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Giovanni’s Room: What James Baldwin’s classic ’50s novel can still teach gay men today

65 years on, Baldwin's 1956 novel still has much to say about sex, love, shame, gender and identity, writes Juno Dawson.

By Will Stroude

This article was first published in Attitude issue 288, October 2017.

Here we go: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, possibly the seminal queer novel, dissected in 500 words. I’m not sure I can convey the importance of this novel in one article, but suffice to say, this is a book I think all Attitude readers should explore.

The story opens with David, a young American living in the South of France, contemplating the imminent execution of his lover. Giovanni is a young Italian waiter encountered by David in post-war Paris.

Although he’s engaged to Hella, an American girl travelling in Spain, David had a teenage dalliance with a boy in Brooklyn before falling for the titular barman after they meet on a night out years later. David recalls Giovanni and his affair, only to retreat into the arms of Hella on her return, starting a chain of events that [spoiler alert] leads to Giovanni murdering a bar owner.

The book explores many of the same facets of gay life as Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd and Alan Downes’ The Velvet Rage: David is filled with the most terrible shame over his sexuality and this essentially loses him his best shot at happiness with Giovanni.

After his teenage fling, David ponders, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.” Indeed — although a sign of the times in which it was written — David admonishes ‘fairies’ and ‘mannerisms’ in Giovanni.

Of the trans women who frequent the gay bars, David remarks: “I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody, for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them.” Classic toxic masc-for-masculinity right there.

David blazes with homophobic self-loathing and Giovanni is a misogynist, but there are moments of passion and tenderness. “I remembered that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning.”

However, David is too damaged to give himself over to Giovanni and returns to Hella, only to have her reject him once she learns he’s slept with men. Hella, by way of some poetic justice, bitterly challenges his manhood, as poor Giovanni faces the guillotine.

Author James Baldwin was vehemently warned against doing such a gay-centric novel ahead of publication in 1956.

This led to a spat with his publisher, which saw him walk away and release the book, unedited, with a much smaller press. As a black author, it was — at the time, and arguably still — expected that Baldwin would feature African-American characters, as he had done in his debut, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Giovanni’s Room is notably white, but critics have suggested that the novel is as much about Baldwin’s exile from America as it is his sexuality.

San Francisco University professor, Susan Stryker, notes: “Questions of origin and identity are central to Giovanni’s Room, a text which not only participates in the tradition of the American expatriate novel… but which does so in relation to the African-American idiom of passing and the genre of the passing novel.

“As such, Giovanni’s Room poses questions of nationalism, nostalgia, and the constitution of racial and sexual subjects in terms that are especially resonant for contemporary identity politics.”

Baldwin has had a renaissance in recent years thanks to the Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, based on his final, unpublished work Remember This House. Giovanni’s Room isn’t set in any specified year, and this helps it remain timeless. It still has much to say about sex, love, shame, gender and identity.