Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin

8/10 (Unsympathetic narrator precludes emotional connection)

This was a powerful and beautifully written book. Baldwin’s depth in exploring the twisted psyche and inner turmoil of the narrator David is impressive to behold. I marked over two dozen passages for poignancy, remarkable metaphor, or beauty in phrasing. An example (choosing at random):

Jacques is not too bad. Perhaps he is a fool and a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both. 33

Here his brevity is on display, and the passage is a little unrepresentative in that it sounds more like a Raymond Chandler detective novel. There are zingers like this throughout the book, but they don’t dominate by a long shot. His style is succinct a lot of the time — not quite Hemingway succinct — but still quick and to-the-point. Yet he packs very complicated vocabulary and thought processes in such an otherwise simple structure. Try this on:

And I moved toward him as though I were driven, putting my hands on his shoulders and forcing myself to look into his eyes. I smiled and I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Savior had met in me. ‘Don’t be frightened. Don’t worry.’

And I also felt, standing so close to him, feeling such a passion to keep him from terror, that a decision — once again! — had been taken from my hands. For neither my father nor Hella was real at that moment. And yet even this was not as real as my despairing sense that nothing was real for me, nothing would ever be real for me again — unless, indeed, this sensation of falling was reality. 147

But I don’t know, I still didn’t love this book. I liked it, appreciated it, felt totally engaged, but it still left me cold. It’s probably that the narrator is so cold and unfeeling and transmits that to the reader. There are other parts that are uneven — some parts flow better than others. Baldwin has a penchant for writing key phrases in French, meaning I didn’t quite understand everything he was going for. I have a very basic knowledge of French, but this was still frustrating.

I would recommend this book to fans of good literature, especially heterosexual ones. It is an excellent story of forbidden love, and I think (without knowing from experience) that it does a terrific job of capturing the terror and dread that certain closeted homosexuals must feel. I will certainly be referring back to the excellent writing on display throughout.

I consider this in many ways to be like the movie “Brokeback Mountain” (or vice versa, since this came first). Both are tales of forbidden homosexual love, but they are love stories first; the homosexuality almost feels incidental. Both are supremely artistic as well, and can be appreciated just by their narrative techniques, without even considering the content. Both are also excellent introductions to the trials and psycho-emotional obstacles that closeted homosexuals face in our society, and both are sort of ready-made for a heterosexual (yet more-or-less open-minded) audience.

Original Review


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