Giovanni’s Room

I had a very different post planned, one based on my recollections from the first time I read James Baldwin’s 1956 Giovanni’s Room, seven years and a month ago. I checked. (Keep journals.) I had misremembered the contents of some other books as being in this one. So instead I’m talking about reading and memory and interpretation.

In retrospect, I find it interesting that a quote I latched onto at the time:

“Somebody,” said Jacques, “your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest places!—for the lack of it.”

–was the quote the New York Times latched onto with their review when this book came out, and yet in this reread it made much less of an impact. Perhaps that’s because at the time I’d yet to have a relationship rooted in vulnerability and intimacy. Between then and now someone I loved changed that, and I don’t love that person anymore, and enough has passed that I no longer find this quote a startling revelation so much as a natural truth, if hard to get to. This time I was affected by other things.

Not the least of which was that in the course of this reread I encountered several people who were so affected by the book themselves (in fact the oldest operating gay and lesbian bookstore in America is named after it). It’s a relatively short book and I didn’t ask every single person I encounter about it, but there’s only one person I talked to (who I didn’t know already, anyway) who didn’t know the book well. She was a bartender at one of the rainbow-flagged bars in town who asked what I was reading, so I handed the book to her (and promptly lost my page, but my copy was used when I got it and the spine is creased enough to hold my place). She read the back cover and said, “oh, are you bisexual?”

At this point I was halfway through this second time reading the book, I’d already read through the main character, David, talking about his girlfriend Hella off traveling in Spain while David stays in Paris and falls in lust and frustration and twenty four hours a day with Giovanni. I am very familiar with the language of biphobia and was met with it when I came out as bi, attempting to convince my parents that this was neither a phase nor an excuse to sleep with lots of people. And yet somehow it wasn’t until she read, from the back cover, a line from that NYT article — “A young American involved with both a woman and a man” (it’s misquoted on the cover) — that I realized that this wasn’t about a gay man exploring that identity.

So how was I reading his dynamic with his girlfriend? I don’t think I was reading it as repression of his sexuality. A major issue for David is how things are done: he talks about his pride in his own willpower to carry things through once a decision is made whatever the decision is, and a key element of his desire for Hella and ambivalence and even disgust for Giovanni is that David has made a decision for the relationship he should have. He sees a life possible with Hella, but when he attempts to imagine a life with Giovanni it is shoved into heterosexual molds: who would be the woman and homemaker, who the man and breadwinner? He even seems to consider this enough a possibility to carry the question further: could he be the woman to a breadwinner working at a bar for dismal pay? He can only understand the same gender love as an effort in making each other stronger, so small wonder that he finds himself disgusted and hurt to see Giovanni weak and vulnerable, and himself completely unable to be either.

Baldwin’s other characters explore the question of the shape of life too. Hella becomes increasingly frustrated that David doesn’t let her ‘be a woman’ and offers, ‘I’ll wear my hair long, I’ll give up smoking, I’ll throw away the books’ if that’s what it took. That seems to call back to David’s question of who plays which part in a relationship, but I think it speaks more directly to Hella’s own uncertainty in how to have a satisfying relationship on her own terms: her travels alone in Spain have been touched by her gender, and back in Paris — still not home — where she expected to find the joyful parts of being a woman in a relationship, she finds herself in David’s implosion and puts the blame on herself. Giovanni hints early on about how so many men who love women love men sometimes, and eventually talks about his own past with wife and child: and I thought about how he went from a relatively happy rural life to a small poor room in a big mean city. The reason he left the one life is likely an excuse, an appropriation of trauma to construct the unexpected or to solve a problem not yet named. The disparity is one I have seen over and over, though, where someone had a life of common shape, and then it turned inside out, and they spend years and even the rest of their lives trying to construct a new shape they can believe in. Giovanni …well.

So I said to the bartender, yes, although at the time I first read the book I think I would have said that I was queer due to the binary gender attraction model indicated by ‘bisexual’. These days I feel that replacing ‘bi’ with ‘queer’ as a complicated catch-all for neither gay nor straight is mostly effective to erase the political histories and activism of people identified with both terms, so I don’t have the conversation in extremely loud environments. I did ask her if she was bi. “No, I just date men. Black ones.” I’m white, so she wasn’t saying that to come on to me, although possibly to tell me she wasn’t interested; she read as white, so I wondered where that was coming from, and I considered that we were two of the only white people in the bar that night and how unusual that was in that bar as well as this city. I thought about stereotypes of Black male sexuality as masculine and savage and heavily-endowed, and how pervasive these stereotypes are now, and how they have developed.

And I thought about Baldwin, himself expatriating to France in 1948 to get away from American racism and homophobia, and having Giovanni’s Room being rejected by American publishers who believed books by Black writers could only be sold to Black readers, and that Black readers would not read about gay (or bi, or queer, or otherwise not straight) characters. This is even though the characters themselves were white; the first paragraph declares David a blond whose ancestors conquered a continent. When anyone says publishers are getting worse, I think of this. (Not that many publishers aren’t getting worse, but that many weren’t even starting above sea level.)

Two supporting characters are described as older fairies, and as disgusting: it’s hard to tell what is Baldwin speaking and what is David, but they are described with a pervasive hatred, and their age and demeanor seem less related to that hatred and more a tool for communicating it. This part, at least, I remembered correctly from my first read, when I noted how much I had seen this same framing in Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. Where does the stock character of the fat old queen as villain, with perfumes and gauzy clothes and a willingness to love his body in spite of its shape or even because of it, come from? I think both Baldwin and Vidal were trying to speak truth to some of their own experiences. As long as certain sexual behaviors are stigmatized, there will be people who prey on others with fewer resources, often by running visible resources like bars, and being a ‘safe’ employer who respects your sexual interests as long as you’ll sleep with them. But I also think that they were attempting to provide a contrast by throwing femmes under the bus, a contrast of modern desirable masculine men who have sex with men compared to the previous generation, strange and ahistorical and unsexy as far as they could see. And I think what Baldwin’s specific experience of feminine and masculine expectations may have been, seven years into Paris and out of America. What did the aftermath of World War II contribute to the regimentation of gender roles in the public imagination of same-gender relationships? (This was explored some in a previous post.) Did the social image of Oscar Wilde become that of Dorian Gray, as the style of Aubrey Beardsley became the quaint sort of thing that couldn’t live and breathe through two wars and a depression? Even Hella, here, smokes and wears her hair short and reads books, and found the old queens repellant. The fifties were a hypergendered time, but that gendering wasn’t simple.

One of the people I encountered during my reread who was familiar with this book stands out. At a friend’s party, we met and talked over hummus and carrots and chocolates and wine in jars. He said this was one of his favorite books when he’d first read it, and that when he too reread it recently he hadn’t felt it so much. Our first reads had been connections; the second reads had seen more of the flaws. But I don’t think I had the same lack of connection. It was just different; the first time the book felt like I was reading about someone older than me and more worldly, having a very different struggle with very different people, yet having shared questions of love and life and how to place the self in the world. This time around, I felt like I was reading about some friends who have since fallen out of my life, as I became frustrated with their ongoing failure to deal with their patterns of failure.

Memory is fickle, though. Around the time seven years ago is when those friends were in my life. Perhaps I just remember what I felt like then.

At the party, the friend I’d invited to join me arrived; my snacks-and-books companion, it turned out, was also her grocer. She and I began to talk, and the grocer rapidly disappeared.

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