Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What I Read: Giovanni's Room

At one point during my trek through the TIME Top 100 novels, I picked up Go Tell It On The Mountain. But for some reason I never finished it? I don't know why. I remember enjoying it. But I forgot about picking it back up until my Internet book club decided on another James Baldwin novel, Giovanni's Room, for April. So that's one off the list!

Giovanni's Room is a really sort of all-purpose read. Have you been in a funk and need something quick and snappy (yet still satisfying) to read? Have you decided to read more "classics" but don't know where to start, or are intimidated by the prospect of long books and complicated language? Are you looking for alternatives to straight white males? Are you looking to brush up on the gay literature canon? If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, then Giovanni's Room is the book for you.

Courtesy Signet
I'm really tempted to summarize the entire plot, as the book is quite short, but then I suppose that would be quite spoiler-y, and this is a book that I think can be spoiled (though it does a whole lot of foreshadowing). Instead I'll just discuss what happens in the most general sense.

This novel is a story within a framing story. Our frame is simple enough: the narrator, David, is cleaning out his rented house in southern France. It's his last night there, and while he cleans, he reflects on the last year or so of his life: his relationship with Hella, a fellow American abroad, and the alluring Italian Giovanni. 

I've started and deleted a review here multiple times. I guess I don't know what to say about Giovanni's Room. Did I like it? Yes. I loved it, actually. Baldwin does a really great job drawing out the tension, keeping you wondering about what will happen next—or rather, about what exactly happened. But to imply that the best thing about Giovanni's Room is the plot is to do a great disservice to the language of the novel, and the great many themes it tackles. It's part of the gay literature canon, but for me it was also a novel about expatriation and belonging. David has been in France for some time by the time we meet him in the novel: he can speak French and he has befriended at least one Frenchman, and yet no one forgets, or lets him forget, that he is American—the American, sometimes. It's not his taste for men that his company finds strange, it's his nationality. Giovanni's Room certainly a novel about sexual identity, but national identity is a prominent and important secondary issue.

Also, Giovanni himself has probably the most beautiful dialogue I've read recently. Beautiful because Baldwin captures all the music of an accent without it being hackneyed or awkward. For that alone, writers should takes notes from this text. Here's just one of many examples:

"You do not," cried Giovanni, sitting up, "love anyone! 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...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?"
It's enough to make me wonder if Baldwin ever had a Giovanni of his own. (To my chagrin, I didn't know until I read Giovanni's Room that Baldwin was gay. Funny how some things get glossed over in biographies...)

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