James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room

I was really surprised when I figured out that David, the protagonist of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was white.  The novel never says so directly, but he is described a handful of times as “blonde.”  In fact, as far as I could tell, all of the principal characters are white, with the possible exception of the briefly mentioned “Joey,” David’s first same-sex partner, who is described as being “darker” than David.  But if David is blonde, who knows?  And obviously race is a social construct and a novel is fiction, but it still feels like placing the other characters into the category of “white” is the correct call.

This is often labelled Baldwin’s “homosexual novel,” which is a strange, outdated-feeling label but one that gets used a lot – it’a also the label given to EM Forster’s Maurice, which I read last year in a course about Forster and Woolf, and which covers some similar ground (though it’s 50 years earlier, and it’s set almost entirely in the English countryside).  It tells the story of David, an American in Paris, and his brief relationship with Giovanni who, we learn in the opening pages, has been sentenced to death for a crime we don’t really learn about until the very end (I won’t spoil it for you).

It was interesting to me that the issue of race came up so fleetingly in this book, especially since it has come up on virtually every single page of everything else I’ve ever read that Baldwin wrote.  That said, just because Baldwin isn’t talking about race doesn’t mean we can’t see him doing similar things in his exploration of masculinity and sexuality as we find it in Giovanni’s Room.

[Next I’ll read the next volume of essays – Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), along with some other essays from this period]

I felt out of my depth reading this book, like there were all sort of social codes at work, character-types that, had I grown up gay in an homphobic society, I would understand more deeply.  There is a lot about older and younger gay men – especially around the characters of Jacques and Guilllarme, through whom David and Giovanni meet.  There is also a lot that I could get about Americanness abroad – sort of Henry James-ish but moving beyond that I think.

The description of post-war Paris brought me back to reading (almost 20 years ago now) Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and it would be interesting to place those books beside one another, since at both of their centers is an exploration of a white American’s confused masculinity (they’re confused in  different ways).  And like that book, there is a sense of tragic, transient beauty pervading the pages of this book, especially its descriptions of Parisian bohemian life.  They’re not stereotyped, but they are romantic anyhow.

What I most took from this novel was its exploration of the instability of heterosexual identity: David is what we might call closeted (I’m really not sure – my sense is that his father has no idea he is gay, and that his girlfriend/fiancee, though she may intuit it, at least initially, says nothing).  His relationship with Giovanni does occur almost literally in a closet – a rented-out maid’s room of a house that has no maid.

The instability of hetersexual identity and the problems that gay men cause for it form a rough analogy with the fragility of whiteness and the problems that blackness pose for it: here, as elsewhere, Baldwin is especially sensitive to the dynamic that occurs between an oppressor group and an oppressed group, and the ways the oppressed group ends up doing so much of the dirty work for the oppressors themselves.

The final image of the novel makes this clear (I think):

And at last I step out into the morning and I lock the door behind me.  I cross the road and drop the keys into the old lady’s mailbox.  And I look up the road, where a few people stand, men and women, waiting for the morning bus.  They are very vivid beneath the awaakening sky, and the horizon beyond them is beginning to flame.  The morning weighs on my shoulders with the dreadful weight of hope and I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind cary them away.  Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.

The “blue envelope” contains a document advising David of the date and time of Giovanni’s death, so his throwing them away becomes an attempt at distancing; them blowing back at him shows the failure of that act.   Just like white people’s attempt to “not talk about race,” and thereby distance themselves from the facts of life for black people, is always blowing back in their facees, here the facts of Giovanni’s homosexuality and the problems it poses for David do the same thing.

It is not the case that blackness and gayness work in the same way; I don’t mean to suggest that at all.  As little as I understand about the former, I’ve thought and read even less about the latter.  For one thing, being gay is not something everybody knows about you all the time – “coming out” is not something that black people have to do (at least not in that way).  Though I did have a student once who identified as black – at least one of their parents were black, and the other was mixed, but they had very “white” features, which they reported did cause them to have to “come out” to white people, mostly after white people had let them in on racist jokes they didn’t want to be a part of.  And that’s an experience I can sort of relate to in my own Jewishness – I have (sort of, not nearly with the same risk but sort of) had to “come out” as someone with Jewish heritage while I listened to groups of white people make Jewish jokes.

Anyway it’s really interesting and something I need to think more about, what are the similiarites and differences between Baldwin’s account of being a person of color, on the one hand, and Baldwin’s account of being gay, on the other?

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