"When David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy."
Giovanni’s Room is the story of an American left in Paris when his girlfriend decides she wants to travel and see Spain. He spends his time drinking with his friends in gay bars where he meets a bartender, Giovanni, whom he starts a relationship with.
I was first introduced to this novel through the pages of john Irving’s In One Person, in which the main character is handed a copy of the book by the librarian after asking for “books about having crushes on the wrong people”.
The novel has been described as one of the first books to deal with homosexuality on a human level. Published during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the US and even in more liberal countries like France, still not as widely accepted as it is today, it must have been a very controversial novel at the time.
It does indeed deal with homosexuality on a human level, David, the main character, is completely in love with Giovanni but is at times disgusted by his feelings. This explores interestingly the idea of social convention and law versus the feelings of the heart. He is disgusted because of the act’s legal and moral status in his home country but can’t help himself because his feelings are perfectly natural.
It’s an interesting glimpse into the mindset of a gay man living in these times of heavy persecution, as well as insight into how James Baldwin himself must have felt (the book was written at a time when Baldwin had left the US to escape the racism and homophobia that plagued the country). I found these insights very interesting, both in relation to the characters themselves and how far we’ve advanced as a culture since the books publication.
I felt the characters themselves were very cold. David especially, I found incredibly unlikable. His self loathing causes him to be foul to Giovanni and his treatment of his friends and fiancée (whom he cheats on with both men and women) make him almost entirely unlovable. Giovanni himself seems more interested in drinking wine and lazily swanning around Paris than doing anything productive with his life.
In fact, no character in the book is particularly likeable, from David’s distant father & Hella, who dumps David in Paris to soak up the culture around the world on her own, to Guillaume, the bar owner who accuses Giovanni of stealing. Each character is repulsive in their own way. This is no bad thing though, while a novel populated exclusively with the selfish and the unlikable can be exhausting, it can also be far truer to life than one where everyone is nice.
The style of the novel reminded me of the rich decadent bohemian style of Cabaret with Baldwin’s writing reminiscent of the decaying Americana of The great Gatsby. The combination worked wonderfully and I read through the novel with gusto as a result.
I really enjoyed this book. I found it presented homosexuality very well, neither as a vile act nor an affectionate forbidden passion. Instead it presented it truthfully, passionate at times but with the stresses and troubles than come with any kind of relationship.
It’s well worth seeking out.