Book- Giovanni’s Room
Author- James Baldwin
Publisher- Penguin Books
Reviewer- Alex Joseph
(Alex Joseph is an Indian student of English literature and a writer of fantasy fiction. Reading books is his long time passion and occupation.)
When people think of the idea of a room in literature, the first thought that we have is of Virginia Woolf’s “Room of one’s own”. In this work the room became a symbol of freedom through economic independence, however in the hands of James Baldwin the room gets transformed into a claustrophobic metaphor for restrictions that are imposed on us and even more significantly those we impose on ourselves.
In Baldwin’s best known work “Giovanni’s Room” we get a short yet devastatingly visceral depiction of relationships in the modern age particularly homosexual relationships and the stigma that surrounds them.
David an American living in Paris when he has a run in with an Italian bartender Giovanni through a mutual acquaintance. David’s lifelong repression of his homosexuality is tested through this as they quickly fall into a physical relationship but when David’s girlfriend comes back from her trip to Spain, he falls back into old habits to escape the scorn of society.
The novel navigates masculinity and tries to express the damage that societal perceptions of femininity are damaging to men and women both through dark and desolate prose that is carries with it the constant air of tragedy. There is not a moment in the novel where the reader is at a doubt as to the inevitability of all of the characters having unhappy lives because of the way that society wants them to act.
The characters from David to Giovanni and Hella all seem to fight against the ties that bind them but soon find that the struggle is never ending and that they would rather have the safety of societal acceptance.
The picture that the novel paints is a bleak one and it is in this bleakness that lie its greatest strengths and weakness. Baldwin deftly crafts the mood and conveys to the reader a profound sense of hopelessness however through the same device makes homosexuality in almost demonic. The flamboyant sexual predator that is Guillaume is a key example of this.
In creating the atmosphere that Baldwin desires, he also portrays homosexuality as almost a mental disability by making those who are homosexual, violent and callous. While it could be argued that this is again a statement on the internalization of the struggle that LGBT people have with society it none the less promotes the image of gay men as deviants.
While the novel is not free of fault it is without a doubt a powerful novel and one that traps the reader in its space no matter what walk of life they may be from.