James Baldwin and his seminal novels are intrinsic to many discussions and shared educational reading lists about race, homosexuality and marginality. Baldwin’s 1956 work, Giovanni’s Room, pits the unaccepted, secretive relationship between American narrator David and an Italian bartender, Giovanni, against a backdrop of 1950’s Paris.
Baldwin successfully reveals a period of time painfully relatable to divisions of our society, but one which we are successfully advancing away from. His sharp awe-striking commentaries on life and love crop up continuously in the novel.
A particular favourite of mine is the line that reads: “The great difficulty is to say yes to life. I repent now, for all the good it does. One particular lie among the many lies I have told. Told, lived and believed. This is the lie I told to Giovanni but never succeeded in making him believe that I had never slept with a boy before. I had. I decided I never would again.”
It’s difficult not to connect such thoughtful writing to Baldwin’s experiences himself
Considering Baldwin’s closeness to the issues of Giovanni’s Room, it’s difficult not to connect such thoughtful writing to Baldwin’s experiences himself. “Told, lived and believed” seems to encapsulate how Giovanni sees the difficulty of simply saying “yes to life” and the half-witty need to “repent now, for all the good it does”. It’s clear that the intimacy of Giovanni’s Room creates intricacies of feeling which are only accessible through Baldwin’s empathetic stance, allowing an immersion into not only Giovanni’s life but potentially Baldwin’s life also.
Baldwin strikes literary aestheticism into an important story which reveals an unfortunate setting of exclusion and marginality
In an edition of Giovanni’s Room, Alfred Kazin is quoted as saying that “To be James Baldwin is to touch on so many hidden places in Europe, America, the Negro, the white man – to be forced to understand so much”. Baldwin strikes literary aestheticism into an important story which reveals an unfortunate setting of exclusion and marginality.
???? #JamesBaldwin was an American novelist and prominent figure in the civil rights movement. His novel #GiovannisRoom drew intense attention for its portrayal of homosexuality and is often cited as one of the most important queer novels ever written ? https://t.co/2v5kqf3uG2 pic.twitter.com/GEVzl9mVxt— Book Depository (@bookdepository) February 22, 2021
David is sadly plagued with shame whilst Giovanni is shamelessly nonchalant, bringing about a separate discussion of not only what it was like to be marginalised because of homosexuality, but how it felt. Giovanni’s travels to “many hidden places” allows the readers who continuously revisit the novel to carry on exploring the shortfalls of 1950’s western society and look to making the notion of love – in all forms – the most prevalent aspect of not only the novel but today’s society.
To a modern reader, Giovanni’s Room is ostensibly anachronistic
To a modern reader, Giovanni’s Room is ostensibly anachronistic. Unlike Baldwin’s other novels, black and ethnic characters are missing. A publisher had rejected Giovanni’s Room on the basis that Baldwin wasn’t tackling the same issues as before. In an interview, Baldwin stated that he simply didn’t feel that he could tackle more than one issue at once.
Baldwin’s novel was still strikingly modern for its time
In fact, central to Baldwin’s stories is prejudice, and not only in a singular form. Baldwin’s novel was still strikingly modern for its time. Attitudes in the 1950’s would have considered some Europeans as almost a different race, highlighting the more cosmopolitan nature of Baldwin’s text.
David feels he can abandon Giovanni; one of these reasons is the fact that David is a white American and Giovanni, in David’s mind, is just an Italian. Because of race, David is able to leave destruction and act nonchalantly because of his race and his presence as an American in Paris, as well as his ability to act differently than at home in America.
Baldwin strikes empathy into a novel full of intricacies and lessons in feeling
Baldwin strikes empathy into a novel full of intricacies and lessons in feeling, allowing a regrettable but unfortunately real subject to be looked at and re-considered by posterity.
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