Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A flawed novel that starts out pretentious and ends up predictable.
When looking at a book written sixty years ago, we consider what it brings to us today. Does it show us a window into what life was like in the past for example? In this book much of the action is set in one room, Giovanni’s Room, so in that reference it could be timeless. I gained no insight into life in Paris in the 1950’s or much into gay culture of the time, I think there’s only one or two brief scenes set in a gay bar.
So does the book then offer something timeless, such as a meditation on love, life, or loss? And again I’d have to say no. The main character, I don’t even know his name he’s so forgettable—he has elements of a timeless struggle, sleeping with men and then pulling away, only to find yourself drawn back. I don’t know if it’s the time it was written or what but what drew him back to Giovanni is never fully explained. The loss aspect is brushed over, and what we’re left with is very much of its time, a book about gay shame manifested in a way that doesn’t really exist now.
The book starts off very slowly and I found it difficult to get through the All-American goes slumming in Europe stage. Who cares? And the fact that Baldwin made the lead character white, I kept wondering why. One would assume to get people somewhat on side, for who would read about a black gay man in 1950 as the hero?
The women, or should I say woman, in the book are one-dimensional: “I want to start having babies. In a way it’s really all I’m good for.” The one most together, not moping about his sexuality, he can’t survive. The book was noted for its daring, and it’s not daring any more.
Langston Hughes said of Baldwin, from the Introduction to this book, that he “over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them.” I agree, the novel is not relatable to me today in 2014, and I don’t know how relatable it ever was.
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