Last week, Freight Books read…

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;

giovannis room2Giovanni’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.

jamesbaldwin3The 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.

2 thoughts on “Last week, Freight Books read…

  1. I’m fascinated by the publication date for two reasons.
    Was it published in the UK in 1956 given the content? If so, it would seem to confound my understanding of the homophobic repression that was underlined by the criminal law at this time. If not, then it is almost as wondrous that it would have been published in the US!
    Secondly, I can add this to my list of “books of the year of my birth” that I’m compiling for that big birthday in 2016. If anyone has any other suggestions for my list please let me know. I’m leading myself into it by reading David Kynaston’s brilliant post-war history ‘Family Britain 1951 – 1957’ which uses the diaries of ordinary people as well as those of the famous to set a scene, create an atmosphere, a real feel for both the modernity and mundanity of the period. I was there, but only just and it feels only a breath away from my earliest memories.

    • Hi Linda,
      I’m so glad you like the book, and that’s a great idea! I must confess to being slightly ignorant of books published around that time, though I’m sure you’ve got some good ones on your list already. As far as I know, Giovanni’s Room was first published in the US in 1956 (despite being told to burn the manuscript by his first publisher). It’s sad to think how many incredible books have been overlooked. I might need to delve further into literature of that period to see what other gems I find…

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