When David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair.
But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything.
Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy.
We had no sooner closed the book on The Return of the Soldier than it was time to get started on Giovanni’s Room – as different a book as can be imagined! In fact, the only trait that they share is that neither are particularly big books, yet both are powerfully written.
In fact, as we chatted, we agreed that the closest book thematically that we have collectively read was The City and The Pillar – a considerable different book, time frame and attitude – but still comparable due to its focus on emerging sexuality and social alienation.
For the second time that morning, we marveled at the skill of the author in creating a world and social setting so quickly. At times bright and gleaming, at others dank and sleazy; in a matter of pages, the scene was set.
Once established, the characters drove the plot forward. David – our ‘protagonist’ had no self awareness. All but engaged, he seemed not to hesitate when Giovanni entered the scene, though this clearly affects his sense of self and identity. He was in denial of his sexuality and utterly selfish in his motivations.
This contrasted greatly with the eponymous Giovanni who appeared at first glance to be confident and self assured. However, as the novel progressed, each character followed very different paths. Giovanni, for all his bravado was vulnerable. Once the balance of power at work shifted and his popularity faded; he was fired and publicly shamed – which utterly crushed him. At the time he most needed support, Helen returns and David begins to withdraw from him, resulting in a meltdown.
David – who at any point would be able to go home and escape his situation – was unable to reconcile his sexuality with societal expectations and uses several characters, with an awareness that he *should* have felt remorse for it…but didn’t. He also appears completely taken aback when his girlfriend returns…despite IT ALWAYS BEING OBVIOUS THAT SHE WOULD. The women featured in the book are agents for the male characters growth and less developed but still well crafted. Helen’s instinctive dislike and distrust of Jacques demonstrated a greater awareness of their social world than David – but she is relatively powerless to change anything, due at least in part to her gender. We none of us particularly warmed to her, though funnily enough all agreed that she and Giovanni were both betrayed by David. I had thought that we would ‘prefer’ Giovanni due to his greater presence, but I think Baldwin’s writing was too good to allow it.
Giovanni’s neediness, coupled with David’s lack of conviction made them somewhat unsympathetic characters. Indeed, the closest that the story comes to a sympathetic character is Jacques – especially in relation to Giovanni. Giovanni’s decline is all seen from David’s perspective so it’s difficult to know if his perspective tempered events.
For the majority of us, this was our first James Baldwin book. He seems to have been a fascinating man and we will definitely be seeking out his other writings in the future.