I read Giovanni's Room earlier this month, right after I finished A Single Man. I'll try to be honest with you: after Isherwood's airy, delicate prose, reading Baldwin feels like being hit by a ton of bricks. A ton of occasionally very beautiful bricks, but bricks nonetheless. When his sentences work, they achieve that sort of beauty that's almost indistinguishable from the effects of being hit in the stomach and left breathless. The world recedes, the rest of the book recedes; the sentences before and after blur out of focus. But the downside to this style is that, when it doesn't work, you'll know it doesn't. You'll have the metaphorical bruises to show for it. And I just wasn't sure whether, on the whole, Giovanni's Room didn't give me more bruises than moments of breathlessness. So I read it a second time and I think I figured out now what was good about it and what was...less than good.
James Baldwin gets gender roles. This is a book about people who fall back on established, familiar narratives, because they are afraid of freedom, because "nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom." David, the hero and narrator, is an American in Paris. He struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. On one hand, he is attracted to men and has been since his teen years. On the other hand, he has an ideal of manhood to uphold, and that ideal includes getting himself a wife and children and being the head of his family. While his American girlfriend Hella is on a journey of self-discovery to Spain, pondering whether she wants to marry him or not, David enters into a relationship with an Italian barman called Giovanni. But he is conflicted about it and large part of that seems to come from his reluctance to lose male privilege, to find himself into an inferior, feminized position:
What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about—isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. You say I want to kill you. What do you think you’ve been doing to me?
This is also consistent with the way in which transvestites seem to elicit a very strong disgust from David. In an earlier scene, he produces this piece of loveliness about a man who usually wore makeup and sometimes dressed in skirts: "his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings." Blink, get past the vileness of this comparison and notice how twisted it actually is. Would it have occurred to you that the fact that monkeys eat their own crap disgusts you is because it reflects on you? Because it's like seeing a grotesque version of yourself doing that? It occurred to David, and the key to the analogy here seems to be the thought "That could have been me." That's what compounds the disgust in the monkey example, and that's what makes the way other men perform gender-wise so threatening to David's own masculinity. This is, more than anything else, a book about men that are afraid to act like women.
Once Hella returns, tired of freedom and eager to become a housewife, the relationship between David and Giovanni ends and, to what I'm sure is no one's surprise, it doesn't end well for anyone involved. The beauty of this book lies precisely in the fact that it begins with what's almost the end of the story - we know from the start that things are damaged beyond repair, and this adds a poignancy to the writing as we learn what happened. This is particularly true of the very end, that's tragic and raw, and of the very beginning, when the sense of doom is vague, like in this beautiful paragraph which is my favorite from the book (and yes, a wonderful example of a literary punch to the gut):
That was how I met Giovanni. I think we connected the instant that we met. And remain connected still, in spite of our later separation de corps, despite the fact that Giovanni will be rotting soon in unhallowed ground near Paris. Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them: in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.
The Not-So-GoodYou might have noticed that I praised the end and the beginning of the conflict, but not the climax itself. There is a reason for that. Baldwin is absolutely wonderful at writing this sort of intense prose like in the paragraph above. The only problem is that he can get heavy-handed at times, and this is particularly true of his dialogue. There are writers that have an ear for dialogue and you could just read and read conversations in their books, because they are just like real conversations only somehow better, smarter, wittier, more enjoyable. I don't think Baldwin is one of these writers. Based on this book alone, I'd say he's essentially a writer of big ideas and strong prose. You can tell his dialogue is crafted. It works decently in innocuous situations; it works admirably well when he manages to sneak in a big idea (like when Giovanni says "You are the one who keeps talking about what I want [i.e. a woman or a man]. But I have only been talking about who I want.").
Where Baldwin's dialogue breaks down is when it has to carry the conflict. In dramatically-charged situations, it usually toes the line of the pathetic, and sometimes crosses it outright.
"David, please let me be a woman. I don’t care what you do to me. I don’t care what it costs. I’ll wear my hair long, I’ll give up cigarettes, I’ll throw away the books.’ She tried to smile; my heart turned over. ‘Just let me be a woman, take me. It’s what I want. It’s all I want. I don’t care about anything else. (...) Don’t throw me back into the sea, David. Let me stay here with you."Let's just agree no one ever said this and no one will unless they're reading this book aloud, in which case they probably will not be able to deliver it with a straight face.
Apart from this problem with the dialogue, the other thing that annoyed me was the way in which homosexuality seemed to be presented as the result of trauma. You see, David's story - his dysfunctional family, his conflicted relationship with his father and with the women in his family - sort of pointed towards this from the start. These circumstances could have been read as a trigger or explanation for his homosexuality, and it would have been okay because that wasn't the only possible reading and it wasn't forced on you. But where this story was subtle, Giovanni's story is almost grotesque. It's "sudden gayness by dead baby." He was a happily married heterosexual peasant in Italy, but then his baby was born dead, so he spit on a cross and became a gay barman in Paris, France. This again seems to be a problem of heavy-handedness.
But you know what? These negative points actually pale in front of James Baldwin's general awesomeness, his understanding of gender roles and his painfully beautiful writing. I was at times annoyed by this book; I think it's not uniformly good, but when it is good, it is amazing. I would recommend this book and I would gladly read more by this man.