My rating: 3 of 5 stars
James Baldwin is today so universally beloved, so piously received, that it almost comes as a relief to find this, his generally acclaimed second novel, so uncongenial to contemporary sensibilities as to be positively disturbing. On the back cover, Michael Ondaatje proclaims Baldwin a “saint”—this would be fatally irritating, except that it is Baldwin’s sainthood that gives Giovanni’s Room an edge in the contemporary context, as the faint undercurrent of unease detectable in even the more positive reviews on Goodreads suggests.
Giovanni’s Room is about a white American named David, who narrates his own story. Sojourning in Paris and separated from his American girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he spends his time in the queer demimonde with the dissolute Jacques. In a gay bar owned by the aristocrat Guillaume, David undergoes the proverbial coup de foudre when he meets the Italian Giovanni. The two men begin an affair that largely takes place in the titular room, a squalid chamber Giovanni rents from a maid that stands for both pleasurable embowerment, often likened by David to living undersea, and for the crushing, contorting demands of the closet. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to midcentury American norms and expectations; this leads the already penniless Giovanni to succumb wholly to poverty and desperation, until he murders the bar-owner Guillaume and is in turn sentenced to death. The novel is narrated by David on the eve of Giovanni’s execution from a villa in which he had hoped to flee Paris with Hella, though by this time their relationship has broken up with her realization of his homosexuality (or bisexuality—the nature of his desire is never made quite clear, and neither term is used in the book).
The novel’s flaws are so obvious they hardly bear remarking. Every character is a flagrant stereotype—as they themselves seem perfectly aware—from the frigid WASP David to the histrionic Italian Giovanni to the bitter old queen Jacques. David and Giovanni’s conversations about national character amount to little more than tired cliches about the American fear of death and sensuality, already proverbial fifty or a hundred years before. In Baldwin’s ostensible model for the transatlantic narrative, Henry James, the American character when contrasted to the European is far more complex, the Protestant willfulness manifesting itself not only as indomitable optimism but tragic individualism and submission to one’s own chosen destiny—why, after all, does Isabel Archer return to Gilbert Osmond if not for the same reason that Ahab hunts the white whale? Baldwin substitutes melodrama for tragedy, depriving his protagonist of any ability to confront his fate freely—there is a polemical purpose to this choice, as Baldwin implicitly decries David’s (and white America’s) capitulation to inhumane standards, but it weakens the novel by depriving of it of real conflict.
Speaking of Henry James, the novel’s prose is, like its characters, in an artificially high register, as if translated, and sometimes it is ludicrously akin to that of the Master (e.g., “He was sobbing, it would have been said, as if his heart would break”). But the artifice of the style is in the end one of the book’s virtues. Its sense of creaking restraint, of strained lyricism, while it would become the house style of American realism, nevertheless gives the book its melancholy mood and redolent setting. When the melodramatic plot is forgotten, the high, sad tone will linger like the red wine that “had been spilled on [Giovanni’s] floor; it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy.”
Now to what I find fascinating and disturbing about Giovanni’s Room: as a number of reviewers point out, Baldwin’s portrayal of gay Paris is unrelentingly grim. The bohemian paradise of gorgeous decadence celebrated by Djuna Barnes becomes in David’s narration a panoply of scheming seducers and strutting gigolos, a dirty stew of loveless corruption, sex reduced to its basest elements in sensuous greed. The novel’s most dystopian vision comes early, a drag queen not seen by David as alive:
It looked like a mummy or a zombie—this was the first, overwhelming impression—of something walking after it had been put to death. And it walked, really, like someone who might be sleepwalking or like those figures in slow motion one sometimes sees on the screen. It carried a glass, it walked on its toes, the flat hips moved with a dead, horrifying lasciviousness. It seemed to make no sound; this was due to the roar of the bar, which was like the roaring of the sea, heard at night, from far away. It glittered in the dim light; the thin, black hair was violent with oil, combed forward, hanging in bangs; the eyelids gleamed with mascara, the mouth raged with lipstick. The face was white and thoroughly bloodless with some kind of foundation cream; it stank of powder and a gardenia-like perfume.
This goes on for another several sentences. Surely, it is the repressed WASP narrator and not Baldwin talking in such a viciously dehumanizing way? I am not so sure. The thesis of the novel is that sex without love is immoral; we learn this most vividly when David, trying to persuade himself he is not attracted exclusively to men, cruelly sleeps with a female acquaintance he knows wants more from him than sex: “But I was thinking that what I did with Giovanni could not possibly be more immoral that what I was about to do with Sue.” In other words, society is wrong to proscribe homosexual acts because they are often acts of love; and by proscribing them, one drives them underground where they fester in the loveless and garish subculture that David and Baldwin seem to look on with such disdain and even horror. Again, notice the novel’s undersea motif in the passage above: the dominant culture is a horror, but society is so arranged that you will drown and then inhabit a frightful death-in-life if you leave it. (Baldwin’s is not a paradisal queer ocean, an expanse of erotic potential, like Melville’s or Whitman’s.)
Moreover, not only gay men but everyone is subject to the same choiceless choice as the novel sees it: while Hella is scarcely characterized, she too protests at the compulsory life middle-class American women were forced to lead—not because of her sexual orientation but only because it deprives her of freedom. This reflects, too, on David’s other encounters with women, such as his mother and his landlady, whom he both loves and fears for the demands of love and need they would make of him, demands blunted by more patriarchal marital customs. When recounting a dream about his dead mother, which reveals his fear of love, he recalls “that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive,” a passage echoed in the living death of the drag queen. Any and all femininity stand, to David, for devouring softness or liquidity, what he paradoxically gives up by not admitting his love for a man. But as aware of this as Baldwin must be, the parodied femininity of the gay quarter still seems to him both evasive and demonic, a jeering mockery of the love men cannot have in homophobic society—as it would not at all, I think, seem to us, to say the least.
Freedom to love is the novel’s ethic, and it is what Baldwin condemns both repressive mainstream society and the countercultures it forces into existence for refusing to individuals. This worldview, the obvious legacy of Baldwin’s youthful Christian faith, is not a welcome moral for today: we view almost any normative judgments about culture or demands about sex as oppressive and totalizing. For this reason, Baldwin both can and cannot be our saint. He cannot, because we do not share his sense of the holy; and he can, because a saint is necessarily not of our world.