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.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Modern Library Edition 2001, orig. 1956)
In writing of the death of his friend, the artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, at the age of 23 in WWII, poet Ezra Pound writes how the force of new art is thought dangerous by a certain type of person who fear it, think it ugly, or hate it because of the effort it takes to come to an understanding of it. He states, rightly, that there are those who believe “the stability of property is the end and the all” while others believe “the aim of civilization is to keep alive…the intellectually-inventive-creative spirit.” Yesterday, when someone asked if I understood the rage behind the destruction of property in the city during the recent G-20 Summit, I thought of that statement. For those of us who do not believe in wholesale globalisation, who do not believe that more is better, or that the taking of power confers the right to force those beliefs on others, rage is a common reaction. In fact, I would say it’s a natural bi-product in en era of Survivor and Idol mentalities, endless consumerism, and the worship of celebrity, diet and beauty aesthetics.
For surely globalisation means more politics and politics, ultimately, means war in one form or another: political, economic, moral. More people dying for causes they don’t believe in. Would you be willing to die for cheaper oil, for an expanded marketplace? Because that is what it comes down to. Pound saw his friend’s death and the loss of his talent as a tragedy for humankind, and not merely for one person, just as he understood the forces behind the face of war as being largely economic and political. Why did our prime minister, who has openly declared his contempt for artists and his resentment of Toronto, choose to host the summit here, in a city he despises? Why did he not listen to the voices of authority in the city who advised him—strongly—not to host the event downtown?
Just because there are many who don’t want power does not mean we think it’s okay for others to grab it and turn it back on us, but that is what politicians do. Connecting the dots from the Mayan peasants forced off their land so others can raise cheaper beef for McDonalds or cheaper coffee for Starbucks, up through the cheerful looking corporation fronts that appear on our street corners is not always easy to do, but the trail is there to follow if you make the effort. Protests are one means of voicing an opinion about such things. Sadly, in this age, violence speaks louder than peaceful demonstration. It’s the power brokers of the world who have made that fact a truism, which is why the violence was directed at them. Reap what you have sown.
An earthquake, a full moon eclipse, and a protest riot leaving the downtown core a shambles. Can one city take much more? No doubt we can. I remember Joan Didion's remark about staying in New York during the week following the events of 9/11: "Would you really want to be anywhere else?" I couldn't answer that at the time, but now I know: as a writer, I need to be here to witness. What was interesting was seeing the two versions of yesterday's events: one in real life and the other on TV. From outside, it probably looks far more frightening than it does close-up. If it is a war zone, then war zones are places where danger is far more banal than you might imagine. Smashed windows and spray-painted walls--these are child's play. The real forces to worry about and reckon with are at work inside the compound.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (Trans. from Swedish by Reg Keeland, Penguin 2010)
This is the third and last of Stieg Larsson’s highly successful Millennium series, featuring anti-social super-hacker Lisbeth Salander and hyper-moralizing rogue journalist Mikael Blomkvist. With Hornet’s Nest, we hit the ground running immediately following Lisbeth’s assault on Russian defector Zalanchenko at the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire. With a bullet in her brain—no small peanuts—Lisbeth is transferred to hospital and operated on. Wanted for the murders of two journalists whose report on underage prostitution lies at the heart of the previous book, Salander now waits as others argue over her fate and Blomkvist plots to free her.
With this volume, Larsson moves heavily into conspiracy theory territory, briefly recruiting even the Swedish PM as a character while focusing on a secretive government cabal believed to have covered Zalachenko’s existence. The book vacillates wildly between action and rhetoric, between swiftness and inertia, but without Salander’s outrageous unpredictability at its centre much of it feels oddly flat.
A total of ten books were planned for the series, including fragments of a fourth left incomplete at the time of Larsson’s death, so perhaps others will appear in future. (If Mahler’s tenth symphony could be successfully reconstructed after his death, then why not Larsson’s books?) At times, the current volume threatens to implode from the weight of its sub-plots and secondary characters, as well as a lot of overwrought expounding on issues of sex and sexuality. Though the odds are always heavily weighted on the side of the good guys, nevertheless you still feel inclined to cheer as the would-be tension builds to a rather predictable victory for Our Side. In spite of everything, the series ends with a considerable bang rather than a whimper, and the conclusion makes it well worth the ride. Thank you, Stieg Larsson.
Another stellar evening for Proust & Company. Our Pride Poets evening over Glad Day Bookshop featured some fantastic readings by Keith Garebian, Maureen Hynes and Billeh Nickerson. (If you think poetry readings are dull, you should have been there last night. That was some talent!) Keith read from his newest book, Children of Ararat (Frontenac), while Maureen read from a collection of new and older work, including Harm's Way (Brick Books), as did Billeh Nickerson with his inimitable sense of humour, giving us selections from McPoems (Arsenal Pulp). And of course the stalwart musical stylings of Omel Masalunga rounded out the event. Thanks, all!