Mini classic review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. 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.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues.

I’ve wanted to read James Baldwin for a very long time, and I have to admit, I’m so glad I started with Giovanni’s Room, his quintessential queer classic. This book is devastating, beautiful and haunting all at the same time — which is definitely a theme of Baldwin’s novels.

Giovanni’s Room is a short novel — only about 150 pages long — and yet it packs a massive punch. Baldwin’s writing is powerful and vivid, and so perfectly expressed the themes of the book. The protagonist, David, is a deeply damaged character — he yearns for a life he desperately wants, but the society he lives in (as well as his own fear) prevents him from seeking that life, and he is depressed as a result.

The book also explores the idea of sexuality and manhood, which Baldwin so perfectly dissects and critiques. David has a love affair with a young Italian man, but after months of living in pleasurable but impoverished bliss, he anguishes over his desire, especially as his fiancé arrives in Paris and he forms a fraught friendship with an older gay man.

The ending of Giovanni’s Room devastated me, but I also understand why it was written that way. David’s confusion and hurt was palpable — Baldwin’s writing was evocative and touching. Giovanni’s Room is a classic for a reason, and I highly recommend it to all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s