One of my reading goals this year was to read some of James Baldwin’s fiction. Giovanni’s Room is my first of his fiction book. Baldwin is an incredible writer. I have appreciated his non-fiction writing for its clarity and intelligence and passion. Baldwin’s fiction writing is lyrically beautiful. I will definitely read more, but the actual characters and story in Giovanni’s Room were not my cup of tea.
The protagonist, David, is nearly 30. He is living in Paris without much direction or purpose. The book is told skipping around in time, so we know from nearly the beginning that Giovanni is to be executed, but the reader does not know why until near the end of the book.
David gives some back story with an early gay sexual experience and his family that he is escaping from to Paris. Soon we are introduced to Hella, David’s girlfriend. When the main story really starts, she is visiting Spain to decide if she wants to marry David. While she is gone, David runs short of money and while trying to borrow money from an older gay man, Jacque. During that meeting David meets Giovanni. Jacque tries to uses David to help him pick up Giovanni, but David and Giovanni hit it off and before long they are living together. David and Giovanni appear to be happy for a while. Giovanni has a decent job as a bartender and David for a while is happy to live with Giovanni.
(Spoiler alert for the rest of the discussion) The problem is that Giovanni is working at a gay bar. The owner hired Giovanni with the hope of sexual favors and when it is clear that Giovanni is now with David and not going to be open to the owner, Giovanni is fired. At about same time David begins to question the relationship, especially with the sudden neediness of a jobless Giovanni. Hella shows back up and David uses her to escape.
The romance of the book is well written. The sex is off screen, although there are lots of innuendos. But David is a child. He cannot decide to grow up and when faced with an actual relationship, he runs away to sleep with strangers. And after Giovanni’s death, which David blames on himself, he also throws away his relationship with Hella.
In some ways this reminds me of the great writing but horrible characters in the Magicians and the Magician King by Lev Grossman. In both, the main characters get what they say they want, and then throw it away for the hope of having something else, which then they also throw away. The Magicians at least have the benefit of being in their late teens as the books starts, so there is some immaturity. David, as his father notes in a letter, is just about to turn 30. He needs to grow up.
Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s second book of fiction, released in 1956. I am sure it was appropriately shocking at the time. I am not sure it really translates all that well to 2018, when gay and bisexual relationships are not unusual in fiction. The writing is fabulous, but even without sexual fidelity, there is nothing to draw me to David. I cannot figure out why, after the initial infidelity, Hella or Giovanni still want David. If David had remorse or any sense of desire to be faithful, I could see how forgiveness might be incorporated into the story. Instead, all Giovanni’s Room shows is the impact of one person’s sin on all of those around them. I was also somewhat surprised that Baldwin, an author known for his Black activism wrote Giovanni’s Room with all White characters.