwin uses the motif of various spaces and "rooms" through the novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, the protagonist perceives Giovanni's room as filthy and disorderly--a scene of poverty and chaos. And yet it is the space of his honest desire.

The protagonist also shares a room in a hotel, and later a house, with his eventual fiancee, Hella. These spaces are, by contrast, conventional and orderly: as David acknowledges, he longs to marry and have children, to come home every evening to dinner with a beautiful wife and have the life that everyone expects of him.

Interspersed with these locations are other sites of the protagonist's other desires: the apartment of a female friend he picks up and has casual sex with, the apartment in New York where he grew up, the bar where he meets Giovanni, the room he's been kicked out of, which initially drives him to stay with Giovanni.

I think this is the strength of Baldwin's novel: it's exploration of what is now called "heteronormativity," that is, the system of cultural norms that identifies heterosexuality as both "universal" and "natural." By focusing on the protagonist's movement through a variety of "rooms"--always organized around and defined by the pivotal status of "Giovanni's Room"--Baldwin examines the subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressures that social space exert on individual identity.

Not surprisingly, Baldwin sets his novel in 1950's Paris, not in the United States, although much of the novel reflects on David's identity as an American and what his homosexual desires will "mean" for him if he ever returns to New York. Is he simply "experimenting" sexually while in Paris? Although he would like to believe so, he admits to a previous homosexual encounter and to a growing sense that who he is cannot be scripted by heterosexual norms and ideals.

As the narrator puts it quite succinctly in the opening pages, "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" (5).


  1. I included Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" on my Classics Club list along with "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Another Country". I'm looking forward to reading them, even more so now that I've read your wonderful review!

  2. I also have "Another Country" (but didn't put it on the list), and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is now on my stack of books to read... So many good books, so little time! Thank you for your kind words about my review.

  3. What a wonderful review! I didn't know much about this before, and now I really want to read it. I read A Single Man last year, and thought it was wonderful and completely agree with your take on the marketing for that movie adaptation. -Sarah


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."