71. Giovanni’s Room 

‘Tell me,’ he said ‘what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for?’ p.33

Alongside the stack of unread Discworld novels, beneath my bedside table there is a good chunk of varied literature that I haven’t gotten my teeth into yet. Weirdly, (I am a hopeless romantic), I have never really read into much romance or ‘love’. Whenever I have, I have found formulaic novels devoted to the conquest of a ‘happy ending’ which more often than not is a tragic ending. In my mind to make a classic Romance, you need the stoic, emotionally unavailable lover, the miserable tortured artist, a straying heroine, a third party’s return to dash all hope of an affair becoming more than an affair, and the truth finally uncovered. It’ll be a novel riddled with foolish mistakes made due to fear, miscommunication, and the human condition of hoping there can be more but never quite managing to be brave enough to reach out for it.

This is actually the majority of Giovanni’s Room in a nutshell, but Baldwin puts a spin on some of these classic elements and as a result the novel is enjoyable, if not a little hopeless and tortured. Giovanni’s Room is a tasteful coming out story, it is the explorer realising himself as ‘other’ and discovering how terrifying it is to be ‘other’. It is a protagonist’s rejection of himself and his lover and of course how foolish it is to reject yourself and the consequences of denying your own feelings.

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

One of the more interesting things about this novel is David’s, the protagonist, awareness of how tenuous his own masculinity is. Or perhaps maybe his masculinity itself isn’t tenuous, but it is how tenuous the projection of social masculinity is and how easily it is unraveled by prying eyes ‘seeing’ what has long been suppressed. David initially has an impulse to maintain his projection of masculinity as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. This impulse seems to relax for a while but returns later on in the novel.

I have been trying to decide where I think this impulse is rooted but it’s not simplistic. I think it is heavily implied by Baldwin that David’s impulse is fear boiling to the surface, and the difficulty of having an identity that doesn’t ‘fit’ with social expectation, as his lover is another man. This is quite a difficult thing to achieve in any novel, even with a good helping of introspection and Baldwin pulls it off like a master puppeteer.

The narrative follows David’s reflection on his love affair with a man called Giovanni. It is the story of how they meet, how they were, who they socialise with and then how it ends. But this is framed by some sinister knowledge that Giovanni is somehow going to die because of this love affair which is never revealed fully until the very end of the novel. David is also part of a bit of a complicated circle in Paris, the rich old ‘fairies’ pay the boys on the street for ‘release’ and the rich old ‘fairies’ also seem to run things with their spoilt tantrums. Poor Giovanni is at the mercy of them for part of this novel as he is jobless and helpless.

David meets Giovanni while his woman is away in Spain, deciding how she feels about him. He rediscovered feelings he repressed in his youth and although he is involved he cannot fully let himself be with Giovanni. They live together for a while and Giovanni is revealed as a man who has dumped his life into one room, he belongs to his endless artistic projects that include the room itself. But there seems to always be a distance between David and Giovanni and it is in the most heart wrenching moments of the book where Gio’s painful past is revealed and the reason why he left Italy.

It is in these passionate discussions that I cannot help but feel as if David is attempting to be the stoic emotionally stagnated character. Neatly timed for Hella’s return from Spain David throws himself back into the fantasy of her and they decide to marry but he quickly fades away from her and is wracked by guilt for Giovanni.

There is certainly much more to this novel than at first meets the eye. This is not a novel that has the artful postures of love, that shapes itself on long sighs and whimsy. It is a novel that is supposed to be a tangle of forces pulling David in all directions and it did leave me a little sad in the end. Sad for David. Sad for Giovanni. Sad for Hella. It felt like a decidedly Kafka-esque conclusion, which I suppose is true for many love affairs. Gender roles in this novel were handled in quite an interesting way, David rejecting the idea that Giovanni wants him to be a ‘housewife’, the ‘other’ masculinity that belongs to ‘deviant’ sexuality, Hella’s instance she now wants to be a wife. But it also demonstrates how fine the line is between love and agony and how quickly people reject one another’s company or even who they were with said person because they are wounded.

This novel succeeds to create a facsimile of just how complicated sexuality, gender, and social pressure can be when you are concerned about the expectations placed on you. It is a tragic story in many ways but will give you ample to think about regardless of your own sexuality, gender identity, or relationship status.

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