I have been on a Baldwin kick recently as I have read a lot about Baldwin and his influence on black culture and society, but up until this last year had not read a book by Baldwin. This weekend was also a Readathon and although I could not participate the whole weekend, I snuck in shorter books to at least win a participation trophy. One of those books was Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.
This was the first fiction piece that I have read by Baldwin and I have to write how astounded I was at this one. The basic premise is David, following a car accident and a proposal, runs away to Paris to expand his horizons. His fiancee Hella is in Spain, while David is now in Paris. They are to meet a bit later on.
In the meantime, while at a bar, David meets Giovanni when David's friend Jacque hits on Giovanni. David and Giovanni develop a relationship together and move in with one another while Hella is away. The two become lovers and soon Hella returns and David is a changed man, but tries to commit himself to Hella, but keeps running into Giovanni. What will happen as Hella figures out the truth? What does David learn about himself?
It is hard to review a classic piece because it has already stood the test of time and remains a classic for a reason, so I will just share some reflections I had about the book.
The initial reaction was- I can't believe this was written in 1956! One could write this book today and it would be just as relevant as it was in 1956, if not more so. One often thinks of the 50s as fairly straight laced and pretty Wonder Bread, but there are so many books that break through that myth. Here was one written by a black author, writing about a white man who is either gay or bi-sexual. My thoughts were that David was gay, but had to repress his real thoughts and feelings because he was living in the 1950s and even in France there were expectations about who a man is and what a man should and shouldn't be doing. It was a deep commentary on the community.
The theme of running away just flows through the book too. David is constantly running away- from his father, from America, from Giovanni, and from Hella. He cannot stay still because he cannot be who he wants to be. How deeply personal for Baldwin! Here was a man who writes about how he was treated in America, didn't want to live in a country that didn't accept him for the color of his skin, so he moves to France. Add the layer that Baldwin was also gay and even within his own race, he is also an outcast. This had to be a deeply personal book for him.
So far, between The Fire Next Time and Giovanni's Room, it is a toss up on which is the book I would recommend. One is pure non-fiction, while the other is fiction, but both deal with issues that Baldwin was facing at the time. Do yourself a favor and read both.
I gave Giovanni's Room 4.5 stars. Warning: the beginning takes a bit to get going and the ending is a very French influenced ending.
Here is your Amazon link- Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin