Book Reviews / Books

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

I think I first came across James Baldwin when author Cole Brown picked The Fire Next Time as one of his Desert Island Books. Cole said that he came to Baldwin’s work ‘embarrassingly late in life’, and I remember making a mental note to read Baldwin sooner rather than later. It took a little over a year after recording the podcast with Cole until I would find myself in possession of a book of Baldwin’s – thanks to my friend David Wade – who lent me his copy of Giovanni’s Room.

Having spent the first half of 2022 reading books in something of a haphazard manner, as the second half of the year approached, I wrote down the list of books I wanted to cross off before the year had ended, and so, one grey and miserable afternoon in Bondi – of which, there have been many – I settled in to start Giovanni’s Room.

Giovanni’s Room Book Review

One of Baldwin’s most famous novels, Giovanni’s Room is an exquisitely written tale that I loved as soon as I started reading it, and that I have thought about ever since finishing it. An achingly beautiful read, in Giovanni’s Room we meet David, an American who has escaped to Paris to find himself. Soon after his arrival in Paris he meets Giovanni – and, despite being betrothed to his fiancé, Hella – a relationship begins to form between the two men.

With a heady Parisian backdrop, Baldwin really captures the city’s lusty atmosphere, and it’s obvious throughout the novel that he he was well-acquainted with the city.

A short, succinct, and powerful book, Giovanni’s Room is an intimate look about the failure of love, passion, promise and despair. It examines an impassioned affair between two men searching for happiness – as David struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, and to reconcile his inner conflict – and offers a grim portrayal of the subsequent catastrophic ruin both men face. The narrator’s persistent despair casts a melancholic shadow over the events he recollects, and a sense of deep regret permeates the ill-fated tale.

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From the start, the reader and narrator share a mutual understanding of the story’s distressing and inalterable conclusion, making it even more difficult for both to trek through the memory of misadventure. Baldwin’s language is lyrical and haunting; his imagery agonizing, and while Giovanni’s Room is by no means an easy book to read, it’s undoubtedly an important one.

I can’t remember the last time I was this blown away by a book. The evocative Parisian setting, the gothic-like nature of the tale, the desire; the shame and the sexuality; the all-consuming love and lust.

And oh, the unrivalled joy of discovering an author I’ve not yet read, only to have an entire back catalogue to devour.

Giovanni’s Room Summary

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight

Further reading

I loved this article on the New York Times: Giovanni’s Room’ Revisited.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin Author Bio

James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and ’60s. He was the eldest of nine children; his stepfather was a minister. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, is a partially autobiographical account of his youth. His essay collections Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a large white audience.

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From 1948, Baldwin made his home primarily in the south of France, but often returned to the USA to lecture or teach. In 1957, he began spending half of each year in New York City. His novels include Giovanni’s Room, about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country, about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community.

Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, stated the Baldwin’s writing displayed an “agonizing, total hatred of blacks.” Baldwin’s play, Blues for Mister Charlie, was produced in 1964. Going to Meet the Man and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.

On November 30, 1987 Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

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