Arts Arts Editor Books Muse

Book of the Month: Giovanni’s Room

Jenna Luxon on how James Baldwin's depiction of love and lust in 1950s Paris will leave you heartbroken

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Image Credit: Penguin Books Ltd, 2001

‘Somebody… should have told us that not many people have
ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour… for
the lack of it.’

It is not often that a book will bring me close to tears,but Giovanni’s Room managed it, and managed it several times. Sat in the Alcuin Kitchen a few weeks ago, desperate to just get through the last couple of chapters before my lecture, I was forced instead to shut my book as yet again my eyes welled up.

Published in 1956, Giovanni’s Room is now well known for its brave depiction of homosexuality and bisexuality in 1950s Paris, and was included in the BBC News’ 2019 list of the 100 most influential novels.

Giovanni’s Room follows the life of David, an American man who is living in Paris whilst his girlfriend Hella travels to Spain to contemplate his offer of marriage.

Early on in the book we learn that the title character Giovanni has been sentenced to death in France. The narrative then flits back and forth between following David through the day of the execution and looking back on the months leading up to it, to uncover the relationship between these two men and the events preceding Giovanni’s death.

With much of the book being set in the gay bar scene of Paris, Giovanni’s Room is filled with characters who appear to never go out to work but instead spend their days sleeping, idly passing the time until they will venture out again in the evening to begin drinking.

Whilst this fairly accurately describes the lifestyle I aim to emulate the minute that exams are over summer term, Giovanni’s Roomacts not to romanticise this way of life but in fact strips it of any glamour it may appear to hold.

Reading about these character's and their fairly aimless lifestyle instead simply feels sad. At their core, this is a group of people who are looking for someone to love and someone to love them, but instead end up settling time and again, ultimately unfulfilled. This book tragically presents the reality for people who have the most intimate area of their life policed.

Giovanni’s Room exemplifies the parallels between how the policing of sexuality creates conflict in wider society, shown through the suspicion and frustration displayed by those within the gay bar scene in Paris. But also, the personal conflict we see in David as he grapples with his sexual identity and the isolation he feels.

What is also, perhaps more subtly, observed in this book is how for David his sexual identity is so closely intertwined with his masculinity as we see him repeatedly comparing himself to every other man he meets.

It will probably not come as a shock at this point, when I warn you that Giovanni’s Room is by no means an uplifting book. It is however, an important book that has the power to both shock and sadden its reader with its tale of a group of people muddling through life playing a game which none of them seem to be winning.

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