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I begin with a story of how I came to discover the work of James Baldwin; I begin with the novel Giovanni’s Room.
Like many book lovers I was in a bookstore, excited having just purchased three novels. But it was busy in there and as I weaved through a crowd of word lovers; I knocked a paperback off a display cabinet. The display was titled: Staff Picks. The book that hit the ground had the silhouette of two men and a woman’s long legs on its cover. The book was described by its publisher as a modern classic. I grew curious, as readers so often are in bookstores. Picking up the book, I read an introduction about a writer named James Baldwin from Harlem, New York City, born in the 1920s—and that the was the start.
The opening page of Giovanni’s Room (published 1956) was enough for me to return all three books I had just purchased and buy three by Baldwin.
a stylist without compromise
As a fan of stories that speak to the human condition, one impacted by milieu, a sense of place. Over the years, I find myself returning to the pages of Giovanni’s Room. To think, feel, understand more about what it means to be alive in the world. Once his words entered my mind, they never really left.
Some writers are like that more than others, one supposes. But still to this day, I am both sure and unsure as to what it is about Baldwin’s work that has moved me beyond words, towards a place full of contemplation, about a world far removed from his. Reading Giovanni’s Room for the first time made me think about a lot of stuff. Here, I will attempt to express an utterance of reason as to why he is to me, a great literary fiction writer of the 20th century. Why? Because when I first read the uncompromising words of James Baldwin, I was transported outside of myself, into another world, one full of raw emotion and vital desire.
What first struck me about Giovanni’s Room remains like a lover’s scent left on a bedsheet.
Or perhaps a dull headache after too much wine the night before. The rhythms that he weaves throughout a narrative full of stark reality, softly showcases the fragility and depravity of the human condition. Baldwin’s delivery is at once arresting and disarming, poetic and sharp. I have been struck by the tidal wave pacing of a multi-tonal writer too many times to count, left so breathless on return to his pages, I thought medical attention may be needed. Baldwin could do that. He had the ability to turn a phrase or observation on its head like volta in poetry—and make the reader reconsider their own perceptions of the world in which they occupy. In Giovanni’s Room, a progression of narrative is closely linked to a shift of character perspectives, delivered by captivating voices unlike your own, yet they sound so personal.
Love and despair
David, Hilla and Giovanni are central characters in the novel. And at times they appear both close and distant; driven by lustful impulse as they are each broken down by rules and expectation of a more conventional society. There is a sense of despair and romance throughout Giovanni’s Room, further enhanced by the romance of a Paris setting, one full of bedrooms, cafés and all-night bars. Baldwin possessed a fluid literary style packed with hypnotic rhythms full of subtle repetitions. The pastel skylines and jazz and wine of Paris, only serve a deep more profound sense of human fragility. Humans born on the outside of social acceptance. Bold and bohemian types caught up by the complexity of their own feelings and restrictions, breathe life into the book, as does the pursuit of freedom from confinement.
When you read James Baldwin, prepare to be punctuated by social injustice, moved by the lustful romance of what could be in the world.
The story of a migrant lost, looking for self and other moves me to this day, I don’t know why. Giovanni’s Room at times is the skin crack of heartbreak, at others an intimate portrayal of unspoken love. It speaks to the desires of people who have nothing left to lose. Novel themes include identity, sexuality and race, each eloquently weaved throughout a narrative that follows the life of David, a young black man alone in Paris. His girl is away. David begins a love affair with a man named Giovanni—I won’t spoil the climactic ending.
But what struck me about Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s ability to cause collisions, throughout a narrative that feels intimately confined to the personal life of an expat in Paris. Sexual desire versus societal expectation, compassion versus pain, freedom versus belonging—each clash hits like two boxers, who at the bell hug it out once the bout is over.
And no matter how close you get to Giovanni or David, there are lager societal issues delivered throughout the book. Even when you are invited into complex lives, even when after dark impulses drive the narrative. In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin managed to connect what happened to a black American expat in the 1950s with the modern-day reader through emotion, observation, motion. His words are delivered with a poise and grace that would suit ballroom dance, even when blood, sweat and tears are left smeared all over the page like a ring canvas, even in the face of tragedy his poetry speaks.
Baldwin took on complex and challenging subject matters head on, and explored with an observational detail that could humanize the ugliest of truths. James Baldwin could make your heart skip a beat for a character—so estranged from your own identity, you’re left questioning who you are. There is a constant confrontation of self ever present in his work. At once, Giovanni’s Room is a story about a man trapped by a relationship with a woman, while in love with another man. But it is also a story about choices, and the consequences impulsive actions can have, if desire dictates action. In Giovanni’s Room we follow the haunted and forgotten expat, one who moves, almost with impossible longing and nostalgia, beneath the pastel skyline of Paris caught in contemplation about his place, unable to express those three special words for a love for a man he knows, deep down, cannot last, will not be voiced.
Previous poetry, fiction and articles have appeared in: Edinburgh Magazine (UK), The View From Here (US), The Dundee Anthology (UK), Curbside Splendor (US), Tefl England (UK), Litro Magazine (UK), Cleaver Magazine (US) First Edition (UK) and The Argentina Independent (ARG). David is forty, a traveler of four continents for over a decade, and originally from Scotland. Currently he is editing a collection of poetry and drafting a novella.