What would you do if you weren’t allowed to be yourself? If there was one part of you that you would have to keep hidden, because it was forbidden to show that side of yourself? Would you try to be someone else, or stay true to who you were? I don’t know what I’d do, but James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which deals with a young American man who doesn’t know what do to about his homosexual feelings, in an age where being gay was illegal, certainly made me think things over.
You must have heard of James Baldwin. He was one of the voices of Black America in the twentieth century, but he has become more relevant than ever because of the Black Lives Matter movement. He has been quoted by many people at many political rallies. This book, however, deals with that other important theme which Baldwin often wrote about: homosexuality.
Baldwin’s 1956 novel is about David, a gay white American man who moves to Paris. He has a girlfriend, but falls in love with Giovanni, an Italian bartender, and moves in with him. David is torn between these two persons, which is made all the more difficult since homosexuality was strictly forbidden in the fifties. It raises the question of how much of an identity one can have if a large part of it should be hidden.
The title of the book refers to the most painful part of the story. While it might sound a bit simple, it actually isn’t: it symbolises how small one’s world becomes when they are unaccepted by society. The tiny, closet-like room where David and Giovanni live together is dirty and in dire need of repair, but they never manage to fix it. This is exactly what life must have been like at the time: isolated, shameful, and leaving one feeling filthy and obscene.
While reading this book I was so involved with David’s character. He is desperate to be a good person, but he also knows he can never be this while staying true to who he is – thus disappointing everyone he loves, including himself. His struggle is described in such a beautiful, heartbreaking way, that this book will still resonate with you weeks after you’ve finished it. Furthermore, Giovanni’s Room was written in 1956, but knowing that so many people in our day and age still hide some aspects of themselves, makes it all the more poignant.
You must read James Baldwin. He’s why reading is so important: I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to be gay (or black, if you read his other books) in a time when this wasn’t accepted, but Baldwin did. After you’ve finished this book, so will you.
Have you read this book? What do you think of it? And what’s your favourite Baldwin book? Let me know in the comments!