I promised myself that I would try and read some Pride appropriate books during June and, so far, I’ve not done a great job. I’ve got my book club’s choice to go yet but I decided it was time to get some LGBTQ+ representation up in here. I had originally set aside Giovanni’s Room to read during Black History Month but that never happened. It’s probably a good thing as well because James Baldwin doesn’t address race in this book. Instead, his entire focus is sexuality. Making it the perfect book to read in the month of June.
At the age of 24, James Baldwin left the United States and moved to Paris. Mostly as a reaction to the racism, he saw around him but also so he could explore his role as a writer outside of an African-American context. David, the young man at the heart of Giovanni’s Room, has a very similar path to Baldwin. The big difference is that this is not a novel that deals with race issues. Instead, David comes to Paris to escape his past and work out who he is. Though the novel isn’t autobiographical it does take inspiration from his time in the city. Written well before the gay liberation movement, Giovanni’s Room explores themes of sexuality and bisexuality in a very open way.
When he was younger, David had a sexual encounter with a friend of his. After it happened, he made the decision to never speak to the boy again and instead embraced the type of toxic masculinity he associated with heterosexuality. He escapes his father by moving to Paris where he falls into a relationship with a young woman named Hella. When David starts to think about marriage, Hella leaves for Spain to work out how she feels, which leaves David in need of company. This leads him to Giovanni, a young Italian barman. The pair form an instant connection and David soon moves into Giovanni’s room. Their passionate and intense love affair becomes complicated with Hella’s imminent return. Can David work out who he really wants and accept the feelings that he has run away from for so long?
Reading this book, you have to keep reminding yourself that it was written in 1956 when being gay was still illegal in many countries. The way that Baldwin describes David’s feelings for Giovanni is so evocative and passionate. It’s not something that really sticks out now but would have been scandalous at the time. It is presented as such a natural and undeniable thing and Baldwin’s writing is so beautiful. This would have been an incredibly different way to represent homosexuality. We see David and Giovanni’s relationship in an empathetic and powerful way. It’s difficult not to get swept away in the artistry and the emotions that flow through these pages. The love that we see here is universal and something that anyone can understand. It transcends time and place as well as social conventions. It doesn’t really matter that this is the story of two gay or bisexual men. It just matters that they love each other.
We experience the passion and desire that neither of the men can deny but, at the same time, you can’t ignore the inner turmoil. This isn’t 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 actions as reprehensible so he can never fully connect to Giovanni. He sees him as a monster or a temptation that he can’t walk away from. It is heartbreaking to read the passages where David is filled with shame and regret for something that is so normal. Indeed, David finds himself to be an outsider wherever he goes. He doesn’t want to return to America because he knows he is hiding a secret shame. Yet, he doesn’t feel comfortable living in a country where being openly gay is more acceptable. He finds himself alienated and full of despair, which is why he spends so much of the book just walking the streets of Paris.
James Baldwin has such a way with words but his power is even more evident here. This is a raw and cutting exploration of sexual and gender identity. David is hiding his attraction to men whilst criticising the men who are openly embracing who they are. During his time in Paris, the young American comes across a couple of ageing homosexual men. David uses these guys for his own means but is disgusted by their behaviour. He doesn’t see them as real men and thinks their effeminate ways are an insult to his masculinity. Baldwin is exploring plenty of important themes and, no doubt, drawing from his combined experience as a gay man in both America and France.
Giovanni’s Room might be a short read but there is a lot to unpack here. Something that we come to expect with Baldwin’s writing. I’ve barely even scratched the surface with my meagre analysis but don’t want to run the risk of ruining such a powerful work by revealing too much. The writing is flawless and captivating. You’ll flit between empowered and heartbroken in a matter of paragraphs. The feelings described in this book are so real and understandable. Even now. We’d like to think that a lot has changed since 1956 but writers like Baldwin can show us that equality is still something we need to fight for.