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Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin

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Along with Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is one of the most widely read of gay literature, probably the most widely read by heterosexuals. However, it has long been a problematic text for gay readers, particularly gay African American readers.

Baldwin was actively involved with the civil rights movement, but shied away from the gay rights movement. He proudly fought along the lines of African American identity politics, was involved in forming a positive image of African Americans, but his one gay novel does little to affirm homosexuality. To put it succinctly, Baldwin has often been accused of being a self-deprecating homosexual, and guilty of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Nonetheless, he was still one of few major American authors to tackle the issue.

For those unfamiliar with the novel. It is about the affair of a white American, David, with a young Italian man, Giovanni, while living in Paris. David has money issues, and ends up living in Giovanni's room, though of course the room itself is a symbolic representation of the containment of David's homosexual desire. The typical psychoanalytical interpretation involved in the liminal spaces and liminal character that David is. He's never grounded, he's in transition, and the homosexual is a liminal person. I don't like to spoil endings, but things don't turn out so well for David, and especially bad for Giovanni.

Personally, I'm not one to trash Baldwin's effort in this novel. He tries to put forward an argument against the repression of homosexuals, he tries to show suffering as a result of the lack of acceptance. Nonetheless, I have to admit that Baldwin is hardly the most enlightened of gay writers, he displays a lot of resentment and negativity towards homosexuality. In large part I'm willing to forgive this because it is a first person narrative in David's voice, and he is the epitome of the self-loathing homosexual. The troubling implication is that this is the book that is the most widely read by heterosexuals and is often encountered early on by homosexuals looking through gay literature, it's probably not the best novel if we're concerned with the social implications. It's another one of those gay novels that perpetuated the image of the permanently unhappy gay man, there really rarely is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in gay lit.

The most striking criticism I've come across has come from African American gays. Many of whom resent Baldwin's unwillingness to directly tackle the issue of black gays. An issue largely erased historically, unmentioned and impossible to admit to a public discourse at the time so heavily concerned with establishing the legitimacy of African Americans. Instead, Baldwin chose to write his novel about white people, in fact he establishes the whiteness of his narrator from the very first page. Some, have argued rather convincingly that the characters are subtly codified as black anyway, and argue that the novel really does say something very controversial by rendering the issues of race and sexuality ambiguous. Though, it doesn't help to ablate the subtle resentment of what is perceived as a lack of courage by Baldwin to tackle the issue of the duel hardships, of racism and homophobia, that black gays faced in the 60s.

Ultimately, if we remove the novel from its social and political implications, we're left with a rather convincing narrative of an individual in conflict with social expectation and his desire to fulfill them, and in many ways it's a rather conventional tragedy as it is his desire to remain socially acceptable that is his undoing. The novel is tightly structured, and Baldwin shows his usual love of symbolism. It's a good novel, even if I sometimes worry over the impression it might give to young gay readers. Moreover, just because of how widely read it is, it's nearly impossible to ignore for anyone interested in LGBT literature.

Updated 11-01-2010 at 10:57 PM by OrphanPip

LGBT - Queer literature


  1. qimissung's Avatar
    "...there really rarely is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in gay lit."

    Or in any kind of literature, really. Good review, Pip. I can see the concern that he was unable to write about black gays, but it seems like at that time since it was difficult to acknowledge one's own homosexuality that reader's could give him a break for even approaching the topic and choosing to write about it. I remember in college hearing about a guy I'd gone to school with since the second grade, very well liked by every one, that he attempted suicide while coming to terms with the fact that he was gay.
  2. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by qimissung
    "...there really rarely is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in gay lit."

    Or in any kind of literature, really.
    Haha, true enough. You have to go to Hollywood if you want happy endings, or a seedy massage parlour.
  3. qimissung's Avatar
    And even then the latter is the more easily found.
  4. Ron Price's Avatar
    The following comment is obviously not directly related to this thread but, since it concerns Baldwin, I post it here for its general relevance.-Ron Price, Tasmania

    In his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin(1924-1987), wrote with intensity about the power of prayer and preaching. He wrote on behalf of an otherwise powerless community of which he was a part. It was a time, he wrote, filled with soaring possibilities in contrast to the bitter world outside. It was as though life’s very bitterness offered his congregation a unique insight into the suffering of Christ, a bitterness which made the congregation for that time of prayer and preaching a chosen people whose spiritual exaltation, in all its fiery rhetoric and colourful abandon, could never be experienced by white people. Baldwin matched this novel with an essay, “Down at the Cross,” published in 1962, in which he wrote about his own conversion as an adolescent filled with doubts and fears and ambitions and a sharp sense of exclusion:
    “One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me.” –Ron Price with thanks to Colm Toibin, “James Baldwin & Barack Obama,” The New York Review of Books, 23 October 2008.

    I was too young back then
    to get into your novels and
    essays being a primary and
    secondary school student in
    Ontario---reading what was
    necessary to qualify for my
    entrance to university, just
    growing-up and making the
    best of my little-town world.

    I got religious experience in
    very different ways to you &
    involvement, in my case, was
    with Australia and not France;(1)
    I found a new power, a freedom,
    a sense of a destiny to fulfil and I
    worked out my identity, exploring
    my society & myself, making it up
    as I went along—and I went along
    to many a town across 2 continents.

    Out of my failures and my successes,
    I saw hope, a new set of values, and I
    gradually produced an autobiography
    out of my efforts to make sense of this
    complex world and my complex playful
    self, as well as my own unique place in
    history, remaking my world in my own
    likeness and in the context of a vision
    with a question before me: “What will
    happen to all this radiant & pure beauty?”

    (1) Baldwin moved to Paris in November 1948 when he was twenty-four. “I left America,” he wrote in 1959, the year I joined the Baha’i Faith, “because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem here…. I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.”

    I moved to Australia in July 1971 when I was 26 because I saw myself as part of Canada’s international Baha’i diaspora or pioneering mission overseas. I had already experienced some personal furies associated with episodes of bipolar disorder and more would come Downunder. I wanted to play a role in the then Nine Year Plan, 1964-1973, and I did.

    Ron Price
    11 November 2011