Friday, September 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Giovanni’s Room


Giovanni’s Room is the third book that I’ve read for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge that takes place in Paris. And it is even contemporaneous with The Dud Avocado.  Similar to Sally J. Gorce, the main character, David is also an American in post war 1950s Paris, living off a trust fund while he figures himself out and there is lots of drinking and casual sex.  But that is where the comparisons end. 

One of the things that David is trying to figure out is his sexuality, though he may not always be consciously aware of this as a narrator. His father wants him to return to the States and settle down.  He has proposed to his American girlfriend, Hella, who says she needs time to think. And then when out and about at a gay bar in Paris with a family friend, Jacques, who is homosexual, David meets Giovanni.  

Up to this point, David considers himself to be heterosexual, despite having had a brief homosexual experience as a boy. He has frequented this gay bar many times before with Jacques, but always as a person apart from the rest of the crowd; not “one of them”. In fact, David’s attitude towards the transsexuals or more feminine men that are also at the bar is downright hostile.  He spends a lot of time comparing himself to other men and worried that he doesn’t appear sufficiently masculine.  But despite this, David begins an intense relationship with Giovanni and moves in with him while Hella is out of the country (hence the title of the book).  But when Hella returns, David goes back to her and doesn’t (a) tell Giovanni he is leaving him and (b) doesn’t tell Hella he had an affair with Giovanni. 

Clearly, David has a lot of problems. And his behavior and inability to come to terms with his bisexuality/homosexuality has negative repercussions for everyone in the book.  Needless to write, this is not a happy story. Maybe that’s why I kind of hated it? I feel terrible for not liking such a well-respected classic like this title. But it just left me cold. I could believe David’s self-loathing and indecision but I didn’t feel like Hella or Giovanni’s actions were real. It was too melodramatic for me to swallow.  I think this is a case where if I were to experience it in another format (on the stage or screen) I would love it, but in print, I couldn’t read the passion into it, even though there are some beautifully depicted scenes. 

I read this for the Back to the Classics Category “Classic by a POC Author”. 

9 comments:

  1. Hi Ruthiella, I tried to read this book years ago but I never finished it. As I recall it fell flat for me too and that's surprising because James Baldwin is so gifted and puts so much of himself into his writings. My guess it was the time period, the 1950's, that held him back from writing the novel the way he would have liked to.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Kathy! You might be right about that. The only other Baldwin I've read is Go Tell It On the Mountain which I thought was excellent. But I will definitely read more of his fiction...maybe If Beale Street Could Talk will be the next one. :D

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  2. Uh-oh! I was just thinking about reading this because it's also a 1956 book. Homosexuality must have been tougher in the 50s, of course, but too much melodrama doesn't sound so good. After all, it's mostly 'lives of quiet desperation'...

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    1. I thought I might save it for The 1956 club but the vagaries of library holds made that proposition too risky. You should read it. I am really in the minority here. And the book does have some quiet desperation in between the bouts of high drama.

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  3. This doesn't sound like one I'd like. I'm sorry it left you feeling cold.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lark! Luckily there are quite a few other books from Baldwin to pick and choose from. :D

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    2. I'd like to read him, but I think I'll start with one of his other books. :)

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  4. Very interesting review! I've been intending for some time to read more of Baldwin's writing; while I had no immediate plans to read Giovanni's Room it's long been on my radar, so to speak. I have read Baldwin's Another Country many, many years ago and loved it, although as I recall its plot was also rather melodramatic. Maybe there just wasn't another way to write about interracial couples and homosexuality in the late 50s/early 60s? I really need to work up the energy to tackle this very important writer . . . .

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    1. Thanks for the comment Janakay. I am really in the minority with not loving this book. I think it is just me. But I will for sure read on in Baldwin's catalog. The gay relationship wasn't necessarily portrayed melodramatically...but Giovanni's actions in general just sort of beggared my belief.

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