Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

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