I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear;
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin (Penguin). I was unsure what to make of this book when I picked it up, fearing an indelicate approach to a sensitive subject matter. At the time when it was published (1956) the question of sexuality and morality was extremely controversial, and a book like this one would have been provocative to say the very least. Baldwin tactfully explores the central character’s confusion, frustration and shame and shows the extent to which the suppression of sexuality can torture and alter the soul.
David’s relationship with Giovanni begins in a way that is almost inevitable – on their first meeting they are psychologically, physically and emotionally drawn to each other in a way that cannot be denied by either, despite the fact that David is attempting to maintain a heterosexual relationship with someone else. Their first tryst is simultaneously affirming and unsettling – it has an air of Shakespearian tragedy as David cannot accept that he is a homosexual. There’s a great piece on the crisis of masculinity in the book here.
The theme of transformation is strong throughout the book, in the transformation of Giovanni’s room, of David’s sexuality, his shame and desires, and of Giovanni himself. Everything seems symbolic in this book, and perhaps, at times, Baldwin lays it on a little strong – particularly in his descriptions of the room and what it meant to the two characters who reside there. The room for David represents freedom to explore his sexuality, freedom to be with Giovanni away from the prying eyes of Paris and their companions. But the room also acts as a kind of cage, and David wants to reject it, to leave the room and Paris and Giovanni and live a respectable, moral life with a wife and family.The impossibility of him being able to achieve this makes him miserable, and every relationship seems poisoned by this guilt – by the lie that he can’t be happy because he can’t accept himself.
I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late.
He is afraid to be in Giovanni’s room because he is afraid that he won’t be able to leave. David is so tormented, and this torments Giovanni, and also tortures you as you read because you just want to put your arms around the both of them and tell them it’s all going to be okay. But you can’t, because it won’t be. I’m not spoiling anything here – the scene is set for tragedy right from the first page, which makes their love all the more desperate.
My favourite thing about this book is the language, so I’ll leave you with another quote. You really should read this, but I can’t promise that you won’t cry a little…
We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men, jostling each other on the wide sidewalk, and aiming the cherry-pips, as though they were spitballs, into each other’s faces must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon. And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright. I saw that I might be willing to give a great deal not to lose that power. And I felt myself flow toward him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up.