March 19, 2016

Review: Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to fill a gap in my gay literature knowledge, and I'm glad I did, even though I found it a little sleepy. Mostly I was impressed with the emotional frankness and honesty here -- the struggle of a closeted (bisexual?) man struggling with the direction of his love still rings true, even though the social (and legal) penalties were much worse when the book was written. It's an important book, candid in its emotional battles and complexities, its description of lust and love and desire despite one's own will and the repressive influence of surrounding society.

It's also beautifully written, in Baldwin's lovely lyrical style. Maybe also that literary, swooning prose is a little soporific? The dreaminess and emotional exploration entrances, but also acts as a lullaby, rocking one to the edge of sweet sleepiness, even though there is so much pain in the sentiments.

The story and characters feel real, through the protagonist's perceptions, anyway, and his stance, his approach, isn't always likable or forgivable. I understand he is a product of his times, a prisoner of his milieu, but also he's cowardly and lets his fears ruin his, his fiance's, and Giovanni's life. I felt similarly about Heath Ledger's character in Brokeback Mountain: someone who cravenly caves to the societal pressures, despite the dangers of the path forward, while living a depressingly accurate object lesson, is no hero of mine. Again, I understand the terror that a virulently homophobic society (even a relatively forgiving one like in Paris) places on these characters, but acting from fear is never inspiring, even in the face of ruin.

Maybe it was because the protagonist (David) loved but couldn't completely open himself to Giovanni, but I felt the handsome Italian love object was never revealed as a full person. There are some hints at pride, swagger, depression, humor, but Giovanni remains an indistinct cipher. Many of his scenes, especially the climactic one, are imagined by David, and we rarely get to see Giovanni act or speak on his own accord. Their original night out, and the final fight between he and David, are the most alive, but the rest of the book, Giovanni is hidden behind the scrim of David's desire. David's fiance Hella is more vivid, and she's moped and agonized over for a third of the time Giovanni is.

Then there's the issue of race. David is a bohemian white dude, with contradictory bourgeois values, and intermittent mystery income from home and friends. Baldwin actually does a great job with a white protagonist, but . . . why? Was the homosexuality so much of an issue that it was necessary to remove one minority aspect of the protagonist for greater understanding by readers? It's not a problem with the book, but it is a curiosity.

Overall, I'm pleased I can add this to my read canon of gay literature, and it was hugely crucial that the book's rare voice about a hidden world was heard at all. But the unappealing weakness and whininess of the protagonist, the opaque love object of Giovanni, the pretty drowsiness of the literary prose, and the inability to transcend the period's prevailing mores with any kind of hope won't allow this book to be one of my favorites.

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