James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

Considering that Giovanni, the Italian bartender who begins a relationship with the narrator, an American expat in Paris, is executed for the murder of the owner of a gay bar at the end of the novel Giovanni’s Room, we might assume that he is the destructive one.  Indeed, it is Giovanni that has the emotional outbreaks and displays his feelings for all to see.  Reading this novel, I could not help but feel that the true destructive force was David – the expat – who was capable of keeping his emotions quite tied up.  David is the narrator of the novel, but there is no reason to trust that his confession is fully honest.  He tries – and is mostly successful – in keeping his emotions tied down.  But in doing so he destroyed a number of people’s lives, contributing to the deaths of two, and ruining his own relationships.  On this theme, there is really not special about the theme of homosexuality.  David could as easily have been a conflicted heterosexual, leading to the same destruction, even though he would not have been conflicted for the same reasons.   I do not want to downplay how traumatic David’s homosexuality may have been for him.  Much of the novel involves his struggle with it, his lies to his family, his effort to sustain a heterosexual relationship with the charming Hella, his guilt over his feelings for Giovanni, and the relative sexual freedom he enjoyed as an expat.  These would all be framed different had David not been imagined as a homosexual.  That said, no shortage of heterosexuals have experiences pressures to marry within their class, to respect long dead marital vows, or to protect their relationship with their children.  Romantic expectations affect us all.  Their tyrannical power is simply more clearly seen in works covering the most oppressed sexual minorities.

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Baldwin’s novel is broken up into two parts.  The first sets up David’s relationship with Giovanni, which grew out of the relative boredom David felt as Hella traveled in Spain.  Through his homosexual friend Jacques, David is introduced to Giovanni and the gay bar that would be so important in the plot.  Jacques invited David to recklessness with a very convincing monologues that can be applied to numerous situations.  All that is required for a full realization of life’s potential is the absence of a concern about the future.  Liberty requires a degree of recklessness.  “Love him, love him and let him love you.  Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?   And how long, at the best, can it last?  since you are both men and still have everywhere to go?  Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark.  And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his.  But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.  You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and and forever and forever–like me.” (267)  If is convincing enough that David is chooses to begin a relationship with Giovanni.

The second part of the novel focuses on the destructive nature of David’s decisions.  One could almost say that the root of his problems was that he was not projectural or destructive enough.  He took Jacques’ advice seriously in the short-term but did not carry it out.  (Can any of us?)  His family expectations and his relationship with Hella convince him to move out of Giovanni’s room.  Fearing the future, David picks up a homely woman, only to leave her.  It seems he wanted to prove that he could play heterosexual prior to Hella’s return.  Almost simultaneously Giovanni is fired from his job and  ends up scraping by on the charity of his friends.  David greeted the returning Hella with a marriage proposal (which also works as a cover to get some money from his father).  Giovanni is distraught by David moving out and by his lack of work or money.  Giovanni brutally kills the bar owner, Guillaume.  The events leading up to the murder were his confession to Giovanni that he was essentially used up (“Giovanni, like a falling move star, has lost his drawing power.”)  A bar like his needed an unknown, mystery man.  Giovanni is put on trial and the newspapers reveal all the notiorious details of his life in Paris.  He is executed at the same time that the narrator tells his story.  The final loose end is the collapse of Hella and David’s relationship, which was destroyed by the exposure of his homosexuality.  She discovered him with a sailor.  In the second half, David’s most destructive act was his attempt to reinvest in his relationship with Hella, considering he had the chance to escape.  Who knows if there was any future for Giovanni and David.  It is also wrong to assume that there was nothing meaningful in his plans with Hella.  It was David’s attempt to have it all that was so destructive.  Did he have any alternatives?  He could have listened to Jacques’ advice and stopped playing it safe, stopped despising his flesh and desires.  Yes, it would have required a painful and honest moment with Hella and himself.  It might have avoided the broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken souls that we are left with at the end of Giovanni’s Room.

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A final biographical note on Baldwin in Europe is in order.  Baldwin lived in France between 1950 and 1954.  This novel was published two years later.  Not as dramatic as the events of Giovanni’s Room happened to Baldwin.  The biographical sketch at the end of the “Library of America” volume suggests he spent most of his time writing.  He likely knew about expats scraping by and can speak from personal experience and observation about the comparative freedoms expats enjoy.  These are themes in the novel.  While it is true that expats (often Zygmunt Bauman’s tourists) have liberties that people closer to home lack, we should not overstate the significance of this.  At best, it can be a lifestyle approach to freedom.  Not all of us are capable of moving abroad and most that do move abroad do so as economic migrants and often find their life in a new land to be one of drudgery, labor, and exploitation.  David (like Baldwin) came to France with a bank account, connections, and a U.S. Passport.

Enjoy a James Baldwin interview, recorded in 1963, mostly on race issues.

 

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2 responses to “James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956): Destructive Love

  1. You have an interesting take on Baldwin’s story. But I have another one. I’m not so hard on David. I don’t think David was conflicted by his homosexuality. I think he accepted it. His problem was not with himself. His problem was that the public, society would not accept who he was. That’s what he really wanted. He wanted to be himself, homosexual; but he wanted the public to accept homosexuality; but he knew that the public would not. He understood homosexuality was accepted; but only as something that was underground, to be kept out sight. David’s problem was that he did not want to be kept out of sight. He wanted to live in the open. Living with Helen, he could be in the open. But that wasn’t who he was. He wanted to be Giovanni. But he could not, at least not in public.

    I think Baldwin was influenced by Kafka in many ways, particularly Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Frankly, I forgot why I said what I did about this novel. One downside of this project is the speed required, leading me to scratching my head from time to time over things I wrote. I appreciate your visit and surrender to your eloquence and insights!

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