What is there to say about Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin? I still can’t get rid of that heavy feeling in the bottom of my stomach that means that I’ve read a book that has changed me in some way. All books have their effect, but not all are life changing. I’m not sure what change has occurred, but I know that some change has, and it came from this small but overwhelmingly powerful book.
That said, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any problems with the book, which tells the story of David, a young man who is visiting Paris one year while his fiancee is travelling around Spain. There, David meets and falls in love with Giovanni, the waiter at a nearby gay bar. The only problem is, David doesn’t know how to be in love with Giovanni. He believes homosexuality to be wrong, and, even more than that, can’t admit to himself that this is what he is. It causes a lot of pain in David, and even more pain in Giovanni because, as David tries to figure out these issues of the heart, he continues to live with Giovanni and string him along. From my reading journal as I was reading along:
Does our hatred of David keep us from loving and trusting him as a narrator? Never in my life have I hated anyone as much as David when he promises Giovanni to stay forever (p. 105) and then so deliberately and hurtfully pretends to have no feelings towards him whatsoever (p. 123). But does this hate cause us to sympathize with his predicament (and, by doing so admit that we, too, are capable of such hateful disregard) or is it too much – causing us to dissociate from David (and by doing so, tell ourselves that we are above such petty actions)?
As you can see, I had a lot of issues with David. Not because he isn’t comfortable with his sexuality, or is having trouble accepting himself for what and who he is – these things I understand and pity in him. But because, in his search to answer these questions, he manages to do severe and deliberate harm to Giovanni, a man who wanted nothing but to love and be loved by David. The story transcends sexuality boundaries and speaks to the frightening, powerful, violent nature of love as an entity. Baldwin treats the subject with not only tact, but with beauty and grace and the kind of writing that every young writer looking for honesty should try and internalize. This was my first Baldwin, but I can guarantee that it won’t be the last.
“‘I don’t believe in this nonsense about time. Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That’s all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn’t care'” (37).
“Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, the face in all it’s changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his sppec with nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming – God grant me the grace to live them: in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head” (45).
“‘Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark” (57).
“I ached abruptly, intolerably, with a longing to go home; not to that hotel, in one of the alleys of Paris, where the concierge barred the way with my unpaid bill; but home, home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood; to those things, those places, those people which I would always helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else. I had never realized such a sentiment in myself before, and it frightened me. I saw myself, sharply, as a wanderer, an adventurer, rocking through the world, unanchored. I looked at Giovanni’s face, which did not help me. He belonged to this strange city, which did not belong to me. I began to see that, while what was happening to me was not so starge as it would have comforted me to believe, yet it was strange beyond belief” (62).
“‘What are you doing all the time? And why do you say nothing? You are evil, you know, and sometimes when you smiled at me I hated you. I wanted to strike you. I wanted to make you bleed. You smiled at me the way you smiled at everyone, you told me what you told everyone – and you tell nothing but lies. What are you always hiding? And do you think I did not know when you made love to me, you were making love to no one? No one! Or everyone – but not me certainly. I am nothing to you, nothing, and you bring me fever but no delight” (130).
“‘You do not,’ cried Giovanni, sitting up, ‘love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror – you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver…down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it…you want to be clean…You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities” (134).