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.
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