Giovanni’s Room, a book featuring a man who has chosen not to be free, might be considered James Baldwin’s declaration of independence: the book refuses to accept the usual boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, turning these into open questions, in the belief that the only way to live is to be open to experience, to respect one’s own feelings and perceptions, and to form standards and goals founded on one’s experience and knowledge.
Reviewed by Daniel Garrett
David, an American in his late-twenties, imagines first that he loves Paris and later that he is sick of it, seeing it either as a playground or a tormenting mirror.
Nobody likes to travel, says Giovanni, a young Italian, to David, when David talks about Hella, his American mistress, and her time away in Spain.
Americans should never come to Europe. It means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had, says Hella shortly before leaving Paris for America, after the dissolution of her relationship with David.
Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden, says Jacques, an older man, a Belgian-born American businessman, to David.
France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the United States of America are the places where David, Giovanni, Hella, and Jacques live or have lived in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, a novel that demonstrates that ultimately not only is character fate but place becomes character—loneliness of spirit is reflected in the way city, town, and village are perceived. This is reminiscent of a poem by Rainer Rilke, “Autumn Day,” that says:
I have often thought of Giovanni’s Room as being about the choices that David makes, or rather doesn’t make, his failure to give himself fully to Hella or Giovanni, but during my latest rereading of the inexpensive 1988 Laurel/Dell paperback printing of the 1956 novel, it became apparent to me that the book is about the betrayal of a beautiful man. Giovanni’s hopes in Italy are disappointed by nature and his god, when his baby boy is born dead, and betrayed in Paris by his lover David, friend Jacques, and employer Guillaume. The story is told by David, whose guilt and sorrow regarding Giovanni’s pain, poverty, and death are clear; and the novel has an atmosphere of nightmare, of fear, the sense of being overwhelmed or entering a place that is strange, that one cannot leave. Real opportunities emerge for decisions to be made, but are defeated by self-delusion. What is of value is remembered and affirmed after it is too late to act. David does not seem to have a complete, independent self, but a self that is afraid of the judgment of others, a self that is adrift and lonely and that uses others as it uses liquor, as distraction. Baldwin captures the possibility of love between David and his boyhood friend Joey, and between the young adult men David and Giovanni, and between David and Hella—love as the dream of desire fulfilled, of pleasure so deep it becomes joy, a dream of understanding, loyalty, and shared truth; but these remain unfulfilled possibilities. Giovanni’s Room, a novel that shows the betrayal of desire, love, logic, truth, self, and youth, and the embrace of fear, prejudice, and shame, also illustrates the failure of place—America, France, or Spain—to be a refuge.
Before the 1956 publication by the Dial Press of Giovanni’s Room, there was a rebellion against French rule in Algeria and an Algerian war for independence beginning in 1954, and the same year a battle between French and Viet Minh forces occurred in Indochina. Neither conflict is mentioned in the novel, but such facts suggest the obvious: France, for all its admirable culture and liberalism, was involved in the world in complicated ways, and could not be a paradise. Certainly, the Algerian Berbers who killed seventy-seven French citizens in 1955 in Morocco did not think they were encountering angels. Such public issues are not discussed in Giovanni’s Room, but one of the interesting things about the novel is how again and again the reader is forced to face the complex facts of human nature, both will and weakness, and to see and, further, to imagine how human nature affects both private and public life.
Giovanni’s Room was published the same year as Albert Camus’s The Fall, Romain Gary’s Les Racines du Ciel (The Roots of Heaven), Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Giovanni’s Room is a first-person narrative structured in two parts, the first having three chapters, and the second part having five. Part One’s first chapter is focused on David in the great house he has rented in a small town in southern France. David describes himself as tall and blond, a man whose ancestors conquered a continent, America; and he is thinking about Giovanni’s coming death by guillotine for the murder of his former employer Guillaume, a decadent aristocratic bar owner. David is also thinking about Hella, who was away in Spain considering David’s marriage proposal when David met Giovanni in Paris; and David imagines Hella “very elegant, tense, and glittering, surrounded by the light which fills the salon of the ocean liner” (8) she is taking to get away from him and reach America. David had met Hella in a bar, as he did Giovanni; Hella was drinking and watching the men and David thought that she looked like someone he could have fun with. David thinks that he and Hella had felt free in France but that “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom” (10) and supposes that this was why he asked Hella to marry him. David recalls his childhood friendship with Joey, and his own early relationship to his father and aunt. David’s mother died when he was very young, and he had nightmares about being enveloped by her rotting flesh; and he wasn’t able as a boy to be honest with his father, and the two males were more like buddies than father and son—and David had no practice with creating intimacy or articulating truth.
The second chapter focuses on David’s initial meeting with Giovanni one night in a Paris bar, Guillaume’s bar, when David is in the company of Jacques, the businessman David is borrowing money from—and David remembers meeting Jacques again after hearing of Giovanni’s death sentence, before returning to David’s memory of that first meeting with Giovanni. (Bars are important locations in the novel; mundane sites of relaxation, they are also sites where personal lives spill out in public.) Giovanni stood in the bar “insolent and dark and leonine, his elbow leaning on the cash register, his fingers playing with his chin, looking out at the crowd. It was as though his station were a promontory and we were the sea” (39-40). David’s observation of Giovanni and how Giovanni looks upon the crowd, and also the conversation that Giovanni has with David, reveal Giovanni’s innate intelligence.
Brooklyn, San Francisco, New York, are all places David lived before coming to Paris, a city that he tells Giovanni he sees as old, whereas David sees New York as new. David says that “no city is more beautiful than Paris” (46), and that, “You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by,” whereas what you feel in New York, perhaps, is “all the time to come” (46-47). (Giovanni thinks that Italy, where he worked in the vineyards, danced, sang, and made love, is a friendlier place than France.) Both Giovanni and David think that life in America has made Americans very different from Europeans—in temperament, and in values, such as how Americans see time, which, Giovanni claims Americans make sound like a triumphant parade. Giovanni says, “I don’t believe in this nonsense about time. Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That’s all. The big fish eat the little fish, and the ocean doesn’t care” (48-49). David says you can choose to eat or be eaten. Giovanni responds, “To choose!…Ah, you are really an American” (49). When David says that in America the little fish seem to have gotten together and are nibbling the body of the whale, Giovanni says, “That will not make them whales. The only result of all that nibbling will be that there will no longer be any grandeur anywhere, not even at the bottom of the sea” (49). This is not the attitude one expects of a working boy—it doesn’t contain resentment of the status quo; and it indicates that Giovanni’s thinking is not circumscribed in predictable ways.
Giovanni and David argue with amusement, feeling, and rigor. Baldwin captures in that conversation, and elsewhere in the book, how and why people are attracted to each other—not merely the charm of personality or looks, but complimentary ways of seeing and thinking about the world—and it is this genuine attraction that makes the pain they later cause each other much more believable, troubling, and vicious.
Chapter three follows that first meeting and focuses on the morning that David and Giovanni, with Jacques and Guillaume, go to a restaurant in the neighborhood of Les Halles, a French market, that Giovanni recommends for drinks and food; then the chapter returns to the present, with David preparing to leave the rented French house and the house’s caretaker coming in to take inventory. (The caretaker is an old Italian woman who has lived long in France; and David imagines she is like Giovanni’s mother.) When the four men are in the taxi on their way to eat on that remembered early morning, Giovanni tells David to look out the window, and see “This old whore, Paris, as she turns in bed, is very moving” (61). What does David see? “I looked out, beyond his heavy profile, which was grey—from fatigue and from the light of the sky above us. The river was swollen and yellow. Nothing moved on the river. Barges were tied up along the banks. The island of the city widened away from us, bearing the weight of the cathedral; beyond this, dimly, through speed and mist, one made out the individual roofs of Paris, their myriad, squat chimney stacks very beautiful and varicolored under the pearly sky. Mist clung to the river, softening that army of trees, softening those stones, hiding the city’s dreadful corkscrew alleys and dead-end streets, clinging like a curse to the men who slept beneath the bridges—one of whom flashed by beneath us, very black and lone, walking along the river” (61-62). Giovanni asks David if he has ever slept beneath a bridge, before adding, while holding David’s hand, “Or perhaps they have soft beds with warm blankets under the bridges in your country?” (62). Giovanni sees more than one aspect of a country—its beauty and the reality of its people.
Giovanni and David, with Jacques and Guillaume, arrive at a restaurant full of good food and hungry boys, overseen by “one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies, produced only in the city of Paris, but produced there in great numbers, who would be as outrageous and unsettling in any other city as a mermaid on a mountaintop. All over Paris they sit behind their counters like a mother bird in a nest and brood over the cash register as though it were an egg. Nothing occurring under the circle of heaven where they sit escapes their eye, if they have ever been surprised by anything, it was only in a dream—a dream they long ago ceased having” (68). Giovanni introduces David to this woman with something “burning in his eyes and it lights up all his face, it is joy and pride” (71). Giovanni leaves David to speak with some of the other people in the place, including a ruined-looking girl, before returning to David; and David sees him “through all that sunlight, his face flushed and his hair flying, his eyes, unbelievably, like morning stars” (79). Giovanni tells David about how he acquired his job in Guillaume’s bar, that he met Guillaume in a film theater, where they had just seen a western featuring Gary Cooper, and that Guillaume made a scene over a lost scarf (as Guillaume will make a scene before he fires Giovanni, and, as later he likely did before Giovanni kills him); Giovanni suspects that scene-making is what Guillaume does, a knowledge that helps but does not save Giovanni. The job itself helped Giovanni get working papers, and it will pay enough, while it lasts, to support two, Giovanni and David.
Part Two of the novel begins its first chapter with David remembering life in Giovanni’s room, their daily life, and how Giovanni sensed David’s lack of commitment to him. Giovanni knows about David’s relationship to Hella, and responds skeptically to Hella being in Spain. David concludes that despite Hella and his own resistance to Giovanni, Giovanni has opened for David the doorway to the desire for other men; and instead of seeing this as a liberation David begins to hate Giovanni.
The second chapter of Part Two involves a description of the room itself, its smallness and squalor despite being in a respectable neighborhood, the almost mocking wallpaper featuring a hoop-skirted lady and man in knee breeches surrounded by roses, and Giovanni and David’s attempts to clean and renovate the room. Giovanni, an Italian farm boy who plays violin and has moved to Paris, lives in a room that seems almost as if the garbage of Paris were dumped in it, a room that contains the residue of Giovanni’s life. Meeting David gave Giovanni hope, but being with David curdled that hope. David thinks, “Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes became a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath. The sensual lips turned inward, busy with the sorrow overflowing from his heart. It became a stranger’s face—or it made me so guilty to look on him that I wished it were a stranger’s face” (99-100). David surmises that “it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief” (115). Giovanni and David try to make a home of the room, but David’s distrust of the life that two men can make together, and later the misfortune of Giovanni’s losing his job after Guillaume’s false claim of theft, undo this.
David gets a letter from Hella about her plan to return to Paris from Spain. Hella writes, “Spain is very beautiful, stony and sunny and lonely. But by and by you get tired of olive oil and fish and castanets and tambourines—or, anyway, I do. I want to come home, to come home to Paris. It’s funny. I’ve never felt anyplace was home before” (123). Hella’s letter, in which she says nothing has really happened to her in Spain, is one in which she accepts David’s marriage proposal; she says, “I’ve decided to let two try it, this business of loving me, I mean, and see how that works out” (124). Hella’s letter is a crisis for David, who propositions a rich American girl, Sue, to prove to himself he can still have sex with a woman. Sue, echoing Hella, says that nothing ever happens to her, a complaint that indicates she may not know that something only happens to you if you allow it to happen within you; and though Sue suspects David is using her, though not why, she allows it, possibly out of loneliness, knowing she may regret this, and going against her own instincts.
Leaving Sue after their brief sex, David reflects on Paris and his own desire for safety and normality in Part Two’s third chapter, before returning to Giovanni and the room they share, where he finds that Giovanni has been unfairly fired by Guillaume. Here, the sense of nightmare is strong; and it comes out of David’s dishonesty and lack of commitment to what is real—Giovanni, and what is happening in Giovanni’s life. David knows he will not use whatever money he has to help Giovanni, though Giovanni has helped him; and he admits to Giovanni that he does not like Giovanni’s room. When David tells Giovanni that he will eventually go home, to the United States, Giovanni says that home is only home as long as you do not go back, that the thought of home offers a false comfort. David says that what Giovanni is saying is a song he has heard before, and what “if I shut my ears?” Giovanni tells him, “You do, sometimes, remind me of the kind of man who is tempted to put himself in prison in order to avoid being hit by a car” (155). (Giovanni’s metaphors, which offer critique, philosophy, and a way of perceiving the world—and also David’s metaphors—expand the novel’s scope and depth, making a short book seem larger if not longer, more reverberating. The direct and truthful exploration of the novel—in the form of memories that attempt to recover and redeem relationships that are being lost—makes the text persuasive despite certain phrases or lines that might seem too lavender, even purple, as when David compares Giovanni’s eyes to morning stars, or when Giovanni for the first time pulls David into bed and David thinks, “With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes”—87) When David and Giovanni’s argument ends with sex, David’s sense is that “we were merely enduring and committing the longer and lesser and more perpetual murder” (157).
David receives a second missive from Hella, this one letting him know the exact date and time she will be arriving in Paris from Spain, and David meets her—and the brief uncertainty between them has the sad, unintentionally comic ambiguity of something out of Henry James—and they are reconciled and David avoids Giovanni for three days. Hella, who declares Spain her favorite country but for France, says upon her return that she thinks Paris could help someone heal a great sorrow—something that proves not to be true for herself, David, Giovanni, or anyone else in the novel. Hella talks about being a woman, and how it relates to her decision to marry; she thinks that for a woman a man is always a stranger, but she says to David, “I’ve got you to take care of and feed and torment and trick and love—I’ve got you to put up with. From now on, I can have a wonderful time complaining about being a woman. But I won’t be terrified that I’m not one” (167). Marriage is a short-cut to identity. Their conversation is interrupted when she decides to go into a bookstore, and there David and Hella accidentally bump into Giovanni and Jacques. Giovanni, who David has not mentioned to Hella, is very upset by David’s absence. Hella later asks about Giovanni, who she thinks is intense and interesting. Hella says, “He’s very beautiful, as a matter of fact. But there’s something in that face—so old-fashioned” (176).
David goes to Giovanni’s room to collect his things. Giovanni says, “You have never really been here. I do not think you have ever lied to me, but I know that you have never told me the truth—why?” (181). Giovanni asks, “What are you doing all the time? And why do you say nothing? You are evil, you know, and sometimes when you smiled at me, I hated you. I wanted to strike you. I wanted to make you bleed. You smiled at me the way you smiled at everyone, you told me what you told everyone—and you tell nothing but lies” (181-182). That seems contradictory—it is: first, you have not lied, and then, you tell nothing but lies; David has lied as a result of what he has not said. Giovanni cries—he has been made weak. Giovanni says, “It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody” (182). Giovanni recounts his life in his village in Italy—“It is very old and in the south, it is on a hill. At night, when we walked by the wall, the world seemed to fall down before us, the whole, far-off, dirty world. I did not ever want to see it” (183). He remembers the woman he had there, and imagines the children he might have had if he had stayed. Giovanni previously compared women to water (tempting, potentially treacherous, bottomless or shallow, sometimes dirty—“I perhaps don’t like women very much, that’s true. That hasn’t stopped me from making love to many and loving one or two”—105); and Giovanni thinks David is leaving him because David fears that love between men can be powerful and fears that power. Giovanni tells David, “You do not know anything. You do not know any of the terrible things—that is why you smile and dance the way you do and you think that the comedy you are playing with the short-haired, moon-faced little girl is love” (184).
David remembers an exchange that grows more painful as Giovanni exposes his own passion, a passion David recognizes but does not honor, the passion beneath the entire narrative, the passion David is trying to come to terms with through remembering: “ ‘You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, maybe diamonds down there between your legs! You will never give it to anybody, you will never let anybody touch it—man or woman. You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap—and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes in the meantime.’ He grasped me by the collar, wrestling and caressing at once, fluid and iron at once, saliva spraying from his lips and his eyes full of tears, but with the bones of his face showing and the muscles leaping in his arms and neck. ‘You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you—you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is this what you should do to love?’ ” (186-187).
With the money that David’s father sends, David does not help Giovanni, but instead he and Hella become tourists: “The money had come. Hella and I were busy every day, on the track of a house in Eze, in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in Vence, in Monte Carlo, in Antibes, in Grasse. We were scarcely ever seen in the quarter. We stayed in her room, we made love a lot, we went to the movies and had long, frequently melancholy dinners in strange restaurants on the right bank. It is hard to say what produced this melancholy, which sometimes settled over us like the shadow of some vast, some predatory, waiting bird” (194-195). Abandoned, Giovanni takes up—financially, sexually— with Jacques, whom Giovanni had previously thought silly, and Giovanni acquires effeminate mannerisms; and we see how the betrayal Giovanni has suffered has begun to change him—his habits, his standards, his personality; and after Jacques lets him go, Giovanni becomes vulnerable to the life of the street. (The book, in which bars seem the only form of homosexual culture, with no mention of Gide or Cocteau, is partly about how a person becomes a stereotype, a faggot—diminished, predictable, and unable to change. Hella’s presence does not change Giovanni’s judgment of David: in accepting sex from Giovanni but not love, Giovanni sees that David wants maleness not Giovanni, any strong man and not a particular man, and this makes David identical to the patrons in Guillaume’s bar that they both found disgusting. Those Giovanni and David have judged harshly fail to become the men they want to be and see their ideal in other men, a sight they receive not in admiration or inspiration but only with envy and erotic desire. It was Jacques who told David on the night the two met Giovanni, “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees” –75. The novel itself does not affirm heterosexuality or homosexuality, but, rather, makes clear that each person must be seen and judged, dismissed or loved, as an individual with an inner life—and to do otherwise is to violate spirit and body, possibly doing irreparable harm. Why is it hard for Giovanni to survive without David? It may be, as Giovanni said, that every terrible thing that happens to you makes you weaker.)
The scandal of Giovanni’s murder of Guillaume, with David feeling remorse and Hella trying to comfort David, dominates chapter five. (There are about four sections in this chapter.) “Such a scandal always threatens, before its reverberations cease, to rock the very foundations of the state. It is necessary to find an explanation, a solution, and a victim with the utmost possible speed. Most of the men picked up in connection with this crime were not picked up on suspicion of murder. They were picked up on suspicion of having what the French, with a delicacy I take to be sardonic, call les gouts particuliers. These ‘tastes,’ which do not constitute a crime in France, are nevertheless regarded with extreme disapprobation by the bulk of the populace, which also looks on its rulers and ‘betters’ with a stony lack of affection” (197-198). Giovanni is vilified as a foreigner and bungling criminal and is captured in a river barge, after being seen by a fireman who recognized him from the times he and David walked pass the firehouse. David imagines what happened between Giovanni and Guillaume—Giovanni’s asking for his job back, Guillaume requesting sex but still refusing to give Giovanni a job, followed by Giovanni’s humiliation and rage. In his imagination of what happened to Giovanni, David illustrates a belated form of empathy.
David, also, recalls how in his guilt and terror he turned to Hella for sex before becoming alienated from her, her body, and their affection for each other; and he leaves her as he had Giovanni, without explanation, and has an affair with a sailor; and Hella finds the two men in a bar (for men of very particular tastes). Hella packs her bags for America. David tells her that if he had been lying it was to himself, not her, and she tells him, “I was the one you were talking to. I was the one you wanted to come with you to this terrible house in the middle of nowhere. I was the one you said you wanted to marry!” (216). (David has lied about various things not only to Hella, but also to his father and aunt, to Joey, Jacques, Giovanni, Sue, and the caretaker of the house he rents.) David, whom Giovanni once described as charming, good-looking, and civilized, and to whom Hella says she will compare every man she meets, is left alone and he drinks and thinks of Giovanni’s coming death.
David has lost the illusions of youth, but not because he wanted to grow up, only because he has seen the result of his effect on other people’s lives, on that of Hella, an intelligent woman who was long willing to be there for him, and on that of Giovanni, the beautiful man he betrayed.
The book opens on David the night before he is to leave his rented house and the night before Giovanni’s execution; and the next morning, at the book’s conclusion, David walks to the bus, and tears up the note from Jacques giving the schedule of Giovanni’s execution—and the pieces of the envelope are blown by the wind back onto David. It may be that David, like the man in C.P. Cavafy’s “The City,” is damned:
Giovanni’s Room, a book featuring a man who has chosen not to be free, might be considered James Baldwin’s declaration of independence: the book refuses to accept the usual boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality, turning these into open questions, in the belief that the only way to live is to be open to experience, to respect one’s own feelings and perceptions, and to form standards and goals founded on one’s experience and knowledge. The novel, from beginning to end, is certainly a sad story in many ways; whether it is tragic is another question—none of the principals involved, Giovanni, David, or Hella, are engaged in any public work or position that renders their fate of genuine consequence to the world. However, Giovanni’s Room is a timeless story that can find a place in the individual mind: who hasn’t wanted love from someone who could not or would not give it, a love we thought could save or transform us? And who, while walking familiar streets, hasn’t dreamed of a place where we thought we could be free?
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About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. His book reviews have appeared in The African, American Book Review, The Compulsive Reader, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Those were reviews of the books of Louis Auchincloss, Hal Bennett, Raymond Carver, Michael Frayn, Ivy Goodman, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Heller, Charles Johnson, James Merrill, Albert Murray, Carl Phillips, John Updike, Colson Whitehead, and Richard Wright. Garrett’s essay “The Inner Life and the Social World in the Work of James Baldwin” was published by IdentityTheory.com. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org