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APS TOGETHER

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin Day 4

September 20, 2020 | Part 1, Ch. 3, p. 44-61 (up to “to reach out and comfort him”)

More mythology! Although it’s not a direct comparison, I can’t see the woman who minds the cash register at the restaurant in Les Halles without thinking again of the Sibyl whom I thought of in the reading from yesterday. Unlike the Sibyl, though, who can prophecy the future, this woman – who we are told exists throughout Paris in one form or another, just as there were many Sibyls, each associated with her particular oracle – sees the past in everyone and uses it to assess who they are in the present: “she would have no trouble reconstructing every instant of our biographies from the moment we were born until this morning.”



So, maybe Giovanni’s Room is more than a tragedy. Is there something epic about it? As in epic, the hero at some point has to have an encounter with the underworld, as a way to learn something important about himself and/or his future. Odysseus does this in The Odyssey and has a conversation with the dead Achilles. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas visits the Sibyl at Cumae, is led by her into the underworld so he can see his dead father. David – who may or may not be the hero, if there even is one here – enters what can seem an underworld-like Paris, complete with ‘ghosts’ who appear beneath bridges, and figures like the Sibylline woman at the cash register. It’s as if David has to pass through this underworld to encounter Giovanni – and then what? Or is it the other way around, and Giovanni has come to this underworld, via Italy, to encounter David – and then what?



I have read this novel many times in my life. Only in this latest reading do I see that even the name of the woman at the register – Madame Clothilde – is not random. The name comes originally from the Frankish for “brave in battle,” and is also the name of a French saint who converted her husband to Christianity. BUT, though I’m not an expert in etymology, I can’t help noticing how close Clothilde is to Clotho, who was one of the three fates in Greek mythology, along with her sisters Lachesis and Atropos. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis determines how long it will be, and Atropos cuts it off. Which is all to say that the presence of Madame Clothilde introduces the idea of mortality: of mortality being given an assigned length by powers beyond our control and of our life-spans being arbitrary. Life as both random and deliberate…Which makes me wonder how much of what happens in this book is within the characters’ control. This seems a question, too, that the book poses for each of us readers, about our own individual lives.



Another epic that comes to mind is Dante’s Divine Comedy. I mostly know the Inferno part, where Dante keeps getting approached by various dead people who explain what they did on earth that caused them to have to be in hell. These figures are examples for Dante, meant in part to warn him about his own behavior, to be on guard against making the same mistakes as the people in hell have. After seeming so ridiculous, Jacques in this chapter becomes a sympathetic character, very aware of how he has failed to seek affection in his encounters, and the result is a life that he himself finds shameful. He warns David to avoid making the same mistake: “the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” He tells David to reflect on this, “and perhaps one day, this morning will not be ashes in your mouth.” In a way, Jacques has also become the equivalent, for a moment, of the ghosts in Greek and Roman epic who appear, sometimes in dream, to warn the living before it’s too late. “You play it safe long enough…and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever – like me.”



Pierre – the redhead at the bar – blushes and is described as looking like “a freshly fallen angel.” A few paragraphs later, Giovanni’s eyes are described as “morning stars.” Lucifer means bringer of light, in Latin, and was the word used, in the King James version, for the Hebrew phrase, morning star, in the original Hebrew of Isaiah (Old Testament). Lucifer is also, of course, the chief fallen angel, aka Satan.


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