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 disturbingby Colm Toibin / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
“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…