- Fizzy Thoughts: Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room

Monday, March 23, 2009

Giovanni's Room
James Baldwin
176 pages

It's incredible to think that this book was written in 1956, considering the weighty sexual issues that it tackles. David, our protagonist, is a young white American whiling away his time in Paris, fending off inquiries from his dad as to when he's going to come home and settle down. David has taken the first step towards pleasing his father and society by becoming engaged to the apparently perfect Hella, who is away exploring Spain. However, David is also struggling with his attraction for Giovanni, an Italian bartender. Eventually, he ends up moving into Giovanni's squalid little room, and the two seem to play a waiting game. When Hella returns, David must choose between conformity and happiness (okay, it's not really happiness he experiences with Giovanni...more like acknowledgement of what he really wants).

This was the first James Baldwin novel I've read, and while I knew he was African-American, I did not know he was homosexual. As a black American in the 1950's, it must have taken a lot of guts to put a novel about a white bisexual man out there.

Besides the story, which is interesting because it is unlike anything I have read, Baldwin has a wonderful style. I especially liked his use of repetition. An example from the beginning of the book:

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. I have a drink in my hand, the bottle is at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.

I may be drunk by morning, but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway. The train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and, even, dignity on the straight-backed, wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same.

Isn't that just lovely? Normally, I don't get all gushy over the actually prose, but there's just something about Baldwin's writing that makes me gush. At 176 pages, this is a short novel, but it packs a punch in a number of different ways.

5 comment(s):

bermudaonion said...

I read Go Tell it on the Mountain in high school and don't remember much about it. This was back in the 70's, so I'm sure we didn't talk about the author's sexuality.

Nymeth said...

Oh wow, this sounds some amazing. And somehow I'd never heard of it before. Thank you!

Literate Housewife said...

I am in the same boat as you. I've not read any of his work and didn't know he was gay, either. I had heard of this book and knew about it's themes, but I didn't know that he wrote it. Very interesting. I love the passages you picked out, too! It's on my list. You know I'm in a Paris state of mind right now anyway. :)

sophisticateddorkiness.com said...

I read this book for a college-level English class I took when I was 16, and at the time I didn't like it very much. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but in retrospect I think at 16 I was just uncomfortable with the subject matter (I was very, very sheltered at 16). I think this is a book I'd appreciate more reading it now -- thanks for the reminder!


Ti said...

You know what I like about your blog? Well, I like it for a lot of reasons but you tend to review books that are not currently making the rounds.

I sometimes get tired of reading 15 reviews of the same book even though I thoroughly enjoy everyone's take on a book.

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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