Once again I’d like to thank the assigned readings from my classes for exposing me to a classic that I might not otherwise have had the time or notion to read. Every once in a while you come across one that reminds you why they are labeled classics in the first place. I hit pay dirt this time around with James Baldwin’s, Giovanni’s Room, an exploration of love and all those wonderful and painful emotions that are associated with it. The author is able to convey this universal feeling through out the book, but chooses to eschew any chance of a happy ending by letting the reader know up front that there will be a death on the horizon.
As for the author himself, Baldwin was not only a young, African-American man in the mid fifties, a time of extreme racism and prejudice, but he was also happened to be homosexual. This was obviously a bit too much to handle so, deciding to flee from the social imprisonment of New York City and Greenwich Village, Baldwin moved to France where he was able to live freely and indulge in his own sexuality without the scrutiny of the American public. His intention was to not only escape from the prejudices of his home land, but to also avoid being trapped into writing about what he called, “The Negro Experience”, a topic that was at the time expected from all African-American writers.
His decision proved to be a formidable one as he was able to draw from his experiences and relationships while living in Paris and write one of the most inspiring novels of the twentieth century. Written over fifty years ago, the novel seems as fresh as anything I’ve read in last decade, rich with engaging dialogue and brilliant observations. Baldwin was able to transcend the confines of the traditional love story by focusing on the feelings and emotions of falling in love, something that we all can relate to, regardless of its sexual orientation.
The story is about David, a sexually confused young man that comes from an affluent family, and who decides to travel abroad before choosing his direction in life. While his girlfriend tramps around Spain, contemplating whether or not she wants to marry him, David spends his time in Paris, hanging out and drinking. It’s while indulging in the latter that David meets the enigmatic Giovanni, a bartender who is apparently hired for his good looks rather than his knowledge of fine wine. The two of them strike up conversation and begin to clique, and from there it becomes a conspiracy between them to escape the fat old men acting as their benefactors so that they can be alone.
Their conspiracy leads them to (you guessed it) Giovanni’s room, a small and penurious dwelling where they are able to take refuge. The two spend most of their time sleeping all day and drinking all night, only to stumble home in the morning and do it all over again. While avoiding any sexual details that would be alienating to some readers, Baldwin instead focuses on the complex emotions that David goes through: confusion, ecstasy, shame, and content.
After David’s girlfriend, Hella, returns from Spain, he is forced to leave Giovanni in pursuit of conventional happiness. It’s at this point that things take a turn for the worse for all parties involved. David is stricken with guilt and self-hatred as he watches from the sidelines as Giovanni’s life slowly begins to unravel, eventually leading to a crime that calls for Giovanni’s beheading via the guillotine. Rather than returning to America, David stands vigil for his lover, a situation that is difficult for Hella to understand. That is until after an awkward encounter involving David and a sailor boy clears things right up for her.
It’s Baldwin’s prose that captivates the reader, though. Equally intelligent and poetic; introspective and eloquently written. I was so impressed by the subtleties that the author examines within the relationships. That, coupled with the picturesque setting of a countryside in France, made me feel so inspired while reading the novel. I wanted to be right there: in Paris, under those brilliant stars, stumbling home drunk, falling in love. Rare is the book that moves you in such a way, that makes you feel light like air, and that reminds you what a fragile thing the heart really is.