An Evening In: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

I knew I’d like this book; I love a doomed romance (is there any other kind?). The copy I purchased is from the ‘Penguin Great Loves’ collection, which means it is small and nifty and has a lovely textured cover. The story, in brief, is a romance between David, an American in Paris, and the Italian Giovanni some time after the second World War. It is the tragic tale of a short affair over which the spectre of David’s almost-fiancée Hella is hanging from the start, alongside David’s unwillingness to admit the reality of his relationship with Giovanni. 

You know straight away that Giovanni is going to be executed. That night.

David is remembering the story of his life, which is the story of a bisexual man growing up in Brooklyn, of being poor in Paris, of social alienation and knowing he doesn’t quite fit like he – a big blonde football player type – thinks he should. It’s a story that ends with David wandering around an abandoned house in the south of France, drinking and remembering the end of an affair. But which affair? And why is Giovanni doomed?

It’s beautifully atmospheric, a despairing shell-shocked feel to the narrators voice in the present, remembering his life and particularly his struggles with his sexuality. His descriptions of the Parisian gay scene, which he sneers at and maintains an aloofness from before meeting Giovanni, are bitter-sweet and tragic, and even the older men like Guillaume and Jacques, who David holds in deep contempt, are allowed their slice of sympathy. The vaguely grotesque Jacques warns David on the night he meets Giovanni, ‘you play it safe long enough…and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever – like me’.

David’s struggle between a quiet American future with Hella and children and a home, and his secret, sneaky life with Giovanni, encased in one room, one particular city and scene, that would have no place and no hope in the world he is from, is heart-wrenching. In its elements of isolation and social dislocation it perhaps echoes James Baldwin’s own situation as a gay African-American writer, born in Harlem and emigrating to France in 1948.

James Baldwin in Paris

The women in this book are the other stars. There are not many; Hella, and big-boned hopeful Sue who David sleeps with because she’s there and he can. They are worth mentioning, because they are not filler females, but well-rounded, sympathetic and developed characters despite their relatively small parts. Hella returns from Spain to realise that she’s ‘beginning to be tired of being in places for no particular reason’, while Sue’s wistful attempt to set up a ‘next time’ when David has no intention of seeing her again is painful – ‘there were a great many things she wanted to say, but she forced herself to say nothing’. Baldwin’s sympathetic depictions of these women, of Jacques and Guillaume, and of the other denizens of the milieu make Giovanni’s Room a gentle (and I mean that in the sense of sympathetic, kind-hearted and melancholy, not mild or undemanding) and thoughtful read, the David in the present trying to figure out, through remembering his past, why things have ended where they have.

It is a beautifully written and poignant story, and I would personally pair it with a picpoul de pinet, often recommended with strongly flavoured fish for its very dry and refreshing qualities; if ever a book was well-suited to a refreshing glass of something while slowly turning pages Giovanni’s Room is that book.

Book: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Pair with: Picpoul de Pinet

Day Release: William Eggleston at the National Portrait Gallery

The photos on the walls are mundane. That’s the whole point; they are the images of lives as they were lived, in the 60s and 70s in Memphis, in Mississippi, in bed sits and night clubs and blank hotel rooms. They are images of family, of cars, of boys with Saturday jobs, women in heavy floral prints, men in flares. There is a photo of a woman crying up-close, raw-eyed and despairing, and there is the iconic red image of a middle-aged man standing naked in a red room under a bare red light bulb (a dentist friend of the photographers, later murdered in that house in mysterious circumstances).Image result

This is the democratic all-seeing eye of William Eggleston, currently on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with a selection of unposed portraits from the Sixties onwards, covering his early black and white work and then his move into colour and the bright pigments and dyes he used later. A particularly striking, personal photo is of his wife and two young children on an autumnal field, a backwash of browns and yellows with his wife and the baby she’s holding dressed in jarring scarlet, a slash of bright colour against the fading trees. There’s something in there about moments that last forever in a world that cycles on, but Eggleston is a man who has always insisted there is no symbolism, no planned deeper meaning in his work. That does not, of course, make the pictures meaningless, but rather highlights the Rorschach test quality of any art, that the meaning is what you see in it.

In this media heavy age, where we see thousands of images a day, when magazines reel out shot after shot of beautiful people and beautiful things in beautiful settings (yours for £199 a month plus VAT), a visit to a photographic exhibition is a refresher course in seeing. Skirting the calm white walls and peering into each wakeful image you remember these are real people doing real things, and they deserve a little time to stop and look. Because isn’t the point of photography to capture a moment as it passes, and to let us look back at it and shake our heads. In sadness, in nostalgia, in envy, in amusement, in wonder.

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I could say go see this because of his pioneering use of colour, light and focus, or because of the clothes people wear, because of the looks on the people’s faces. Because they’re not people who are used to taking photos in nightclubs and there are no pouts. Because it’s a trip into the history of the American South. Because it will remind you of Twin Peaks and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper is the subject of one photo, driving a car with a cowboy hat tilted back from his eyes and a cigarette in hand). All of those are good reasons, solid reasons, but in the end you should go see these pictures because it’s a reminder of more than that time and place, it’s a reminder of what photography can be if you stop to look, and it’s a reminder that the little things happening around you now are, in their own way, as beautiful and iconic and bold as Eggleston’s photographs.

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