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. I did not really stay there very long – we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.
I’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks now because I feel intimidated, almost unqualified to write about this book. It was a five-star read for me, one that I feel like I could pick up again just a few weeks later and read all over again, losing myself in the quality of the lush prose and the haunting ideas and emotions. Giovanni’s Room is stunning, and even though I have only now read two of Baldwin’s books (this and The Fire Next Time) I have to put him among my favorite authors. I must read everything else he’s written. Published in 1956, this is a story of a man at war with himself, his inner turmoil spilling over and also scarring anyone who comes close enough to care about him.
David is a young white man in Paris in the 1950s, staying at a rented country house outside the city, reflecting on his life and recent events as the novel begins. He is melancholy and alone – his fiancée Hella has left him to return to America and someone named Giovanni (we don’t initially know his significance in David’s life) is “about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.” He then recounts a long-buried sensual experience as a teenager with a male friend named Joey and the reader knows this is someone who is afraid to truly acknowledge his sexuality.
We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it.
Later on in the first chapter David says, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”
And this sets the stage for the main action of the novel, where we find that David, broke and having proposed to Hella, waiting for her answer, (she has gone to Spain to travel and think about it) meets a young Italian waiter named Giovanni. He has been spending much of his time with people who were, “as Parisians put it, of le milieu, and while this milieu was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving, to them and to myself, that I was not of their company.” These older, wealthier gay men don’t seem to mind David’s condescension and continue to lend him money. The new waiter at the local bar causes a sensation among the regular patrons, but it is David who he ends up chatting with in sparkling and lightly flirtatious conversation, a fact which doesn’t escape the notice of everyone there. Jacques, one of the older men who seems much wiser than David in the ways of the heart, pointedly tells him, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”
I don’t want to go further and spoil anything else because this is a novel which deserves the designation “classic” and one that is so readable that modern readers will find a treasure trove of beautiful, philosophical lines to relish. As David and Giovanni become closer and Hella finally reenters the picture David is forced to make some hard choices about the path his life is going to take. No one is left unscathed by the outcome. As the reader already knows from the third page that Giovanni has done something that has caused him to be sentenced to death, it will come as no surprise that this novel is a sad one. Hella’s heartache when David finally opens up is also terribly moving. But as an exploration of the human heart and a man wrestling with his own shame this novel is a must-read.
(This book is also the 13th book from my 20 Books of Summer list.)