I’ve always held this notion that there is such a thing as missed connections when it comes to novel-reading. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is one such book for me–it is a deeply moving story in many ways, but I think its effect would’ve been more profound on me if I had read it when I was younger. Which means that the fault is mine and not the novel’s, of course.
Giovanni’s Room is a novel of claustrophobia, of physical smallness and emotional suffocation. The title refers to the rented Parisian room that an American expatriate named David shares with a bartender he meets at a gay bar. He is a typical example of the young, disaffected Americans who traipse around Paris in the post-war period, but his life takes a turn the moment Giovanni strikes a conversation with him. Passion is ignited in an instant, but while their mutual attraction is acknowledged and consummated early on, their happiness is far from assured.
David becomes increasingly ambivalent with their relationship, eager to leave Giovanni and reunite with Hella, a woman he had contemplated marrying before his affair. Marrying Hella, in his mind, will reassert his control of his destiny and turn him back to the normal, middle class life he was expected to have. He is torn between the conventional world and Giovanni, who expects David to stay despite the hardships, poverty and their increasingly volatile relationship. Their small room then becomes a metaphor for the the constricted, alienated lives that gay men are forced to inhabit during the 1950s, a state that is as much internal as it is societal.
The first thing that I noticed is Baldwin’s prose and the way he framed the entire novel as a sort of reminiscence. The first-person POV put me off from reading this years ago (I was in my “third person POV only” phase, don’t ask) but it succeeds in taking hold of the main character’s inner life. A great tragedy that occurs later in the story is stated up front, but you still get a little winded as it begins to approach. The characters, while far from perfect, are so deeply human that you can’t help but feel for them anyway. Not because they’re necessarily good people, but because the world they live in condemned them to unhappiness from the start.
While this story didn’t destroy me like I expected, I’m still left trying to unpack the ending in my head days after finishing. And I think that is where the greatest virtue of Giovanni’s Room lies. It’s a story that can’t help but affect you–whether you sympathize with the characters or not, whether you agree that their fate is as inevitable as Baldwin leads you to believe.