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June 30

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Modern Library Edition 2001, orig. 1956)

It’s not everyday that one encounters a gay classic for the first time, but this is a first reading for me. At the core of Baldwin’s novel is David, a young, white American who has an affair with Giovanni, an Italian bartender in Paris in the mid-1950s, after David’s girlfriend Hella leaves for an extended stay in Spain. The affair blossoms until Hella’s return, when David abandons Giovanni and tragedy results.

With writing reminiscent of Fitzgerald at his unencumbered best (Gatsby, and the more luminous bits of Tycoon), this book is one of a handful of literary stepping-stones that illuminate pre-Stonewall queer experience in the 20th century. (The list includes, among other titles, Forster’s Maurice—begun in 1913, though not published till 1971—works by Gide and Proust, Vidal’s The City and the Pillar from 1949, the novels of Genet, and a few others, that tell us about queer life before we evolved into an integrated community with a literature of our own.)

The book is also remarkable, probably as much then as now, in that it is a novel about whites by a black author. Perhaps even rarer, it offers a startlingly clear perception of Americans abroad seen from an outsider’s viewpoint. The writing is of a consistently high calibre, told through the narrator’s reflections. To me, however, it lacks passion. I admire it, but can’t love it the way I love Gatsby, for instance, even though I relate more readily to Baldwin’s characters than Fitzgerald’s. While Baldwin analyses his characters’ feelings brilliantly, he seldom seems to share their suffering. He distances himself from the story, just as both Giovanni and Hella accuse David of distancing himself from them.

Perhaps this is a result of Baldwin’s apprehension that his black readership would turn on him with this book (it didn’t) or maybe fear that white readers might misunderstand him. (And, if so, perhaps I am one.) Or maybe it’s just the result of being gay, black and an American ex-pat in a time when any of those qualities might easily cast you in the role of pariah—easier to shut down your emotions and view them from a safe distance, say, in the pages of a books. Whatever the reason, the story is nonetheless an invaluable part of queer literary history as well as a memorable read.

 

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