It’s Not Perfect, But “Giovanni’s Room” Lives Up to the Hype

“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin [Penguin Books, 1957 (1990)]

In comparison to “Another Country”, “Giovanni’s Room” is a much smaller, understated story.

James Baldwin’s lyrical prose even feels less urgent, less determined to eviscerate its subject matter. That’s not to say it’s worse or any less gorgeous. It’s a clear choice. “Giovanni’s Room” is more traditionally focused, entirely centered on narrator David’s internal & external struggles.

Which is also not to say no other characters are compelling – if anything David is the least compelling character in the love triangle the novella revolves around. The titular Giovanni is a passionate, volatile amateur philosopher (for better and worse) and even Hella, David’s flighty fiancée, has far more intriguing thoughts in her limited page time.

The premise is simple: David & Hella are an American couple living abroad in Paris. David refers to Hella as his fiancée, but she’s gone away to Spain on her own ‘to think’ soon after their engagement. While she’s away for several months, David meets the magnetic Giovanni. Questions of his sexuality he tussled with as a teenager resurface, this time demanding to be answered.

Most of the characters aren’t quite as dastardly as the ensemble from “Another Country”. Still, Baldwin again crafts deeply flawed, believable characters with their own goals rather than protagonists & antagonists.

This actually works to its detriment, admittedly only slightly. At its core, despite the overarching meditations on sexuality & gender, “Giovanni’s Room” is a romance story. Romance, in my opinion, works best with someone to root for, or even against. The predictability of the genre demands for some level of biased reading to fill the gap left by the lack of intrigue in the plot.

Baldwin’s ruminations on sexuality & gender are why this novella has stood the test of time, not the love triangle he uses as the primary vehicle. David’s repression and internalized homophobia are only briefly discussed directly, yet his lack of self-acceptance pervades most of his relationships.

He questions what it means to be a man, whether he is a man if he loves a man, whether two men can have a real future together. His conscious & unconscious projection is the driving engine of the book, quietly humming underneath all the drama.

The engine does get pushed a bit too much towards the end of its journey. I’m all for slow burns in dramas, and “Giovanni’s Room” is certainly that for the first 120 pages or so. Then Baldwin floors it for the last 40. I first felt the climatic action was rushed, especially with so little happening in the lead up.

Reflecting on it since turning the last page, I think instead the slow burn is a bit too slow for its own good. In a full-length novel, with maybe 100 more pages to spread things out, the pacing would feel smooth. With the brevity of a novella, it was uneven.

This is closer to a nitpick than a glaring flaw – I should make it clear I enjoyed every page of this book. Though the plot meanders a bit in hindsight, I didn’t feel it as I read. David swanning in and out of Parisian bars, playing poet or philosopher with Giovanni or whoever else he encounters is entertaining enough while it lasts. The second act ends right before things begin to border on repetitive.

And uneven or not, the ending is strong. There’s no twist, but none of the various threads of the story are tied up quite in the fashion you’d expect – at least one is even left dangling. It’s more akin to what you’d expect from the series finale of a drama series rather than the ending to a pensive, literary novella, but thoughtfully executed in a way that eschews any of the shallowness that could come with.

I could go on and on about how ahead of his time Baldwin was, but I kind of already have and people far more eloquent than me have as well. I’ll simply say once again that Baldwin’s boldness is still striking today – I can only imagine how striking it was in 1952. I wouldn’t say “Giovanni’s Room” deserves to be James Baldwin’s most famous work as it is, but it certainly deserves the fame it has achieved.

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