Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a novel set in mid-century Paris, with an American, David, who falls in love with another man, Giovanni. David has a fiancée, Hella, travelling in Spain, and his father funds his expenses as he lives in France. We meet David as he is packing up and leaving the house that he lived in after he met Giovanni and Hella has left him. David then begins to remember how he met Giovanni who at the time was a bartender, with an older gentleman, Jacques, who liked Giovanni. Jacques implores David to order drinks for him and Giovanni in the hopes that Jacques would be able to have sex with Giovanni. At this moment, and throughout the novel, David struggles with his sexuality, at times in total denial of his attraction to men, other times being open to the idea, and sometimes somewhere in between.
At the bar, David and Giovanni hit it off, and everyone in the bar notices their chemistry. As it becomes morning, they invite Giovanni to join them for breakfast, which they take a taxi with the bar owner, Guillaume. They have oysters and wine, continue their banter, and eventually they end up at Giovanni’s room where they have sex. David and Giovanni then begin to live together because David has stopped getting payments from his father, where they desire each other, but at the back of David’s mind he knows Hella will be back. Once Hella sends a letter that she will be returning soon, things start to go wrong for both David and Giovanni. For Giovanni, he was fired from the bar because Guillaume, who had hired him only because he was attracted to Giovanni, tries to have sex with him. And for David, he goes to dinner with an old acquaintance, Sue, where neither of them really wants to have sex with each other, but once it’s done Sue has feelings for him and he is more disgusted than ever. Hella returns from her trip, David and she try to continue their engagement, but something has changed within David. David has stopped seeing Giovanni, who has begun spiraling out of control and eventually lives with Jacques for a little bit. Giovanni is so hurt by the way David abandoned him and because he got fired from his job, he returns to the bar and kills Guillaume. He is on the run but is eventually found where he is sentenced to death. By that time, David and Hella have escaped from Paris in a smaller town in France. David is still distraught, and Hella begins to suspect something is wrong. It all comes to a head when David decides to go to a bar, meets a sailor, and is caught by Hella. She breaks their engagement, and leaves David in France as she returns home. The novel ends with David in the empty house thinking about Giovanni and what it would be like for him to die.
Giovanni’s Room is an insanely moving novel. Baldwin can sit in David’s mind, rationalize his actions, and find denial everywhere he looks. What impressed me about this novel was how strong the voice, descriptions, and moments were. I was able to see the tenderness in David, and still see he was shielding the world and himself from his true identity. I loved the way the novel swayed back and forth in time, where everything had already happened and David was alone in an empty house. David cut off his interactions with Giovanni, losing him, believing it would save his engagement. But in doing so, he lost Hella too. It’s a deeply lonely novel, one that sat with nostalgia and guilt. Baldwin also made a lot of interesting choices in narrative, giving large moments to the interactions with Giovanni, but fairly brief moments with Hella. I also liked how he dedicated only a short paragraph to how Giovanni and Hella met independent of David. I also thought the imagined life of Giovanni in prison and his walk to the guillotine was brilliant for a final scene. I liked how when we met Giovanni he was the perfect man, and then fell from grace in part because of David. It’s a story I will not stop thinking about, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.