Published in 1956, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is considered a notable work of queer literature for focusing on homosexuality and desire between men. David, an American man struggling to accept his sexuality, moves to Paris and soon finds himself involved with an Italian man named Giovanni. Turmoil ensues as David must choose between Giovanni and Hella, the woman he’s been seeing for some time. Much of this debate between man and woman, transgressive homosexuality and traditional heterosexuality, past and future, all take place within the walls of Giovanni’s dark, dirty, suffocating room. In a novel that begins in nearly the same way that it ends, the journey down memory lane is just as important as the present from which David tells us his story.
Unlike many students who had to read Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and The Fire Next Time (1963) in classes over the years, I had never read anything by Baldwin until I was recently assigned this for my English Literature 1910-Present tutorial. My professor suggested watching the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, before reading the novel in order to gain a clearer sense of historical and social context of the time period. Before I even begin to talk about the novel itself, I must say that I cannot recommend this documentary enough. Based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House and paired with photographs of recent clashes between law enforcement and African Americans protesting in the streets, this documentary is a disturbing reminder that much more progress needs to be made in terms of how we address racial inequality in the United States. Whether or not you read Giovanni’s Room, definitely consider checking out I Am Not Your Negro.
Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is remarkable in many ways, from its discussion of homosexuality that was incredibly controversial in 1950s America when it was published to its hauntingly emotional writing. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this novel is the way it is structured, with the broad details of the plot– the fact that David ultimately leaves Giovanni, that Giovanni does something awful and ends up sentenced to death, that this is the night that Giovanni will die– all laid out in the very beginning. The entire novel is written from the first person perspective of David, but it starts out in the present tense and then shifts to past tense as he recounts memories of a night spent with a boy as a teenager, his tumultuous relationship with his father, and, finally, his time in Paris with Giovanni. In this way, the structure of the novel reminded me of that of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, in which you know a murder happens right from the start and you’re reading to figure out how and why it happened. Knowing the what from the beginning allows you to really focus on the characters themselves rather than plot, which is always my preferred way to read.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t at least mention one of the most interesting aspects of this novel: the actual room itself. Giovanni’s room (after which the novel is titled) plays an integral role in the story as both an important physical space and a metaphor for countless things: the relationship between Giovanni and David, homosexuality, the stigma of societal labels in general, etc. The possibilities are endless here, people. I love when writers play around with symbolism like this, especially in ways that seem really obvious and simple but are actually quite complicated and multifaceted.
Overall, I’m so glad that this novel was assigned for one of my tutorials and I’m already looking forward to reading more of James Baldwin’s writing in the future. I love discovering new (to me) authors!
What are your thoughts on Giovanni’s Room? Would you recommend any of James Baldwin’s other novels? Let me know in the comments section below!