For truly serious book lovers...the fountain in front of the Cincinnati Public Library...
-The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Giovanni’s Room is James Baldwin’s second novel after Go Tell It on the Mountain. It was first published in 1956.
‘I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.’
‘I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.’
The text opens with David coldly recounting his plans and his faults from a house in Paris. The first person perspective is perfect for this piece because it adds so much humanity to the tale. David is not without emotion. Rather, he seems to have experienced so much of it that he’s reached a peak. The feeling you get from his tone is like that feeling where you’re so upset that you can’t even cry, too overwhelmed for tears. That is the state David finds himself in.
His tone can be cold because at times he is too full of emotion to properly feel. Often he reports what is happening rather straightforwardly. But sometimes when emotions overwhelm him the narrative cuts off and resumes in another point in time. We bounce between winter and summer, Giovanni’s day of execution and Giovanni’s life, David’s childhood and David’s ‘fall’. David essentially begins at the end of his and Giovanni’s story. Before we even meet Giovanni, we know his fate. There is a very real feeling of pain behind the words in this story, lurking in the tone. Only by reading the whole thing can the fact of Giovanni’s death, so plainly laid out before you in the first pages, take on its true significance.
David is a highly reflective character. At least he is at this time in his in life when all he can do is fall. Falling and drowning is the overwhelming sensation for him and Giovanni. Giovanni’s room, a small cluttered space, takes on so much meaning that David is in a sense forever trapped there. There is much pain in this novel, ‘intolerable pain’ (p.7). The fact of the matter is that David loves Giovanni. Giovanni: a seemingly simple but beautiful bartender from Italy. When they first meet it is electrifying. The way they talk to each other and the things they talk about reveals magnetism between them. They discuss the differences between New York and Paris, time, choices, friendship and the art of connecting to other people.
I have never before read a book which portrays love in quite so profound a light. Not so much in the words describing it but in the feelings behind the words. David fights with unspoken feelings but then he will blurt them out occasionally in a way that demonstrates his eternal conflict with himself as he slips out of his own control. He does not enjoy being out of control. He wants to be able to leave the Giovanni’s room. The intensity of this desire is due to the fact that he simply can’t ever leave and he knows that to the depth of his soul.
David can be callous. He consciously and unconsciously hurts other people. But then, so does everyone. It is what makes him so human. He feels he put Giovanni ‘in the shadow of the [executioner’s] knife’ (p.141) and he did. But so did everyone else, so did society as a whole. David recounts how Giovanni can only work certain jobs for which there is overwhelming competition but very little pay on offer. Giovanni is forced into a way of life he does not deserve and a fate that is heart breaking. David both gives Giovanni a reason to be alive and a reason to die.
Giovanni’s Room is also about so much more than I have discussed here. This is why I thoroughly recommend it because there is so much you can get from reading this book.
This story is tragedy, make no mistake. Giovanni’s Room proves that tragedy is, indeed, one of the most beautiful genres there is. Tragedy shows us what it means to be human.