Book no. 32 this year – ‘Giovanni’s Room’ by James Baldwin. Been wanting to read this one for a while, but strangely, it had been hard to find a reasonably priced copy online. And quite often than not, it would be out of stock. But finally stumbled upon a Penguin classic edition at a bookstore, when I wasn’t even looking for it (was out to buy graphic novels).
Let’s talk about the plot – it focuses on a Parisian love affair between the American Daniel and the fatally attractive Italian Giovanni. They meet at a bar and cannot keep their eyes off each other and soon find themselves sharing Giovanni’s cramped room… and bed. But nothing good can last too long. Daniel’s denial of his sexuality leads to tragic consequences when his girlfriend Hella comes back to Paris. He is quick to forsake the Italian beau. The title is of relevance, because like Giovanni’s claustrophobic messy room, Daniel feels that their relationship was choking him. The room symbolizes their shared love, lust and limits.
I had high expectations with this book, since I haven’t read much queer literature, but was slightly disappointed with how cosmetic it seemed at points. Despite being set in the 20th century, it felt older, and if not for the queer theme, it reads like several stories we’ve already read before. There’s a dramatic bond between the two leads, as if they are tragic leads from a Shakespearean play. They make intense declarations of love, but do little to make it believable. Some parts of the book felt like they had been ‘made-up’ in a way that would perhaps not upset conservative audience.
There’s no doubt that ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is a historic & exceptionally brave book by Baldwin, considering it came out in 1956. In fact, the author was warned by a publisher to not go ahead with it, claiming it would “ruin his career” & “alienate his reader”. For Baldwin to defy such warnings and still publish what would’ve have been scandalous story for the time, is applause-worthy.
What didn’t work for me in the story was just how hedonistic & extremely self-centered Daniel is; he has no job and leeches off others. It makes his ‘love’ ring hollow & their ‘losses’ not worth getting worked up over. Perhaps the author deliberately made the protagonist not very likable, to mitigate the shock of Daniel’s homosexuality – orthodox readers can maybe rationalize that only despicable personalities can feel that way. Intentional or not, the book could’ve been a little more meditative about same-sex relations. For most parts, Daniel is swimming in his own shame for having such feelings for a man, and never does redeem himself.
Baldwin’s story-telling is absolutely alluring in the first half, reminiscent of classical masters of the past, but loses its charm as the plot progresses. All that said, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ is still an important piece of literature that must be read keeping in mind the context of the time it was published in. In an era where there was a lot more hate, misinformation and misunderstanding of the LGBTQ community, this book makes the reader realize that love between two individuals of the same gender is no different than heterosexual relationships – it might start off passionately, but needs work and can end in a lot of hurt.
It’s a 3/5 from me.
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