Revolutionary, rebellious and fantastic – Giovanni’s Room is a haunting work of 20th century fiction.
Publication Date: 1956
‘Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.’ – Goodreads
My first read of 2019 and what a read it was! Written by an African-American man about the homosexual relationship between two white men, Baldwin shocks and inspires with his boldness. Giovanni’s Room tells the story of David, an American in Paris in the 1950s, who is waiting for his fianceé to return from Spain. During this time, David meets Giovanni, an Italian barman, with whom he begins a brief but intense love affair.
I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.
As expected, Baldwin received backlash for his novel, however this does not stop his writing from being beautifully put together. His prose is descriptive, poetic and evocative. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from the novel:
I ached abruptly, intolerably, with a longing to go home, home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood; to those things, those places, those people which I would always helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else. I had never realized such a sentiment in myself before, and it frightened me. I saw myself, sharply, as a wanderer, an adventurer, rocking through the world, unanchored.
The novel’s conclusion, of David returning to his fianceé still struggling with his sexual orientation, too afraid to live an ‘abnormal’ life is devastating. As is Giovanni’s eventual fate at the heartbreak bestowed upon him by David. I refrain only from giving it five stars because of this ending. How I longed to see a happy ending for an LGBT couple, especially one living in the 20th century!
Nevertheless, this novel is a must-read. Not just as an essential of classic gay literature but also as a classic love story, despite it’s tragic conclusion.