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APS TOGETHER

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin Day 9

September 25, 2020 | Part 2, Ch. 4, p. 119-136 (up to “'We’d better get some sleep.'”)

Chapter 3 ends with Giovanni telling David to hug him: “Viens m’embrasser.” Chapter 4 opens with the arrival of Hella, who says to David, when he just stands there, “t’embrasse pas ta femme?”: “You aren’t going to hug your woman?” (Or maybe “You don’t hug your woman?” I don’t know French, really.) So, a parallel is established. So, when David tells us that when he does hug Hella he felt “that my arms were home,” it’s not that credible. His resistance to hugging Giovanni has to do with his having determined that he needs to leave Giovanni, he feels trapped by neediness. Holding to the analogy, then, even if he does hug Hella, represents a similar trap. She’s decided she wants David. But across the novel, David panics and runs from whoever needs him.


Someone mentioned earlier that the name Hella means sun ray, in Greek. It’s also related to the name Helen, of course – which makes me think of Helen of Troy, who was at the center of a dispute between two men, both claiming her as their own. In Baldwin’s triangle, David seems closer to a Helen figure, to whom both Giovanni and Hella want to commit their futures…Also, very early in the book, the French phrase “Hélas!” occurs – French for “Alas!” I believe the French pronunciation for both Hella and hélas would count the “h” as silent, also the “s” is silent at the end of “hélas,” which means Hella’s name is very close in pronunciation to the French word for Alas. Which in turn means her very name is akin to disappointment, sorrow, regret…I assume novelists think about these things…



So much of this reunion between David and Hella works as an echo chamber. I’ve mentioned the two embrace scenes already. But also David’s description of Hella as “a familiar, darkened room in which I fumbled to find the light” of course recalls Giovanni’s room. David feels he can’t be articulate until he’s had sex with Hella again, in effect erasing Giovanni: “I hoped to drive out fire with fire,” he says – but this was also what he hoped for when he had sex with Sue…Another echo, in the phrase “drive out fire with fire,” this one with the closing line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 144, where the speaker is condemned to “live in doubt,/Till my bad angel fire my good one out.”



Hella’s discussion about what it means to be a woman, the way that society defines women in terms of their attachment to men (she says that in committing to David “I can have a wonderful time complaining about being a woman. But I won’t be terrified that I’m not one”) is fascinating, though I am reluctant, as a cis queer man, to say too much. One thought, though: in feeling (in being made to feel) she has to align who she is with society’s expectations, she’s analogous to David and Giovanni – all are marginalized, and all have the same choice to compromise or to be condemned/erased….

So much gets said, these days, about writers writing other genders than their own, other races than their own. Baldwin does both. Persuasively? I think so, but again I am speaking from my own perspective, which matches Baldwin’s, as a Black, cis, queer man.


After running into Jacques and Giovanni, Hella remarks that Jacques is “a man who dislikes women.” While she could mean he’s a misogynist, I suspect she also refers here to his queerness, his not being sexually attracted to women. Her questioning of Giovanni’s intensity around David, her wondering about G’s relationship to Jacques – she’s getting closer to what’s been going on in her absence. When her hotel door is unlocked and she stares into the darkness before they’ve turned on a light, “I always wonder,” she said, “if I dare go in.” Hard not to think she means not just her hotel but the whole subject of David and Giovanni.

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