Read Giovanni's Room
by James Baldwin with Carl Phillips in the sixth installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here
Giovanni's Room is a fever dream of language, desire, tenderness, those brief moments in which we think we know ourselves and others, the larger moments when we realize the quest to know anything for sure may be unresolvable—yet we keep questing, anyway. It's a meditation, too, on otherness—in terms of class, sex, race, and of intimacy maybe most of all.
is the author of fifteen books of poems, most recently Pale Colors in a Tall Field
(FSG). He teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Day 1 | September 17: Part 1, Ch. 1, pg. 3-13 (up to "to be the son of such a mother")
Day 2 | September 18: Part 1, Ch. 1, pg. 13-27 (from "Years later, when I had become a man" to “if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.”)
Day 3 | September 19: Part 1, finish Ch. 1 & all of Ch. 2, p. 27-43 (from "This bar was practically in my quartier" to "the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.")
Day 4 | September 20: Part 1, Ch. 3, p. 44-61 (up to “to reach out and comfort him”)
Day 5 | September 21: Finish Ch. 3 (end of Part 1), p. 61-71 (from "Our oysters came and we began to eat" to "so many desperate and drunken mornings.")
Day 6 | September 22: Part 2, all of Ch. 1, p. 75-84
Day 7 | September 23: Part 2, all of Ch. 2, p. 85-102
Day 8 | September 24: Part 2, all of Ch. 3, p. 103-118
Day 9 | September 25: Part 2, Ch. 4, p. 119-136 (up to “'We’d better get some sleep.'”)
Day 10 | September 26: Part 2, finish Ch. 4, p. 136-148 (from "I got to Giovanni's room very late" to "the sash of his dressing gown.")
Day 11 | September 27: Part 2, Ch. 5, p. 149-157 (up to “and the shadow of death.”)
Day 12 | September 28: Part 2, finish Ch. 5, p. 157-169 (from "By the time we found this great house" to The End.)
Day 1 | September 17
Part 1, Ch. 1, pg. 3-13 (up to "to be the son of such a mother")
The opening paragraph is a perfect example of Baldwin’s gift for compression, his ability to say a great deal in a brief space, and also to suggest something about the trajectory of the novel’s sensibility itself. The first three sentences are dominated by the I. The next two sentences attach the I to an image: a reflection, an arrow, blond hair, a face. All of these then get replaced by the speaker’s ancestors. So there’s already transformation going on, and I’d say this book is very much about transformation – how we transform those whom we encounter, and how they transform us, for better AND worse….Sticking with this paragraph, notice the analogy: speaker is to arrow as speaker’s ancestors are to conquest – conquest as an arrow of destruction across Europe, then the sea, until arriving at the Americas. Baldwin’s specification that the speaker is blond puts this into particular, racial context. All of this, while someone has a drink and looks out the window!
“for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this is why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to…But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts…Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” Interesting how Baldwin sees freedom and stability as opposites. The human impulse is toward being attached to someone – moored – so as not to be adrift. But we also have an impulse toward freedom – Hella has enjoyed a life of “drinking rather too fast, and laughing, and watching the men;” the speaker sees his relationship with Hella – the nights in bed, in particular – as a way to detach from past and present, a way to only have to take “the most mechanical responsibility” for his actions. He blames their behavior on being in a foreign place – Paris – but isn’t mere human restlessness what’s really at work here? Maybe a little human selfishness, too? “I am too various to be trusted.”
With a few strokes, Baldwin contextualizes the narrative in terms of race and class. We now know that the narrator is white and from money, and that’s he’s judgmental of those who aren’t like himself, even as he’s drawn to those who aren’t like him, as toward “the black opening of a cavern,” as he describes Joey’s body…Meanwhile, it is worth noting that the speaker, who compared himself to an arrow in the very first paragraph of the novel, has had a life that took him from Seattle to Manhattan to Brooklyn, then back to Manhattan, before setting off to Paris. He’s like an arrow that can’t come to rest – and his moral compass is just as erratic. But I wonder how much of this is intentional, and how much has to do with his suppressing his sexual self? Is sexual clarity required, for something like moral stability to come about? But isn’t life, according to Baldwin, opposed to stability? What, then?
“We lived in Brooklyn too, in those days, but in a better neighborhood than Joey’s.”
Day 2 | September 18
”You slob. You got bedbugs?”
“Joey’s body was brown…”
Part 1, Ch. 1, pg. 13-27 (from "Years later, when I had become a man" to “if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.”)
One of the things I love about Baldwin, but especially in Giovanni’s Room
and Another Country
, is his ability to get at how much who we are is conundrum – he makes it almost palpable. It’s something he has in common with the Greek tragedians. Every Greek tragedy occurs at the intersection of what society expects of an individual and what that individual in fact desires; there can be no resolution without terrible sacrifice, which is not resolution, just an outcome…Back to Baldwin. Intimacy and distance. David – our narrator, who now has a name – wants distance from his father, but what he gets is his father’s intimacy forced upon him, and it makes loving his father impossible – because being intimate allows him to see his father for what he is. Meanwhile, David fled from the intimacy he had with Joey, and it has made it impossible for him to love himself; but the more distance he puts between himself and Joey, the more he craves/is tormented by the intimacy they enjoyed.
What does it mean, if we can only love a person according to how little we really know them – is it like this for all children, when it comes to loving their parents? And what if we can only love ourselves if we refuse to look too closely at what we are? Baldwin knows that love is basically impossible, and that it is equally impossible for us to resist trying to find it.
And yet, I can’t really say that David doesn’t look closely at what he is, at least once the accident occurs. His father’s vulnerability in the wake of the accident seems to have a clarifying effect on David – or maybe it’s more accurate to say it has a solidifying effect, since from that point on, David distances himself by creating a convincing persona, enough to make the father feel better about himself.
As for clarifying: It’s also important to remember that when David assesses himself at the end of chapter one, he’s doing so from the vantage of many years later, in the wake of something we haven’t yet learned about. NOW he can explain to himself the episode with Joey, NOW he can say a thing like “I succeeded very well – by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion.” But the David who is catalyst for everything that will now follow in the novel still lacks this self-knowledge, and thinks he will “find” himself by going to France, even as he also knows now that he knew then “at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I went to France.” More conundrum!
David suggests that this idea of going somewhere to find oneself is especially American. Is it?
Fascinating how time is handled in this novel. Time, and story. By p. 23 we have yet to meet Giovanni, but we know he will be killed by guillotine. On that same page, we are introduced to Jacques, but no sooner than he’s been described – but David hasn’t yet met up with him – we are thrown forward in time to a conversation David and Jacques have on the morning of Giovanni’s being sentenced. So, chapter two begins with David about to go meet Jacques for dinner, then we get the conversation that comes much after that, then we return to the evening of David and Jacques having dinner for the first time. Time interrupting itself. Or time being just as all-over-the-place as the narrator, both in physical space and in terms of morality.
It doesn’t take long to realize that what David means by le milieu
is what, at the time, must have been considered the world of sexual ‘deviance’ – so-called ‘loose’ women, men like the boy who works at the post office and comes out “at night wearing makeup and earrings and with his heavy blond hair piled high,” men referred to as les folles
(the movie La Cage aux Folles
comes to mind) who refer to each other as “she.” He may have crossed the ocean, but he has sought out the very thing he claims to be fleeing, even if by this time he is involved with Hella. By his own analogy, he’s a hypocrite: he claims to be disgusted with le milieu
but in the way that people hate to see monkeys eating their own excrement, because they see themselves in the monkeys. David sees himself in le milieu
, and hates it, and can’t stay away.
Baldwin says there are two choices, either we remember our individual innocence – our Garden of Eden, as he puts it – or we forget it, and we engage, accordingly, either with “madness through pain” or “madness of the denial of pain.” I can’t decide which type of madness is David’s madness. There goes the restless arrow on that moral compass again…
Personal note: I first read Giovanni’s Room
in my 20s, before I had come out, when I was so much in apparent denial of my own queerness that I truly didn’t recognize it. That would take me ten more years. Reading this novel didn’t help matters. The depiction of le melieu
, the character of Jacques (who seemed a stereotypical old “queen,” bitter, unloved, paying people to keep him company), and the inner turmoil of David’s character – I rejected all of it as having nothing to do with who I was. Also – like David – I couldn’t look away. I lived in a small town that bore no resemblance to the Paris of Baldwin’s novel. The book was an escape from that, into something that also made me relieved to realize, each time I put the book down, that it was ‘just’ a book, that my life was an entirely different thing. Thank goodness we sometimes outlast our own delusions.
Day 3 | September 19
Part 1, finish Ch. 1 & all of Ch. 2, p. 27-43 (from "This bar was practically in my quartier" to "the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.")
Our first encounter with Giovanni himself. Notice the two figurations that Baldwin uses to describe him: first it’s as if Giovanni “were a promontory and we were the sea;” two paragraphs later, he is described as a boy for sale, standing with “arrogance on an auction block.” Nothing is random in Baldwin’s work, in this novel especially. Baldwin knows full well that the auction block conjures the idea of slavery. And the earlier image suggests that Giovanni is an object to be used, a place from which to launch oneself into a sea that has itself been described one of sexual murkiness (iniquity?). With these two images, we see Giovanni as pure tool with which to get a job done. More exactly, we see that this is how David – being the speaker – sees Giovanni.
Giovanni is the Italian equivalent of John, and is often shortened to Gio, which is pronounced Joe. Joey, of course, was the boy with whom David had a sexual encounter and who seems sometimes to have been the catalyst for all of David’s behavior since then. Again, nothing random when it comes to Baldwin…
The discussion between David and Giovanni about the difference between New York and Paris quickly becomes one about the difference between Europe and America. As in Henry James, Europe is often both the catalyst for and ‘excuse’ for reckless behavior, as if somehow what happens in Europe really can stay in Europe and can be written off as a forgettable exception to otherwise ‘good’ behavior....This happens at the level of class, too, in this novel. Remember that Joey lived in a poorer part of Brooklyn than David; and Giovanni is depicted as working class, compared to David. It’s as if moral slippage (as David sees it) doesn’t count, if it occurs with people who are already associated with sweat, dirt, poverty, things that are themselves associated with ‘loose’ morality – at least by people like David.
It’s hard for me not to see the nameless figure who emerges from the shadows of the bar and eventually predicts David’s future with Giovanni as a version of the ancient Greco-Roman Sibyl, the priestess who would deliver the oracles of Apollo to people seeking to know the future. Here, given the description of him, the young man is like the Sibyl in drag, variously comical, pitiful, and also capable of fury. Notice how Baldwin aligns this figure with Greek tragedy (and later in this chapter, the tragedy of Macbeth
), with his “mouth turned down like the mask of tragedy.” One of the requirements of the tragic hero is that the hero must fall, by a combination of his own hubris and the tragic flaw in his character that prevents him from understanding the consequences of his actions until it’s too late; but that isn’t enough. After the fall, the hero must come to understand his flaw, and in doing so attain clarity, vision. As Karl Jaspers put it in “Basic Characteristics of the Tragic,” “There is no tragedy without transcendence” and “Transition is the zone of tragedy.” If Giovanni’s Room
is a tragedy, who will turn out to be the tragic hero?
Day 4 | September 20
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.
Day 5 | September 21
Finish Ch. 3 (end of Part 1), p. 61-71 (from "Our oysters came and we began to eat" to "so many desperate and drunken mornings.")
It’s a curious moment, when David decides that the people he’s surrounded by – the patrons of the restaurant, Giovanni, Parisians in general – are “people I would never understand.” And his impulse is to go “home,” as if that could prevent him from succumbing to “shameful” behavior. Yet he knows
that his situation is nothing new for him. It’s a kind of spiritual lost-ness, akin to Augustine (in the Confessions
) finding himself in “the region of unlikeness,” where he recognizes simultaneously what he believes he should do and his equal desire/inability to do it. It’s one of the few moments where, almost, I feel sorry for David.
Speaking of Augustine, in Confessions he famously prays to be made chaste, then adds “but not yet.” Compare this to what happens to David upon entering Giovanni’s room: “With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.” Is Giovanni’s room the region of unlikeness? At least David admits that no one is forcing him into this situation. He’s the one who (“the sum of me”) wants this.
Joey’s room in Brooklyn. Giovanni’s room. Guillame’s bar. Madame Clothilde’s restaurant. The house in the south of France from which David remembers everything that occurred in Paris. So many interior spaces in a book of such interiority. The outside world – parks, open spaces – hardly appears. Les Halle is an outside market but crammed with people…The interior spaces are always crowded, too many people or the space itself is too small. Likewise, the psychological and emotional interiors of several of the characters – but especially David – are overfull, no room to move about, without bumping up against yet another stranger aka another troubling aspect of the self.
The conversation between David and the caretaker of the place he’s renting in the south of France in many ways explains how difficult it can be, even now, to come out as queer. The caretaker offers the usual solutions for unhappiness/confusion: marriage, children, and prayer. But at the time of the novel, marriage and children aren’t options for queer men in particular, and how to turn to a religion that historically has condemned who you are, how you behave, as sinful? So much of David’s difficulty might be avoided if he could just be who he is. But society forbids it. We’re back to the impossible crossroads of Greek tragedy again.
Day 6 | September 22
Part 2, all of Ch. 1, p. 75-84
The opening of part two lays out a fascinating physics/metaphysics: joy and amazement, at their peak, seem to bring about their own demise, getting displaced by anguish and fear – across the surface of which David and Giovanni lose “balance, dignity, and pride.” Another way of putting it is that too much happiness makes them remember that their happiness is societally forbidden, which leads to fear, which in turn leads to shame about the behavior that led to their happiness. Argh, indeed!
Also interesting here is the connection David makes between memorizing Giovanni’s face and the consequent metamorphosis of that face into something more like the skull of a stranger. Is that the problem, then, this attempt to fix something in memory and make it lasting? Better to have thought of this as a passing thing from the start – is that the lesson?
Remember, nothing random with Baldwin. The word “metamorphosis” occurs twice in two pages, first to describe the change that has happened with Giovanni’s face, in David’s eyes. Then the metamorphosis that comes with spring – after all the claustrophobia, we get expansive scenes along the river, the tourists, the bookshops whose “keepers seemed to have taken off another garment, so that the shape of their bodies appeared to be undergoing a most striking and continual metamorphosis. One began to wonder what the final shape would be.” That last sentence could apply just as easily to the changes happening in the relationship between Giovanni and David. We already know the outcome of events – that’s different, I think, from the final shape of…of the narrative’s sensibility, and of our own sensibility by the time we’ve finished this novel. How will we have been changed, by story’s end?
More physics. As the exteriors expand ever outward, the psychological interiors of David and Giovanni contract, become even more claustrophobic – the natural world and human self-consciousness as foils for one another…
“It made them feel their poverty again, through the narcotics of character, and dreams of conquest, and mutual contempt.” I love this sentence. I think Baldwin means that each of these is a drug, or can be: character, dreams of conquest, mutual contempt. If that’s what he means, I agree with him. Meanwhile, right after this sentence, we learn that Giovanni gives more of himself to David than David gives back to Giovanni. So, as much as David may be drawn to Giovanni, as toward a drug, it’s Giovanni who’s addicted – we’ve already learned that David intends to leave Giovanni, who’s like a habit to be broken. Giovanni’s too lost in addiction, to make a similar choice.
The caretaker in the earlier reading summed up men as “impossible” without women. Now we have Giovanni’s generalization about women as “tempting,” “treacherous,” “bottomless,” and “shallow.” (Notice how these could also describe David.) Giovanni follows up by saying he respects women “for their inside life, which is not like the life of a man,” another generalization, followed by David’s generalization about women not liking the idea of an inside life…Just as the rooms in this novel are claustrophobic, so is the thinking, often, when it comes to how the characters consider gender; the characters are sometimes as guilty of provincial thinking as the society is whose provinciality makes it so hard for people like Giovanni and David just to be themselves.
David’s not afraid of love so much, it seems, as afraid of lust, of where lust might lead him. He wants to believe he’s ‘better’ than that. Maybe if he truly loved Giovanni, he could be s practical as Giovanni seems to be about sex and infidelity. Maybe. Or maybe there’s something to Giovanni being Italian and David being American, as Giovanni suggests? I don’t know. Or all I know is that I’ve been in David’s position. To paraphrase Sexton, I have been his kind .
Day 7 | September 23
Part 2, all of Ch. 2, p. 85-102
Another arrow! This time, it’s the light bulb dangling from the ceiling of Giovanni’s room. First, it’s described as being like “a diseased and undefinable sex in its [the room’s] center.” Then it’s a “blunted arrow.” It’s hard for me not to put the two images together and see a penis. And it’s this, according to David, that illuminates not just Giovanni’s room but Giovanni’s soul. Whether or not that’s true, that’s how David sees it, and it says a lot about his sexual confusion and about his repulsion when it comes to his own frankly human desires…And it’s interesting what kind of logic this brings out in David: destruction is apparently the way to achieve freedom: “I was to destroy this room and give Giovanni a new and better life.” But to give himself a new and better life, he has to become part of the room himself, the very room that he has to destroy for Giovanni’s sake…This strikes me as the circuitous logic of the desperate and deeply haunted.
So much in this book about home, about the distinctions between Europeans and Americans. And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, so much resistance to home – instead, a constant restlessness, which seems to stir in people a desire for the very home they abandoned. Having traveled all over Spain, Hella says in her letter to David “I want to come home, to come home to Paris. It’s funny, I’ve never felt anyplace was home before.
” But just a page earlier, seeing a sailor whom he can’t stop staring at, David says “He made me think of home – perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” This seems one of the most crucial sentences in the novel. If what David says is true, then home is indeed not a place, but is the messy, tug-of-war self that each of us carries inside. Home, for David, includes the sexual identity that he keeps trying to escape or erase. To be an expatriate is to establish a life in a country other than one’s own. What is it, then, when you commit to a life defined by ways of thinking about and conducting the body that aren’t at all the ways your body recognizes as its own?
For me, the scene between David and Sue is one of the most difficult, most sorrowful scenes in Baldwin’s novel. I wonder, just now, if she isn’t meant to be a version of Giovanni, she is similarly not unworldly and similarly naïve, which is to say, she remains hopeful even as she sees her own disappointment/disaster approaching. Much earlier in the book, Jacques mentions the reason why his own sexual encounters are shameful: “Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact.” This could easily describe the sex that occurs between David and Sue, except that Sue can’t be reduced here to a dead socket – she has enough light in her to think, afterward, just for a moment, that there’s something more to what just happened. Then she realizes. As she has had to realize in the past. David knows this, It’s one of the cruelest scenes in the book. Despicable. Again, “the way to be really despicable,” says Jacques, “is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” David is possibly worse than that – he’s indifferent to Sue’s pain.
Day 8 | September 24
Part 2, all of Ch. 3, p. 103-118
Earlier, I spoke of how rooms here tend to be claustrophobic, the sites of murky activity, sexual and otherwise – the bar, the restaurant, Gionvanni’s room, Joey’s room long ago. With chapter 3 of part Two, the murkiness is outdoors, and David describes it almost like a scene from Dante’s Inferno: “Nevertheless, beneath me – along the river bank, beneath the bridges, in the shadow of the walls, I could almost hear the collective, shivering sigh – were lovers and ruins, sleeping, embracing, coupling, drinking…” Meanwhile David generalizes interior spaces as the antidote to these wraith-like lovers, he imagines “Behind the walls of the houses I passed” that husbands and wives are putting their children to bed, having ordinary (i.e., not sexual) concerns, making for their families a “web of safety.” An interesting shift, also troubling how easily David forgets his own home life, the same way that, when he says he needs a woman and children “to become myself again,” he forgets who and what he is. Or can’t remember. Or doesn’t want to. Or has never known himself.
Has it always been the case, that there’s a sliding scale when it comes to moral decency? Giovanni has contempt for Guillaume, calling him a “disgusting old fairy,” more or less how David thinks of Jacques earlier in the novel. Yet Giovanni and David have both not been above using their sexual and physical charms to get money from these older men; and while they condemn them as fairies, i.e. queer, David and Giovanni are themselves queer, or at least they are engaging in same-sex intimacy that is one possible aspect of queerness. What makes them better, except they’re younger? David couldn’t disguise his open lust for the sailor earlier in the book. Is that any different than Guillaume desiring young men?
It seems very purposeful that the scene between David and Sue is immediately followed by this scene between David and Giovanni. In both, we have someone who shows their raw vulnerability and need to David, and both make him recoil. Part of his anxiety about Hella’s imminent return is that she has decided she wants him. He also fled Joey’s neediness. And he fled his father when his father opened up and showed his own vulnerability after David’s accident. Maybe David’s difficulty isn’t so much that he can’t sort out his sexuality and embrace it; instead, he seems driven away by love itself, by the part of love that depends necessarily on another person.
“But the end of innocence is also the end of guilt.” Maybe it’s enough just to leave this here, for consideration.
Also, this statement of David’s (about Giovanni): “No matter how it seems now, I must confess: I loved him.” David is very reliable and smart about many things. Here, though, I don’t quite trust him as a narrator…Or maybe we are back to what I said about David’s being repulsed by love, the way two opposite magnets repel one another. Here’s an image: in the myth, Tantalus is doomed in hell to forever be reaching for the fruit that hangs above him. Just as he’s about to grasp it, the fruit recedes. This is his punishment. But what if the fruit is what’s being punished, and David’s the fruit? And as soon as someone seeks to hold him, to love him, he withdraws instinctively. Maybe, like home, the point is about never being reached. “You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?” David asks. Yes. Exactly.
Day 9 | September 25
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.
Day 10 | September 26
Part 2, finish Ch. 4, p. 136-148 (from "I got to Giovanni's room very late" to "the sash of his dressing gown.")
When Baldwin wrote this book – and when I read it – the general thinking was binary: you were a man or a woman, you were gay or straight. It was radical when Baldwin spoke almost matter-of-factly about bisexuality in Another Country
. In Giovanni’s Room
, that subject doesn’t come up specifically, but now we learn that not only did Giovanni marry a woman and have a child with her, but he was happy (including sexually) in that life. He didn’t leave because of ‘discovering’ his sexuality, but because of grief and a suddenly-broken faith in God. It seems that his first sex with a man is out of necessity – he needs money, clothes, a job – and then it becomes, what, habit? Does that mean Giovanni isn’t gay?
An important distinction in the book, and for Giovanni and David, is between the act of sex with a body and sex as a felt commitment to a person. As Giovanni says to David: “You are the one who keeps talking about what
I want. But I have only been talking about who
I want.” That distinction is what allows David and Giovanni to speak of Jacques, Guillaume, and their hangers-on as a “disgusting band of fairies.” They see themselves as something nobler, cleaner. A huge part of Giovanni’s despair is that David was the first person who made him believe that what he had thought was dirty and sinful could in fact be beautiful. In being abandoned, he has nothing left to rescue him from what he sees as hell. Heaven and hell – as if those were the choices. Binaries, again.
“But I’m a man,” I cried, “a man! What do you think can happen
between us?” – David says to Giovanni. This moment hits home each time I read it, having grown up with no models for intimacy between men, at home or in the media. When the only examples available are frightening and/or considered ‘degenerate,’ it’s easy to believe, absolutely, that you can’t be queer – you don’t recognize yourself in what you see, therefore you aren’t that. The power of societal assumptions and expectations can be crushing. David only knows one definition for being a man; likewise, Hella is boxed in by what she’s been told being a woman means. Surprisingly, only Giovanni can imagine possibilities past what society has always handed down as the ‘right way.’
This book follows the seasons. The relationship between David and Giovanni begins late winter, blossoms in spring, and now that – as David says to the policeman – “the autumn is beginning,” the relationship is dying. It’s interesting that David’s impulse is not just to leave Paris but to go south, where it will be warmer. In the same way that David moves from location to location, in a search for home, he seems to think that something like innocence or wholesomeness or psychological stability is attached to warm weather. (Hella, though, has spent the whole time in warm weather and found herself constantly adrift.) As we know from the opening of this novel, the south of France eventually gets very cold and David has been abandoned by Hella. Should they have moved to the tropics?
Day 11 | September 27
Part 2, Ch. 5, p. 149-157 (up to “and the shadow of death.”)
Astonishing how automatically citizens will cling to xenophobia – and in this case, homophobia –when something goes wrong, nationally. It’s always not only easier to attack difference, but to be relieved by confirmation that one’s own people would never succumb to things like murder and sexual ‘waywardness.’ “It was fortunate, therefore, that Giovanni was a foreigner,” says David – the fact reinforces national pride, i.e., national prejudice. Look at the relief people still seem to have in this country when the latest act of terrorism turns out to have been done by a foreigner – and how quickly, when that’s not the case, the public assumes mental illness (another prejudice) or they struggle to explain how the perpetrator somehow had a troubled childhood…
“But isn’t there some point in telling the truth?” At this point, a question like this from David isn’t surprising, but still sad, a little poignant. Obviously David isn’t telling the truth to Hella, but he also isn’t able to tell the truth about himself to himself. One truth is that he is genuinely emotionally overcome by Giovanni’s predicament and his own possible role in it. It’s what makes him get so upset with Hella, until “I felt, with terror, that I was about to cry.” And he stops speaking. Crying would be an honest reaction, a truth. That’s the one room David can’t step inside of.
Interesting parallel between Giovanni and Hella, when it comes to being single. All the patrons of Guillaume’s circle recognize that “Giovanni’s new freedom, his loverless state, would turn into license, into riot…” Hella had been afraid that, without a man, she wouldn’t know if she even was a woman. As if, whether queer or straight, to be unanchored by another human being was to risk being doomed to being lost forever – also dangerous to others, because not easily compartmentalized.
Elliott Holt pointed out how the tense shifts to the present in chapter 3 of part one. The same thing happens here, when David imagines the details of the murder scene between Giovanni and Guillaume. And it may be the closest he gets to Giovanni, first making the scene more vivid by casting it in present tense, but also imagining how Giovanni must have felt, after Guillaume has his will with him. David can imagine this because he knows how he himself would feel. Both he and Giovanni have grown up believing that to be violated is literally to be unmanned. It’s another, strange form of intimacy between them, in this scene where David in essence enters Giovanni’s mind – and in so doing, possesses him for a moment, and is himself possessed as his own mind gets subsumed by Giovanni’s (as David imagines it). Sexual entry can be sexual violation. Is it a form of violation, to enter someone’s mind?
Day 12 | September 28
Part 2, finish Ch. 5, p. 157-169 (from "By the time we found this great house" to The End.)
Way back on 9/24, I quoted David saying “But the end of innocence is the end of guilt.” David has clearly lost any innocence before he ever came to Paris. As he becomes more estranged from Hella, though, he says: “My guilt, when I looked into her closing face, was more than I could bear.” Is this a contradiction, then? Or, given that he can still feel guilty about the situation with Hella, is there some part of it that remains innocent? I begin to think that his naïve thinking about Hella’s ability to somehow save him might be a form of innocence…
OR, given that David is the speaker, and not always trustworthy, maybe he’s just plain wrong about guilt. I myself believe guilt is a rescuing device, or can be – it can dissuade us from doing something we instinctively understand as wrong; and we can only know what’s meant by wrong, by having made mistakes – which is to say, we have to lose our innocence to know what that loss is. And guilt can make us pause before we break down yet another door of innocence.
None of this is unrelated to the relationship between Giovanni and David.
While David hopes that Hella can save him from being who he is, Hella wants David to define
who she is – “Please let me be a woman…Don’t throw me back into the sea…,” she says. It’s a wrenching moment. She has spoken this way before, but there’s something about how deeply she seems to believe
that she needs to throw away the things that are part of her (long hair, books, cigarettes) in exchange for a man and his ideas, his rules. Is this Hella’s innocence? Likewise, she intuits a lot about the relationship between David and Giovanni, but is she too innocent to get right to the sexual aspect of it? Or is this a willful ignorance, rather than facing a terrible truth for her?
Meanwhile, letting a man define you can lead to terrible consequences – Giovanni is a perfect example. David gave him purpose, a literal reason to live. David could allow himself to feel the same way about Giovanni as long as Hella remained ‘in play,’ the steady reminder that even if he is having sex with another man, he’s still a man by society’s definitions, i.e., he’s attached to a woman. Cue all those ads on Grindr, Scruff, etc., for “straight” men looking to have sex with another man…
After the truth about David becomes clear, Hella says “I’m going home. I wish I’d never left it.” This echoes what David said at the end of this book’s very first chapter, how if he’s known what was to occur in Paris, “I would have stayed at home.” By now, we can see that both Hella and David – and maybe all of us? – have an untrustworthy but persistent instinct to believe that home is synonymous with stability and with a kind of innocence. If only we hadn’t ventured out, we wouldn’t have learned so many things about ourselves and about those we’ve trusted. That’s the trouble with curiosity and exposure to new things – we get shaken from our earlier perceptions of the world and ourselves. But without getting shaken from them, we’d never learn anything, we’d never deepen. To age as a human is to accumulate experiences; and as they pile up, so do the many things we were innocent about, before we learned otherwise. This seems related to what Louise Glück says in her poem “Nostos’: “We look at the world once, in childhood./The rest is memory.”
“…this dirty world, this dirty body,” says David, and then ends his meditation on it with what may be the only false note in this novel: “I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.” David has never seemed much of a believer, so this way of thinking doesn’t convince me. Maybe, though, just as Hella asks “what’s the good of an American who isn’t happy?” David can’t envision what it can mean to be a human being without religious faith. I don’t think Baldwin, despite his church background, really believes this. I do think he’d say we have to have faith in something
, and perhaps first of all in ourselves. Not one of the characters in this novel has that kind of faith. And each suffers for it, accordingly. If there’s a governing message to this book, for me it’s that.