And yet– when one begins to search for the crucial, the definitive moment, the moment which changed all others, one finds oneself pressing, in great pain, through a maze of false signals and abruptly locking doors. My flight… does not tell me where to find the germ on the dilemma which resolved itself, that summer, into flight. Of course, it is somewhere before me, locked in that reflection I am watching in the window as the night comes down outside. It is trapped in the room with me, and always will be, and it is yet more foreign than those foreign hills outside.
If there is one takeaway I got from James Baldwin’s 1956 classic novel Giovanni’s Room, it’s that internalized homophobia kills. It kills the mind, spirit, and body.
There’s more than one takeaway, obviously. But let’s start with this one. The protagonist, David, is a white boy who grows up upper-middle class with an unaffectionate father and his aunt. Within the first few pages, David has an adolescent love affair with a classmate named Joey, but feels repulsed by himself afterward. He describes the ‘incident’ with Joey ‘happen[ing] to’ him, and ‘remained at the bottom of [his] mind, as still and awful as a decomposing corpse.’
That is quite the metaphor, but Baldwin is known for his potent language. Which, by the way, is on full display in this book. He wrote beautifully, with sentences that glow and dance, imagery that is intensely specific, atmosphere that seeps into the reader’s body. The atmosphere of Giovanni’s Room is dark, cold, and disturbing, with only a very few shafts of light cutting through.
Early on in the book, David describes himself as
…one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower… This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception… This is certainly what my decision, made so long ago in Joey’s bed, came to. I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well– by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.
But Giovanni later mocks this notion of choice, of choosing. He categorizes it as and American notion, and he’s not wrong. America’s choices always involve intense self-interest at the expense of others, and so do David’s.
David meets Giovanni, a true manic pixie dream boy (which is a gender-flipped archetype I’ve never actually seen in literature before), in a Bohemian Paris bar. A love affair ensues, mostly taking place in the room Giovanni rents on the outskirts of the city. David describes it first as a haven and then as a hovel, as his decomposing corpse of a mind deepens into existential crisis. His wife Hella returns from her travels in Spain, and eventually the presence of both his wife and his lover in close proximity are too much for him to bear. It’s too much for Giovanni, too, whose life is rather less privileged than David’s, and whose desperation drives him to commit a crime he will be executed for.
David is far from a likeable character. His internalized homophobia has rotted his very being, and his self-obsessed wallowing reads too much like Holden Caulfield, aka my least favorite character in all of literature. David describes a trans woman (or maybe she was a drag queen) as looking ‘like a peacock garden and smell[ing] like a barnyard.’ He is almost as repulsed by her as he is by himself. He also blackmails his friends and exploits their emotions, specifically with Jacques and also with Giovanni.
At certain points in the reading of this book, I found myself wondering about the question of gender performance. All gender is performative, but to what extent is gender and sexuality performed and in what company? Jacques and Guillaume seem to over-perform their gayness in queer spaces, at least through David’s eyes For his part, David seems to overperform masculinity in those same spaces. This made me think about how big a role internalized homophobia plays in gender performance, and what its nuances are. Can performance be just as genuine as, for example, the simple unadorned bodies in Giovanni’s barebones room?
In a scene that horrifies with its misogyny, Giovanni and David laugh about violence against women. This dialogue seems to be a performance of masculinity for each other, a kind of overcorrection fueled by a need to fill gender roles. In the same vein, there are a few incidents of erotic near-violence between the two men in the room. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much to me as a reader; the scene is repulsive and can be added to the list of reasons why both characters are intensely unlikeable.
The character of Jacques, though not without his own flaws, acts as a voice of wisdom for David, one he ultimately can’t hear. ‘There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin,’ Jacques says. ‘But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.’ He goes on, ‘Love him. Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?… You play it safe long enough,’ he said, in a different tone, ‘and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever– like me.’
Where Did This Story Come From?
While reading Giovanni’s Room, I found myself asking this question a lot. James Baldwin himself was gay, and is a major icon of queer and Black American literature. I wondered if David’s character was a commentary on western white culture, and/or western white gay culture. I also wondered about the plot. At the time Giovanni’s Room was published (and to a large extent still today), explicit and implicit rules of publishing required that any queer stories end in tragedy; this book is no exception, but to what extent did Baldwin have agency over this tragic ending?
Reggie over at one of my favorite bookstagram accounts, @reggiereads, pointed me toward the Everyman’s Library edition of Giovanni’s Room, which has an introduction by Colm Tóibín that explains some context of the novel’s publication. An excerpt of this introduction was published in the New Yorker in 2016, titled The Unsparing Confessions of Giovanni’s Room. In it,Tóibín quotes Baldwin as saying, “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”
In fact, his American publishers at Knopf had already pigeonholed him, before his second novel, as a ‘Negro writer’ who would alienate his audience with this white character. According to another article I read, Josep M. Armengol’s In the Dark Room: Homosexuality and/as Blackness in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Knopf also objected to the explicit homosexuality. (The Hays Code wasn’t just for Hollywood.)
Knopf straight-up refused to publish Giovanni’s Room; it was picked up by Dial Press instead. Reading about this made me realize that in wondering if David’s character was a commentary on western white/gay culture, I too had pigeonholed Baldwin. I still think white gay male culture can be misogynistic, violent, and deal in toxic masculinity, and I would guess Baldwin would agree. But assuming that Baldwin was deliberately critiquing that because he was Black was problematic on my part.
Actually, I don’t think this text reads as critique; it would be too opaque as commentary, with not enough to clue the reader in. The story itself seems to have come from a moment of observation Baldwin had at a Paris bar himself, when a blonde Frenchman bought a round of drinks for everyone, and soon afterward was executed for murder, much like Giovanni (whose character is an Italian expat rather than a Frenchman).
But Armengol’s article makes some even deeper and more interesting points. He writes that some Black critics saw Giovanni’s Room as ‘not black enough,’ or accused Baldwin of pandering to white audiences. Armengol points out that when Baldwin talked about ‘the Negro problem’ that he didn’t feel he could take on in a book about homosexuality, he was referring to the problem of being able to actually publish. Publishing was and is an intensely white, male, cis, hetero industry, and he had enough trouble selling a gay story about white people. Imani Perry included some similar passages about James Baldwin and Giovanni’s Room in her fantastic biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Looking for Lorraine. Hansberry and Baldwin were good friends. In fact, a lot of Black authors in the 1940s and 50s wrote white characters, but the idea that they did so in order to fit narrow publishing rules, as opposed to an internal creative drive, is troubling (but who’s surprised?).
However, Armengol goes on to write that some scholars see the ‘racelessness’ of the book as ‘ghost-like,’ an absence that symbolizes ‘the absence of blackness from Western notions of rationality and humanity.’ In that sense, a critique of whiteness can be seen. Armengol’s article ultimately claims that Giovanni’s Room is subversive and innovative, and I highly recommend reading it (took me back to my scholarly research days!).
James Baldwin is such a fascinating human being and an incredible writer. I have much more to read by and about him. And while I can’t claim to like Giovanni’s Room, I appreciate it as an important part of literary canon, and I’ve learned a lot from reading it and trying to figure out some context around it.
Have you read this book? What did you think? What’s your favorite Baldwin book? Let me know!
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