by James Baldwin
"I was thinking, when I told Hella that I had loved her, of those days before anything awful, irrevocable, had happened to me, when an affair was nothing more than an affair."
The entry below will openly analyse James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.
Ranking on par with Maurice, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, published in 1956, is another of the few canonized pieces of gay literature. Its blonde haired American protagonist, David, staggers about Paris in the 1950s, while his would-be-fiance travels Spain, and he begins a liaison with the dashing Italian, Giovanni.
As it is so well illustrated in the quote above, plucked the novel so early on (page three!), this is a novel about the irrevocably of love; That love is something that, once it has been discovered, cannot be forgotten or escaped. It is a revision on the adage that one cannot go home again, which Baldwin uses to illustrate his point as well. David refuses to go back to the United States, and Giovanni cannot return to Italy.
David is essentially a coward, forever running from love; Giovanni's Room, the major symbol of the novel, is representative of Giovanni's past love affairs, and naturally, the situation between he and David. It's wallpaper, with its quaint depiction of 19th century lovers in a garden, is indicative of the love affairs which have come before; ghosts on the wall, omnipresent. The promise of its repair, that laborious construction, representative of the promise of a stable, lasting relationship with its ability to cleanse. And the filth and stench that David despises, its honesty.
The desire to vacate places by the various characters of the novel is futile. These places, which they view as prisons (another fantastic parallel Baldwin incorporates)-- which are prisons, will haunt them wherever they go. Once experienced, there is no escape. Which, I believe, points to a great tragic irony: While the experience of love is irrevocable, the ability to live in it is not interminable.
Giovanni's Room is a novel of elegant precision and craft, that which only a master of the form can wield so expertly. It's characters are raw nerves, aching openly. Their arguments are imbued with desperation and pain, suggesting that their collapse is only a sentence or a word away. A work, in short, of exquisite technical prowess and deep empathetic concern for its characters, perfect to the last sentence and faulty perhaps only in that it is so short.
It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and for that I can only be praised, but what brevity doesn't allow it is time for its readers to entrench themselves with its characters to be equally effected. Still. It's hard to argue against something so well done, and unquestionably, a classic.
Up Next: Lisa Grunwald's The Irresistible Henry House