At the age of 24, author James Baldwin made the decision to leave the United States and traveled to Paris. He wanted to escape the racism around him, while also developing his skills as a writer outside of an African-American context. David, the young protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, takes a similar path to Baldwin. However, this is not a novel about race. Rather, this is a story about finding love, and more importantly, about finding yourself. David escapes to Paris as a voyage of self-exploration, while also escaping the toxic masculinity he observes in his father. Although this novel is not autobiographical, it does draw on Baldwin’s experiences and inspiration in the city of love. Giovanni’s Room is such an important novel of LGBTQ literature due to the book’s open exploration of sexuality and bisexuality.
Prior to making this trip, we learn that David had a sexual encounter with a male friend, whom he immediately ostracizes from his life. Upon arriving in Paris, he begins an affair with a girl named Hella. When David starts to plan a life with her, Hella leaves for Spain in order to work on herself, leaving David in need of company. This leads him to become intimate with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. The couple form an instant connection, resulting in a passionate love affair, and in David moving in to the titular room. David hates himself and grows to loathe his feelings for Giovanni. Yet, he is forever caught within his lover’s gravitational pull. The romance becomes further complicated by the imminent return of Hella into David’s life. Can David work out his feelings and finally stop running away from himself?
While reading this novel, I had to keep reminding myself that it was written during a time when being gay was illegal in most countries. Baldwin writes with such passionate energy, that it becomes easy to be swept up in David and Giovanni’s tumultuous romance. The writing is so evocative and poetic, that it becomes so easy to get lost when the waves come crashing down. There’s an openness here to homosexuality that had never been done prior to this novel. The message is so resoundingly clear that love transcends time and place, as well as social conventions. The words could easily apply to a straight couple. All that matters here is that these two men love each other. Unfortunately, David’s internal conflict with accepting himself forever destroys their connection.
“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 experience the passion and desire that neither of the men can deny but, at the same time, you can’t turn away from David’s inner turmoil. This is more than a novel about the love between a same-sex couple. David’s story is one of self-loathing and denial. He was raised in a country that saw his feelings as wrong, so he can never fully connect to Giovanni. He transforms him into a monster, and it is utterly heartbreaking to read about is regret from a relationship that is so normal. In fact, David never finds where he truly fits in. He doesn’t want to return to his old life in America, but he grows to hate France as he is uncomfortable living in a country where being openly gay is acceptable.
As readers, we feel devastated because Baldwin manages to lift us up into the upper echelons of love but then pulls us back down to Earth with a violent crash. This novel is such a raw exploration into sexuality and gender identity. David often openly criticizes the men who are embracing their sexuality, while also taking advantage of them. This is demonstrated by his friendship with the aging Jacques, whom David uses for his own means but is openly disgusted by his friend’s behavior. The toxic masculinity of his father comes on full display as David views his friend’s effeminate ways as an insult. While not completely autobiographical, Baldwin draws on his own experiences as a gay man living in both America and France.
At only 150 pages, Giovanni’s Room might be a short read but there are a lot of themes explored here. My meager review barely scratches the surface, and I can’t reveal more without spoiling what happens. Suffice to say, the writing is fearless and compelling, forcing you to feel empowered and heartbroken in a matter of paragraphs. This is one of the most honest novels I’ve ever read in understanding true love and pain. I want to believe that much has changed since the 1950’s, but reading this novel is a reminder that the fight for equality continues to be an ongoing battle.
One thought on “An Honest Examination of Love and Heartbreak: Review of ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin”
It’s on my list, great review Joel!
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