Daniel Wood shares his thoughts about Baldwin’s novel on homosexual desire and relationships
When once questioned about having been born poor, black and homosexual, James Baldwin exclaimed that he believed he had ‘hit the jackpot.’ Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel, deals with the third part of his own identity, and is Baldwin’s first explicit attempt at expressing homosexual desire and relationships as well as being distinguished as one of the critical texts in American LGBT literature.
The novel tells the story of David, a young white American, who recalls from the South of France the events of the previous few months in Paris. As his fiancée travels Spain, he begins an intense but ultimately tragic love affair with an impassioned Italian barman, Giovanni.
Even in Paris, which Baldwin portrays as a city where it is possible to conduct such an affair, the constraints of the taboo are still all too real in other senses. David struggles to not only free himself from the trappings of the past and the scrutiny of a heterosexual society, but also to understand the fears and mentality which prevents him from embracing his true nature. Baldwin’s other great struggle in life was race, where through the civil rights movement he became friends with figures such as Malcom X; sexuality was for him inextricably twinned with race as another issue of rights.
Whilst none of the characters in Giovanni’s Room are black (a feature his following novels would avoid), Baldwin nonetheless deals with homosexuality within the novel as a matter of freedom, just as he might with race. It is the struggle of David to understand his sexuality and to embrace freedom, set in the heady and ‘dangerous’ bohemian life of Paris, that makes this novel special. As David admits, “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”
Ultimately, Baldwin’s writing is human, as all great literature should be, and therefore does not require a reader to be gay in order for it to be accessed and empathised with. Rather, the novel’s strength is in illuminating the individual pain and confusion that can arise, and of course did and does for countless nameless individuals, from having to live in such a misunderstood and frequently despised state of conflict.