I've hinted at how much I loved reading Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. If you've not read it yet, or read him--and I now want to read everything he's written--how can I convey to you how much I think you might appreciate him, too? He wrote so simply yet so eloquently and so very assuredly, too. This is a man who must surely have known what it feels like to be so very conflicted about his sexuality. What it means to know a truth yet not want to believe it. To know even as you are hurting someone you love, how they can see inside you for what you are, even while you ignore it all. They trust you and love you despite your shortcomings. This is a beautiful yet tragic story and to write about it now lets me relive it just a little bit, which is a pleasure even knowing was a somewhat painful read.
The blurb calls this a "controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart", which sums it up very nicely. And when talking about the human heart and the hidden passions and desires and the hurts involved, it is indeed complex, isn't it? Once burned, twice shy and how easy is it to not want to risk everything. How do you open yourself up to someone else? How do you put your heart on the line. And not just your heart but maybe your reputation even. And taking it a step further, the book was written in 1956, and Baldwin's characters are trying to navigate a world not yet having experienced the sexual revolution. The angst and uncertainties in this book are not literal so much as the fear of being unmasked as something not quite acceptable or perhaps even normal.
David, an American, narrates this story. He is a master at subterfuge, I think. He is more real with Giovanni than anyone else, yet he tries to be someone he really isn't. We're all good at lying to ourselves--some better than others perhaps, or more honest. But I am not sure he knows exactly what he really wants. He has come to Paris to get away from his father and his life and to 'find himself'.
"Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much in flight, I would have stayed at home. But again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France."
He is telling us this story from the 'after' as he waits for the awful thing to happen to Giovanni, which is hinted at all through the story and finally revealed at the end. Something awful happens that Giovanni does, though not at the behest of David, for David rather or because of David. He does it out of desperation from what David does, or fails to do, for him.
Giovanni is a pretty transparent character. He may not come out and say what he is or what he wants, but it's obvious. He lays bare his soul to David, and I think David knows he is more real with Giovanni (in a sense anyway) than with anyone else. Anyone except himself, that is. And Hella, his girlfriend/fiancé from home who is vacationing alone in Spain. When at home, and as a youth, David had an experience with another young man that was both exhilarating and horrifying.
"People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all--a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named--but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they are and the world are not. This is certainly what my decision, made so long ago in Joey's bed, came to."
His experience with Joey was confusing and disconcerting. So much so that he began a relationship with Hella, though he finds himself in a gay bar with a gay man in Paris where he first meets Giovanni. Giovanni has left his native Italy after a rather sad episode in his former life. They click and soon David is staying with Giovanni in his room. This room will be both a place of happiness and a prison. Giovanni is his truest self with David, whereas even as David tries to be most candid finds himself holding things back, like his engagement with Hella.
Giovanni is not an innocent yet he seems so very genuine and open. He falls irrevocably in love with David. "Each day he invited me to witness how he had changed, how love had changed him, how he worked and sang and cherished me. I was in a terrible confusion." It's hard to blame David. It's not always easy loving someone and imagine in 1950 how confusing it can be to love the wrong someone especially when that someone loves so thoroughly and without inhibitions. When David finally tells Giovanni about Hella, a wedge is driven between the two. David feels pressure from Hella and from his father from whom David must continually beg money.
When David finally tells Giovanni about Hella, their world begins to collapse. Everything that is unspoken between them begins to weighs heavily. Giovanni's face brings to him not only the deepest love, but David feels, too, the deepest loathing. Perhaps not for who or what he is but what he signifies for David, for what David is, or cannot be. The room, once such a place of comfort now closes in and becomes a most hated space, too small and too confining. A symbol for everything he doesn't want to accept about himself. Whatever David pretended at being, Giovanni has stripped away and David cannot face it. And so David begins feeling a revulsion not only for the room but for Giovanni, but of course, the revulsion isn't really for Giovanni but for himself.
And Giovanni knows it. He tells David that he, David, may never have lied to him, but he also never told the truth.
"I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed."
This is a story of a loss of innocence, since David may be free of the physical room that confined he and Giovanni, but that room will always be in his mind. I wonder if after all, David would be able to find that light and safety?
This is a devastating story, but this is also the sort of story which reminds me of why I love to read.