Bladwin said Giovanni's Room was about "what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody" © Rosemay/Dahan

Baldwin's complex fate

James Baldwin was told his novel about gay life in Paris would ruin his career. Republished this month after 60 years, "Giovanni's Room" remains risky, truthful and disturbing
March 24, 2016

“For Paris is, according to its legend,” James Baldwin wrote in his essay “A Question of Identity” in 1954, “the city where everyone loses his head, and his morals, lives through at least one histoire d’amour, ceases, quite, to arrive anywhere on time, and thumbs his nose at the Puritans—the city, in brief, where all become drunken on the fine old air of freedom.”

Exploring and deconstructing this legend worked wonders for a number of American novelists in the 20th century, including indeed Baldwin himself. In his novel Giovanni’s Room, republished this month 60 years after it first appeared, he sought to dramatise the idea of love and loyalty, commitment and truth. Using Paris as the backdrop offered his book not only a glamour and an intensity, but also allowed it to become part of a tradition of American novels set outside America.

In the early pages of Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors (1903), for example, Lambert Strether, whose mission is to return to the family fold the errant Chad Newsome who has been worrying his mother to death by lingering in Paris, begins himself to savour the freedoms that Paris offers. On his second day in Paris, the city “hung before him this morning, the vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next… Was it at all possible… to like Paris enough without liking it too much?”

Strether approaches the third-floor apartment where he knows Chad lives and, as he stands on the street gazing upwards, he sees a young man, who is not Chad, come out on to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. As their eyes lock, Strether sees that the smoker is “very young; young enough apparently to be amused at an elderly watcher, to be curious even to see what the elderly watcher would do on finding himself watched.” In the passage that follows, the very notion of watching and being watched, and the idea too of a young man in such communion with an older one, offers the novel considerable tension. Paris will, as the novel proceeds, come to beguile Strether and tempt him as much as it will eventually deceive him and let him down.

The opening chapters of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) take place in a Paris where many expatriates enjoy the easy freedoms of the city’s bars and restaurants and clubs. This world plays out what the ominous reference in The Ambassadors to the “terrible toughs,” as Chad puts it, “of the American bars and banks roundabout the Opera” implies. The Hemingway book includes references to a Paris in which homosexual men move easily and can be identified. In chapter three, Jake, an American, is standing at the doorway of a dancing-club and sees “a crowd of young men, some in jerseys and some in their shirt-sleeves” arriving in two taxis. “I could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair in the light from the door. The policeman standing by the door looked at me and smiled.” The smile suggests that the policeman is amused by these young men whom Jake now notices “grimacing, gesturing, talking…” He reacts with anger: “I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure.”

James Baldwin’s essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” published in 1959, as with “A Question of Identity,” deals with the fate of being an American as viewed from exile in Paris. Baldwin begins this piece by quoting Henry James directly: “It is a complex fate to be an American,” and then goes on, “and the principal discovery an American writer makes in Europe is just how complex this fate is. America’s history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world… are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word ‘America’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.”

In November 1948, at the age of 24, James Baldwin moved to Paris where he would soon meet and fall in love with a young Swiss, Lucien Happersberger. In the winter of 1951, while staying in Switzerland with Happersberger, Baldwin completed his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was published early in 1953. Over the next two years, living mainly in France, he worked on his second novel, Giovanni’s Room.

Some of the atmosphere in Giovanni’s Room came from close observation and experience, as Baldwin made clear in an interview in 1980. He spoke of using some of the people he met: “We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And two or three days later I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined… I saw him in the headlines, which reminded me that I was already working on him without knowing it.”

In that interview, Baldwin also stated that his book was “not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.” Since Go Tell It on the Mountain, set in Harlem, had dealt with the African-American experience, it came as a surprise to Baldwin’s editors that he had written a novel in which all the characters were white. “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it,” he said.

His American publishers, Knopf, however, wanted another novel about Harlem life. They told him that he was a “Negro writer” and that he reached a certain audience. “So, they told me, ‘you cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before and we won’t publish this book as a favour to you.”’ The book was published in 1956 by the Dial Press in the United States and Michael Joseph in the UK.

Giovanni’s Room begins in a tone that is grave, almost stately. The words in the opening sentences do not have the hushed tone of guilt or confession, which will come later, as much as a ring of certainty, a sense of finality. The voice is not whispering, but speaking as though to a large audience. The tone is almost theatrical, mixing the commanding voice of a single actor on stage with precise stage directions. After the first sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life,” it is easy to imagine the actor preparing to turn to face the audience. The next sentence: “I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow,” reads like a stage direction. The sentence after that, however, in a more minor key, is a direction to the actor himself: “I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane.” By the end of the paragraph as the actor explains about his ancestors, who “conquered a continent,” he is facing the audience, who will know that he is white and in full possession of the text’s own grave cadences.

Even though Baldwin did not acknowledge his debt to Hemingway, it is clear that from the second page of the book, when the narrator, David, describes meeting his girlfriend, Hella, using simple words and hypnotic repetitions to evoke a time of easy and carefree pleasures, Hemingway’s shadow has been cast over the prose. But there are other shadows too, competing ones, when the tone of voice moves away from remembering pleasure to a sound that is regretful, weary, rueful, wise. David is ready to judge himself, and ready also to use these pages not merely to explain or dramatise but to expiate his sins, as much as he can, and repent, as much as he can.

Go Tell It on the Mountain dealt with a child preacher; in Giovanni’s Room there is also a religious sense, an aura of moral urgency. The speaker is both performing for us and preaching to himself; he is using his eloquent voice to let himself know what he did. The tone is directed inwards, but there is a feeling too that David is almost relishing the sound he makes, his own sweet confessional rhetoric. He is an actor both whispering and performing.

As the narrative progresses, and David tells of a boyhood affair, the prose becomes more dense, with more adjectives and adverbs, and longer sentences. The simplicity of setting the scene has been replaced now by the more complex music of remembering, conjuring up the context in which everything began to unfold. Slowly, this music grows in intensity until it has echoes of the language of Christian preaching or the tones of the Old Testament: “The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid.” Or: “The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness.”

Baldwin’s creation of a confessional style, filled with sudden flourishes and painful realisations, has something in common with other texts where the narrator has been wounded or has caused pain and the motives are gnarled and require careful explanation and shifts of emotional gear in a time that passes for tranquillity. David’s self-lacerating tone is close, for example, to that of Oscar Wilde in De Profundis, as Wilde in prison is trying to reconstruct what happened to him and his lover, what illusions, self-delusions and failures of imagination were in place to wreak such havoc in their lives. Just as Wilde will compare himself to Christ in his suffering, David in Giovanni’s Room will say, “Judas and the Saviour had met in me.”

Baldwin’s book is also close to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier in the slow and tortuous going over of events in the past in order to come to some understanding of sexual treachery. This is not to suggest that Baldwin was influenced by these other texts, or that he even read them, but rather that the confession form itself, in a time when so much about sex and sexual motive was kept dark and hidden, can have a special and searing intensity. It is especially open to a heightened tone, the tone of self-awareness and self-knowledge being forced on to the page as though after a struggle, the tone of things being said for the very first time.

Baldwin, in this novel, made clear that he could work wonders with the light and shade of intimacy, that he could move easily and effortlessly into a whispered prose, into moments where David is frightened into sharp wisdom, and then, with equal facility, evoke the excitement of a crowded bar filled with sexual expectation. He could enact in his sentences the movement from innocence to danger, the shift from the mundane to something ominous. For example, in the bar where David will meet Giovanni: “There were the usual paunchy, bespectacled gentlemen with avid, sometimes despairing eyes, the usual, knife-blade lean, tight-trousered boys. One could never be sure, as concerns these latter, whether they were after money or blood or love.” This last sentence has some of the lovely, lazy sound of a blues song, or a smouldering, exquisite, slow jazz riff. It is filled with both irony and sadness, but it also indicates the mixtures that will come to dictate the destruction of at least two of the characters in the novel.

The tone continues to shift back and forth from pure eloquence to soaring sequences to simple description. As David and Giovanni meet, one can see the influence of Hemingway once more: “I watched him as he moved. And then I watched their faces, watching him. And then I was afraid. I knew that they were watching, had been watching both of us. They knew that they had witnessed a beginning and now they would not cease to watch until they saw the end. It had taken some time but the tables had been turned; now I was in the zoo, and they were watching.”

But he can follow this soon with passages that have a gorgeous, fearless sound, tempered by dark knowledge and pain, that makes clear that Baldwin was ready to become the greatest American prose stylist of his generation, such as when, at the end of chapter two, the memory of Giovanni is evoked: “Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.”

The tonal switches in the novel are matched by other changes in perspective. For example, we are led to see the older men in the book are venal, somehow beneath contempt, as they hunt for love or sex like tired old animals. And then in chapter three, David has a conversation with his friend Jacques, an older homosexual man, in which he says to him, “a lot of your life is despicable.” Jacques replies: “I could say the same about yours. There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”

Swiftly, the moral centre turns, and is being held by the older man. Baldwin then echoes the central moment in The Ambassadors when Strether, the older man, finds himself in conversation in Paris with a younger man, also an American. In one of the most famous passages in all of James’s work, Strether tells his companion: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life.” Now, Jacques, in discussing David’s relationship with Giovanni, tells David: “Love him, love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?”

"Baldwin made clear that he could work wonders with the light and shade of intimacy"
Gradually, the simple story of love is filled with ambiguity, difficulty and paradox. If in one moment David feels deep love for Giovanni, then he will see another boy, a stranger, and feel the same for him. And then as the warmth of love becomes entangled with faithlessness, it moves even further away from love. “I felt sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness.” This will be followed within a few sentences by: “There opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”

Later, he will feel both attraction toward and repulsion from Giovanni almost in the same moment. “His touch could never fail to make me feel desire; yet his hot, sweet breath also made me want to vomit.” In another scene he says, “I wanted to kick him and I wanted to take him in my arms.” As David is “half smiling” he is also, “in some strange, dim way, a little frightened.” As he ponders on their time together he can “see something very beautiful in those days, which were such torture then.”

No feeling is stable in this novel, which attempts by a set of opposing images to find a place where something finally can be said that is true, even if it is too late. Perhaps, oddly enough, this effort at a healing dialectic is all the more necessary, and urgent in its tone, because it will make no difference. Later, as the story comes to an end, David will confess his immense confusion: “I do not know what I felt for Giovanni. I felt nothing for Giovanni. I felt terror and pity and a rising lust.” Like Strether in The Ambassadors and Jake in The Sun Also Rises, the narrator of Giovanni’s Room will suffer from his own inability to love, thus increasing his outsider status, increasing his ability to observe others more sharply and cause pain to himself. Giovanni will tell him: “You do not love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will!”

The people whom David meets also live in a state of radical contradictions, including the girl with whom he sleeps. As they are parting, he notes that she “wore the strangest smile I have ever seen. It was pained and vindictive and humiliated but she inexpertly smeared across this grimace a bright, girlish gaiety—as rigid as the skeleton beneath her flabby body.”

Just as in The Ambassadors, there is a parent in America in Giovanni’s Room who wants David to come “home,” at a time when the very idea of home for him is becoming increasingly fraught and filled with ironies. In part two of the book, David sees a sailor on the street who made him “think of home—perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

But the sailor also, as they pass, returns him to another “home.” This is the home of his sexuality that is both hidden and apparent. “We came abreast and, as though he had seen some all-revealing panic in my eyes, he gave me a look contemptuously lewd and knowing.” The idea of passing for straight has echoes in Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), which dramatises the idea of African-American women passing for white, with the same focus on the look, the stare, the moments of recognition that Larsen places at key moments in her narrative.

In Passing, Clare Kendry is posing as a white woman all the time, while Irene Redfield does so only sometimes. When they meet in Chicago after many years, the encounter begins with a stare: “Very slowly she looked around, and into the dark eyes of the woman in the green frock at the next table. But she evidently failed to realise that such intense interest as she was showing might be embarrassing, and continued to stare. Her demeanour was that of one who with the utmost singleness of mind and purpose was determined to impress firmly and accurately each detail of Irene’s features upon her memory for all time, nor showed the slightest trace of disconcertment at having been detected in her steady scrutiny.”

The look is not merely one of recognition between old friends, but between two women posing as white in a posh hotel. It will be matched later by the look of recognition that Clare’s husband will give Irene when he meets her on the street. He will see her as someone whose secret he has now come to recognise. This idea of concealment and disclosure is central to Giovanni’s Room, as the narrator moves from being or seeming straight to being or seeming homosexual to being or seeming both, all the time both prepared and unprepared to reveal himself or his confusion by a look, a stare, a moment of pure recognition.

This idea of revelation and recognition is of particular interest because every novelist working is almost masquerading. A writer of fiction creates a double, someone who shadows the writer in some ways and varies from the writer in others. The characters we imagine move in and out of our emotional orbit, becoming versions of our secret selves. While Robert Louis Stevenson created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Oscar Wilde created Dorian Gray, Henry James created his divided figures in “The Private Life” and “The Jolly Corner,” Joseph Conrad created his doubled characters in “The Secret Sharer,” every novelist, in fact, by creating a character at all, makes someone whom only the novelist might fully and vividly recognise, an emerging self that lives within the self, passing for real, passing for fictional, wavering and hovering in the dream space between the two. A male novelist can make a woman; a contemporary novelist can make a figure from the past; an Irish novelist can make a German; a novelist can create a self-portrait; a straight novelist can make a homosexual; an African-American novelist can make a white American.

All novelists can slowly refashion themselves and then, as a result, characters emerge on the page and then in the reader’s imagination as though nothing untoward had occurred. It is called freedom, or what James Baldwin, in another context, called “the common history—ours.”

What begins to happen in Giovanni’s Room is that David starts to notice ambiguous responses, divided emotions, not only in himself but in others. When Hella returns from Spain, for example, he sees: “Her smile was at once bright and melancholy.” And he knows: “Everything was as it had been between us and at the same time everything was different.” Giovanni, as the book nears its end, begins also to appear divided in his responses, thus having a greater density or more nuanced presence. In the scene where Giovanni tells David that he does not love anyone, for example, David describes how Giovanni “grasped me by the collar, wrestling and caressing at once, fluid and iron at once.” Soon, as they are ready to part, Giovanni is allowed to be the one with the complex set of responses: “I saw that he was shaking—with rage, or pain, or both.” Later, as he imagines Giovanni with Guillaume, his old employer whom he will murder, David also allows him a gnarled response: “The smile with which he responds to Guillaume almost causes him to vomit.”

In the last pages of the book the style reverts to the earlier simplicity. Sentences of stark non-feeling take on a greater power now after the heightened, complex colours that Baldwin has used in both the passages of description and the passages of reflection and analysis. The possibility of a rich, ambiguous, fervid response to love or the chance of love is over. Now, the diction needs clear statements, full stops: “She began to cry. I held her in my arms. I felt nothing at all.”

Toward the end, too, Hella, in confronting David, makes a point that would not have been lost on Henry James, who specialised in writing about Americans who come to no good in Europe, and indeed would have been recognised by the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises, a book in which Americans create chaos as they wander in Europe. Hella says: “Americans should never come to Europe, it means they can never be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.” This idea of a damaged American innocence and a mythical American happiness will become the subject of Baldwin’s next novel, Another Country, and the many great essays he would come to write. In these works, he held up an unsparing mirror so that the stained soul of his country could catch a glimpse of itself, a glimpse as penetrating, risky, truthful and disturbing as the glimpse of lost and wasted love offered in Giovanni’s Room.