Giovanni’s Room: A Book Review
I love to follow breadcrumbs; to read, for example, one book, and have the author nudge me toward another. That’s what happened this week. I had reread Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away while writing a six-part series on how to write memoir. On page 31 she writes, “I couldn’t believe what was happening to me in southern Florida at my mother’s usually mundane retirement community. I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life.” That book is James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room.
Giovanni’s Room is a mere 169 pages. I can usually inhale a book of that length in a couple of hours, but this one took me an entire week. Using Shelley Wilson’s #FridayBookShare template, I’ll explain why.
First Line of the Book
“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
Recruit Fans by Adding the Book Blurb
Giovanni’s Room was first published in 1956. It features in the top ten of several ‘Best 100 Books Ever Written’ lists. Perhaps because it is so famous, the back cover blurb on my 2013 edition is sparse. It reads:
“Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.”
For a little more information, I like author Garth Greenwell’s comment in The Guardian:
“The novel is framed by present-tense scenes set at the end of the drama, in the night before Giovanni is going to be executed….All of the book’s major plot points are declared in the first pages: we know that David has abandoned Giovanni, we know that David’s ex-fiancée Hella has returned to the United States, we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to die.”
People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.James Baldwin
Introduce the Main Character Using Only Three Words
David is dishonest (with himself and others), tormented, and self-pitying. And yet, despite all of that, I was rooting for him to get his act together.
Delightful Design (Add the Cover Image)
When James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room his publisher refused to publish it, saying that it would end Baldwin’s literary career. First, he was a black man writing about white people. The publisher was convinced this would displease both blacks and white. Even more daringly, Baldwin was writing about gay or perhaps bisexual white people at a time when homosexuality was still in the closet.
Certainly there is audience appeal within the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. But it is erroneous to claim that group as Baldwin’s only audience. Giovanni’s Room was a compelling read for me, even though I am neither lesbian nor bisexual. I think that’s because, as so many GoodReads reviewers attest, Giovanni’s Room is “a perfect novel.” It deals with universal themes of identity, love, and societal expectations. There’s plot, brilliant characterization, and a setting of Paris in the 1950’s. What’s not to like?
And if you are a writer, studying how Baldwin writes his scenes and how he works with time is a master-class in luminous writing. At least it would be if you didn’t just want to shoot yourself for never, ever being able to come close to his level of mastery. (Or maybe that’s just me!)
Your Favourite Line or Scene
Giovanni’s Room is a very visual novel. There were so many places where Baldwin’s language use was poetic, lyrical, achingly descriptive:
“There were young people, half a dozen at the zinc counter before glasses of red and white whine, along with others not young at all. A pockmarked boy and a very rough-looking girl were playing the pinball machine near the window. There were a few people sitting at the tables in the back, served by an astonishingly clean-looking waiter. In the gloom, the dirty walls, the sawdust-covered floor, his white jacket gleamed like snow. Behind these tables one caught a glimpse of the kitchen and the surly, obese cook. He lumbered about like one of those overloaded trucks outside, wearing one of those high, white hats, and with a dead cigar stuck between his lips.” (p.50)
It is also a philosophical novel. Baldwin knows precisely when saying less will mean more:
“Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.” (p.158)
Giovanni’s Room gives us a world within a novel. It is slow-paced, exquisitely rendered, and well worth whatever time it takes to read.
Please tell us about a great book you’ve read, something that had you marvelling at the author’s skill.