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Giovanni's Room

This is the first James Baldwin novel I've read, and I don't know why I waited so long to read him. His writing feels very honest, with a cool tone and seamless flow, at least in this book. Giovanni's Room (1956) is considered a gay novel, whatever that means. Its protagonist, David, has gone to Paris, where he has a tough time deciding between Hella, his girlfriend, who's away traveling in Spain for most of it, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender with whom he falls in love to some degree. David tells the story himself, and (in contrast with the otherwise honest, open narrative he gives us) he's evasive when describing the particulars of his relationship with Giovanni (even the title of the novel reflects this), but it's clear throughout that he's having difficulty coming to terms with aspects of this relationship. He doesn't so much feel remorseful or regretful; he's rather stumbling through his realization or perception that society, especially American society, will not allow him to live in that way (and I use "that way" because that's the way Baldwin would probably put it in the book).

There's a grittiness in the novel I liked too. The characters hang out in seedy bars, and Giovanni's room is a disgrace, with stuff littering the table and floor. Until David tells us he's in his 30s, I got the impression the main characters were in their early 20s, some gone off to foreign lands to live hand to mouth and "find themselves" or just to get a taste for how life's like elsewhere. And there is some of that, but it makes way for themes like marriage and babies and staying vs. leaving. There's a bit of mystery as well, as we know from the first part that Giovanni will be executed for a crime he's committed, the details of which we must wait for. All in all, I thought this was a excellent book. It explores what it means to be a man, a bisexual man, a masculine man, as well as identity, nationality and culture, and the madness and desperation (and bitter disappointment) that may come with love.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

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