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Giovanni's Room

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Baldwin's haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

159 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1956

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About the author

James Baldwin

246 books11.6k followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and '60s. He was the eldest of nine children; his stepfather was a minister. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, is a partially autobiographical account of his youth. His essay collections Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a large white audience.

From 1948, Baldwin made his home primarily in the south of France, but often returned to the USA to lecture or teach. In 1957, he began spending half of each year in New York City. His novels include Giovanni's Room, about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country, about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community. Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, stated the Baldwin's writing displayed an "agonizing, total hatred of blacks." Baldwin's play, Blues for Mister Charlie, was produced in 1964. Going to Meet the Man and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.

On November 30, 1987 Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
May 2, 2020
”He grasped me by the collar, wrestling and caressing at once, fluid and iron at once: saliva spraying from his lips and his eyes full of tears, but with the bones of his face showing and the muscles leaping in his arms and neck. ‘You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying moralities. And you--you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is this what you should do to love?’”

 photo 16_1jamesbaldwinharlem_zpsc0e34498.jpg
James Baldwin in Harlem.

David is an American living in Paris attempting to find himself. His girlfriend Hella is in Spain taking some time to think about whether she wants to commit the rest of her life to David. Meanwhile David is out of funds and his father is willing to let him starve a bit in the hopes that he will come home. He is, after all, getting a bit old, pushing thirty, to still be looking for himself. There is this legitimate fear that he will never find himself, and if that is the case he might as well come home and rejoin the real world of marriages, careers, and cocktails.

He meets Giovanni, not because he is looking for someone, but because he is paying the price of borrowing money from Jacques, an old lecherous American business man who will lend you money, but it will cost you time entertaining him with your presence and your conversation. Hopefully you are not so desperate that it will cost you even more. Jacques finds Giovanni attractive and hopes that David can convince the young man to have a drink with them.

The best laid plans of salacious old men rarely bear fruit. They have to be patient and wait for the specter of starvation to land them a pliable playmate. This is one of those times when it all backfires on Jacques, but he will continue to spin a web and wait for a bobble in finances. After all, Paris is an expensive city and with so many young men on the verge of destitution he only has to wait for a tug on one of his many sugared threads.

David goes home with Giovanni.

”I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.”

Giovanni’s Room comes to define David’s whole Parisian experience.

”The table was loaded with yellowing newspapers and empty bottles and it held a single brown and wrinkled potato in which even the sprouting eyes were rotten. Red wine had been spilled on the floor, it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy. But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening, it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder one realized that it was not be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.”

 photo JamesBaldwinParis_zps995a6435.jpg
James Baldwin in Paris.

David is astute enough to recognize that this is not just a fling for Giovanni, but a true attempt to not only find love, but to also escape the past, the present, and an increasingly gloomy looking future.

”I understood why Giovanni had wanted me and had brought me to his last retreat. I was to destroy this room and give to Giovanni a new and better life. This life could only be my own, which, in order to transform Giovanni’s, must first become part of Giovanni’s room.”

David, operating with a safety net, can afford to have an “unnatural” fling, after all he is in France not America, but for Giovanni this is a heart and soul relationship. As David dances around his own desires and the realization that he must eventually straighten up and become a devoted member of heterosexual America it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to do about Giovanni.

”The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore, And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?”

Hella, like a lifeboat on the horizon, writes to say she has made her choice. She is coming back to Paris to be with David.

Elation and dread suddenly tinge the unraveling of all of his loosely conceived relationships.

Under the guise of some bizarre logic David decides he must be with a woman, as if to create a demarcation line between Giovanni and Hella. It doesn’t really matter what woman, just a woman. The lucky winner is Sue, but David doesn’t get away without a dagger of remorse pricking his darkening soul.

”’Maybe you’ll be lonely again,’ she said, finally. ‘I guess I won’t mind if you come looking for me.’ She wore the strangest smile I had 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. If fate ever allowed Sue to reach me, she would kill me with just that smile.”

I’ll leave the rest to you fair reader. There are more twists and turns and the fates of many rest on the resolve of one man and whether he can be honest about his own nature.

 photo JamesBaldwin_zps6e35a123.jpg
The Elegant Mr. James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s publisher gave him some advice in regards to this manuscript. He felt he must “burn the book because the theme of homosexuality would alienate him from his readership among black people.” Fortunately, he was wrong. Critics, thank goodness, were kind to the book because of Baldwin’s reputation and status as a writer. Sure this book makes the list of best gay/lesbian books ever written, but it also makes the list of many BEST BOOKS ever written.

I’m going to come out of the closet and say I’m a heterosexual male, although why... I’m not sure... except that I’m just wired that way. The same way that the various sexually self-designated people are wired to be attracted to a multitude of diversely sexually oriented people. To say this is a gay novel certainly is not an attempt to denigrate the book, but it does seem to limit the scope of the vision. There is viciousness, lust, loneliness, deception, sorrow, tenderness, despair, and ultimately tragedy that makes this book easily one of the top 100 best books I’ve ever read. Every reader will find something of themselves in this book, maybe not the part of themselves that they want to hold up to the mirror, but certainly a fragment, disdainful in nature or worthy of pity, that can not be denied.

This really should be my second or third reading of this novel, but somehow it has been on my radar and fallen off my radar numerous times over the years. A helpful nudge from John Irving in his book In One Person convinced me that I needed to quit dawdling and read this book. The Paris of the 1950s doesn’t exist anymore, but luckily for you and I it is still vibrantly alive in the pages of this book.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for David.
163 reviews528 followers
August 5, 2016
God, Giovanni's Room is heart-breaking. I've been avoiding reviewing it, a bit, because it boils so much to the surface. No summary or review could do this book total justice. What Baldwin achieves is a desperate account of two gay-or-bisexual men struggling with their sexuality, their society, and most importantly their identities: identities which are at once masculine and yet deprived of that masculinity by their complicity with a society that doesn't understand them. Baldwin's artistry is formulating a novel about same-sex love that isn't an absurdly supportive utopia nor a bland coming-out story (see: all LGBT literature, most of which is aimed at young adults, and is stylistically reflective of that audience). Giovanni's Room is the dusk to E.M. Forster's dawn in Maurice.

Baldwin's real achievement is to make his story universal. The love between Giovanni and David is not a "homosexual love" or "same sex love" - it's just love, and Baldwin tells us that is all love needs to be to be real. Perhaps it is the effect of reading Barthes that I find myself disdainful towards the self-bulwarking of gay "otherness" - newspaper stories which send the overt message of "gays can do it too!" actually serve to reinforce that gays are something other than normal. Those stories do not change the perception that "gays cannot" but rather reinforce it by providing the exception to the rule. "A little 'confessed' evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil'" By admitting the small prejudice, you allow the larger prejudices to grow disproportionately. Baldwin refuses to let his novel be about gay men in love, and instead makes it about two people in love. The closest comparison I can find in my literary repertory is The Age of Innocence, which I think is an apt sister novel to Baldwin's. Restrained by a rigged society and his engagement to the fair Hella, David must give up his true passion for Giovanni. But it is so much the worse ending for Giovanni than Ellen Olenska: while Ellen lives a supposedly fulfilling life in Paris, Giovanni rapidly descends to corruption, self-loathing, and death:
"If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody."
David's role in Giovanni's life is not that of a passive lover, he and Giovanni share something real, a true kinship which David cannot feel for Hella and which Giovanni cannot bear to lose.

I find significance in the names of the three lovers, David, Hella, and Giovanni. David is from the Hebrew for beloved, and he is mutually beloved by Hella and Giovanni, though he largely resents those loves, first Hella's then Giovanni's. He feels as burdened by their loves as he does by the constraints of appearances and by society, and so he can never be truly happy, he can never truly relish in the love of another, because he cannot bear to the the object of affection, only the subject. David is profoundly selfish, and profoundly evasive to the attention he receives. He paradoxically wants love but cannot bear the responsibilities that go with it. In the Bible, David is much loved by God, but his sexual transgressions with Bathsheba bring hate and misfortune to him. Baldwin's David likewise betrays Hella, and the war between his compunction and his survival instinct ruin what life remains for him: Giovanni is gone, Hella is gone, what remains of his life is a homelessness (if, in fact, home is where the heart is) and an emptiness. He is inconsolably lost: he is haunted by the past that remains inside him, but also by the past which has escaped him:
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen forget.
David manages to be doubly the madman.

Hella, derived from "Helga," though with the unavoidable echo of "Hell," means, ironically, "blessed." What is she blessed with? She is naive and insecure, she is alternatively too timid and too bold to find love with David. She chooses a long engagement and spends that time alone in Spain rather than in Paris with David. Hella reminds me very much of James' "innocents abroad" - and for that reason I find her being blessed only by way of her avoiding the ultimate corruption of David's black heart. Her blessing seems to her like a curse, but ultimately we feel she is far better off alone than she would be had she tied the know with our narrator, a man so confused and self-loathing he is incapable of loving anyone. For David, he knows that life with Hella would be a "Hell" to him, it would be to chain him to something less than love, something like friendship, but which would block him forever from his true passion. His love for Giovanni has made love for Hella impossible, and marriage to her would be a constant reminder of what he has lost.

Giovanni is a derivative from the Hebrew for "God's Gift" - and he is a blessing to David. Giovanni shows David what love is capable of being, what it means to find love and solace in another human on this Earth. But David cannot accept this gift. He grows hateful of it. It is not love or deference for Hella which makes David give up Giovanni, but his own blindness and self-hatred. He is not deserving of Giovanni's love, and it makes us hateful to ourselves, even the most selfish of us, to receive something in the name of our merits when we have not lived up to those merits. Those undeserved gifts are a constant reminder of our inadequacies and instead of raising us up they tear us asunder from the inside-out. Giovanni is the gift of real freedom, the freedom of choice - the gift that God bestowed on man. "For nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom." David cannot bear the responsibility of choice: particularly the choice between a precarious bliss with Giovanni and an assured unhappiness with Hella.
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews156k followers
August 25, 2022
I experienced this book like a gut-punch. A gut-punch that was elegant, eloquent, and beautiful but nonetheless annihilating. There's really no preparing anyone for the sheer inexorable force of this story. Giovanni's Room ambushed me with one of the rawest, truest, and most wounding portraits of what it means to be queer and in denial and wrestling every day from the webbing of a shame that stains everything you love and care about. It’s all stuff I’ve told myself before and made myself believe and to see each hideous thought transmuted into language was such a profound shock.

I know this is silly, but sometimes I forget that words on a page can be so nakedly, horrifically powerful in that way. I mean, how does one even come back from reading: “Somebody, your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest places!—for the lack of it.” How?
Profile Image for emma.
1,868 reviews54.4k followers
February 1, 2023
This book contains this passage:

"And this was perhaps the first time in my life that death occurred to me as a reality. I thought of the people before me who had looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it. I wondered about them. I wondered how they had done it - it, the physical act. I had thought of suicide when I was much younger, as, possibly, we all have, but then it would have been for revenge, it would have been my way of informing the world how awfully it had made me suffer. But the silence of the evening, as I wandered home, had nothing to do with that storm, that far-off boy. I simply wondered about the dead because their days had ended and I did not know how I would get through mine."

And that is more in a paragraph than most books can get to in hundreds of pages.

What a thing.

Bottom line: Read it! Read everything James Baldwin ever wrote. Obviously.

tbr review

"haunting and controversial"? i'm in
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
965 reviews6,827 followers
September 4, 2023
[N]ot many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour - and in the oddest places! - for the lack of it.

Sometimes a novel comes along that completely overpowers you. It sends your heart soaring to great heights on wings of perfect prose and then plummeting towards destruction on the rocks below. It crushes you and then rebuilds you from the wreckage then sends you out into the world, electrified by the experience, to contemplate the themes that are now humming through your entire body and mind. Giovanni’s Room is such a book. It’s perhaps too good. My emotions are just bleeding in a corner wanting to ask Baldwin “what the fuck is wrong with you, this was amazing.” For really thought, this second novel by James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room adroitly addresses love, guilt, and our inner battles with ourselves over the two through a story and impeccable writing style that will have the reader exhausted from feeling all the feelings and thankful for it. It comes alive in the streets and bars of Paris as David, an American expatriate living in Paris (not unlike Baldwin himself at the time), struggles to accept himself and his feelings for Giovanni, nestling us into the titular room where they hide away from the world much like David is trying to hide his sexual identity. We experience how people who feel cornered often react in destructive ways. A powerhouse of a short novel that takes a sharp aim at the constricting social expectations of gender and sexuality while also exploring shame, expatriatism and the elusiveness of freedom, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room feels perfect in all its design and execution.

He made me think of home—perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

Feeling distraught by the US and its prevalent racism, James Baldwin left for Paris in 1948 where he hoped to be able to see himself outside of the context of American prejudice. ‘Paris is, according to its legend,’ Baldwin wrote in his 1954 essay A Question of Identity , ‘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.’ It was in Paris he wrote his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 and then, later, Giovanni’s Room in 1956, the latter featuring an American expatriate in Paris that allowed him to discuss many of his thoughts about the two countries juxtaposed by travel. While Baldwin would argue it was far from autobiographical, Room was in part inspired by a real man Baldwin had met which he discusses in a 1980 interview:
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.

What he would work on became a perfect little novel, though his US publisher, Knopf, was not interested in it because they wanted him to write of the Black experience. Baldwin had done so quite successfully in his previous book but with Room felt he could not address this as well as themes on homosexuality together. ‘The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book,’ he admitted, ‘there was no room for it.’ In another interview, Baldwin says Knopf told him publishing a queer novel would alienate his audience and ‘will ruin your career,’ stating they would not even publish it ‘as a favour to you.’ So ‘I told them, ‘Fuck you’,’ he says, and Giovanni’s Room was instead published under Dial Press.

We are all lucky for it, as this is a gorgeous book and it is a shame to think it almost never happened. Especially with how strikingly gorgeous the writing is, navigating the emotional currents with such poetic finesse that we, the reader, find ourselves totally at it’s mercy, gleeful and grateful to be caught in the tumultuous undertow as Baldwin sweeps us out to the sea of destruction with these characters. His dialog is pitch perfect and his atmosphere is so encompassing and vibrant we are there with David shivering in shame through the streets or awash in boozy, conflicted confidence in the bars. Baldwin handles words with the best of them.

I stared at absurd Paris, which was as cluttered now, under the scalding sun, as the landscape of my heart.

The novel almost feels like something from Ernest Hemingway at the outset, and perhaps this is what makes the subversion of the traditional concepts of masculinity play out even more effectively. David is living in Paris spending time with Hella, a girl he ‘thought she would be fun to have fun with,’ and drinks his time away with friends while she is gone to Spain to consider his marriage proposal—something that seems more going through the motions of expectations than a heartfelt desire for marriage. The idea of an expatriate in Paris has been a frequently romanticized theme in US literature, and through the characters we get a taste of the idea ‘you don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’ This is true of Giovanni as well, who has left Italy after a personal tragedy and also uses travel as a means of escaping who one was to discover who they will become under a new geographical context. However, we see how ‘nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,’ and the characters find themselves feeling dislocated and unmoored more than anything, perhaps running to their own destruction in search of having anything to grasp.

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it.

The Americans have no sense of doom, none whatever,’ Baldwin reflects. ‘They do not recognize doom when they see it,’ and right from the start we are keenly aware everything is careening towards imminent doom . The story is framed on the final day of Giovanni’s life before he faces the guillotine (the guillotine was last used in 1977 and then France outlawed capital punishment in 1981) and mostly told reflecting on the story of the time David and Giovanni spent together until Hella returns and everyone must face-up for their actions. There is a tone of dread permeating every facet of the novel, even worming its way into the nooks and crannies of desire so that we feel nearly suffocated by its imminence.
The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni any more. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places? With this fearful intimation there opened in me hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.

This suffocation seems to impart the social forces that impose the shame and dread, largely because David struggles with a sense of identity that is outside the socially enforced expectations of gender and sexuality. In his childhood he hears arguments between between his widower father and Aunt Ellen, with his Aunt chastizing his drunkenness and womanizing as setting a bad example while his father expresses his desires for David to be a ‘true man’ and ‘when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher.’ The expectations of what is masculinity haunt him, causing his early gay experiences to be a mark of shame and self-hatred in him.

I couldn't be free until I was attached—no, committed—to someone.

There are some very misogynistic moments in the novel—be advised—though Baldwin seems fairly aware of them as such and the comments by both David and Giovanni seems a reflection of the social conditioning they are struggling within. Not that this excuses their comments or behaviors. Though we also see how the gender expectations are even more oppressive for women, such as Hella’s discussion on how it is a ‘humiliating necessity’ that women are disregarded unless she is attached to a man, ‘to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven strange before you can begin to be yourself.’ This doubles into the theme on how when chasing a sense of freedom, you often find yourself more constrained or oppressed.

I was guilty and irritated and full of love and pain. I wanted to kick him and I wanted to take him in my arms

The expectations of heteronormativity cause David great internal suffering and he can never fully give himself to Giovanni. We see this play out in David’s symbolic impressions of Giovanni’s room, seeing it as both a haven for love but, due to his shame and disgust with himself, begins to despise the room. His desires come chased with loathing and diffidence which is a destructive force that wounds not only the one who swallows it down but all those around them as well. As if they are bystanders to the blast. It becomes a betrayal, not only to the self, but to love in general.
You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying moralities. And you--you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is this what you should do to love?

If one is caught up trying to play the role of who society thinks they should be, they can never be who they truly are and the dissonance between the hidden self and the public self brings only trauma. This becomes more intensely felt as one slips away from youth where playacting is more easily digestible. ‘Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore,’ David is warned. Warnings from older men appear all throughout the novel, with a particularly chilling moment in the bar when a man appears like a haggard and horrid seer from myths to broadcast David’s doom.

Self-deception becomes a major theme of the novel in this way. ‘People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception,’ Baldwin writes and we witness how David’s acknowledgement of his own self-deception but unwillingness to fully depart from it becomes his own undoing. Similarly, the frustrations of others that become seemingly hopeless and unbearable destroys them in turn.
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

But it is also why we all must fight for a more welcoming and empathetic society that allows space for such things. The thing about social expectations is we are all complicit in them by perpetuating them instead of dismantling them and Giovanni’s Room is a call to confront this in life. We’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot to be done.

If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody.

I could rant forever about the power and beauty of Giovanni’s Room and Baldwin as an author in general. This is an emotional ride that will shake you to the core while dazzling you with pure poetic intensity. This is a novel full of incredible social and interpersonal criticisms that bruise you but make you better for it and I cannot wait to read literally everything Baldwin wrote. Giovanni’s Room is not only a queer masterpiece but an all around amazing and essential novel.


No matter how it seems now, I must confess: I loved him. I do not think that I will ever love anyone like that again.
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,194 followers
November 18, 2022
[Revised 11/18/22]

A great novel. The word “ferocious” comes to mind when I think of the intensity of several key scenes in the novel where the main character, a gay man in Paris, struggles to turn against his gay orientation and tries to find happiness with a woman he has pledged to marry. The novel, published in 1956, is considered a classic of gay literature.


Several scenes that vividly impart to the reader that intensity of feeling are when he leaves his male lover, when his female lover learns his secret and leaves him, and when his ex-lover encounters an exploitative bar owner. Giovanni is not the name of the main character, but of his male lover.


Two major tensions in the story we know from the start and they flavor everything that follows in the novel: the impending execution of Giovanni by guillotine and the return of his woman friend from Spain. The main character intends to marry the woman and end his gay relationship. He’s in Paris to “find himself,” a phrase he writes is uncommon in other languages and implies something is misplaced.

The main character had an early sexual experience with a young man back in the US that has shamed and frightened him for life. We read lines like this: “For shame! That I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy...” Such were the times that all the gay male characters in the novel joke among themselves about having women or going back to women, almost as if they are all still afraid of fully coming out even before their gay companions. There are customs back in 1956 that I would have thought were developed more recently, for example, when a group of young gay men gather in the bar, they refer to each other as “she.”

Baldwin is a master at portraying the tiny but significant looks and gestures that go around at a meeting of a half-dozen people in bar eating oysters and drinking white wine. (I wrote a similar thing about John O’Hara in his Appointment in Samarra.)


There’s good writing: “I thought she would be fun to have fun with.”

“I did not owe an awful lot of money, only around six thousand francs, but Parisian hotel-keepers have a way of smelling poverty and then they do what anybody does who is aware of a bad smell; they throw whatever stinks outside.”

“My father….wanted me to come home, as he said, and settle down, and whenever he said that I thought of the sediment at the bottom of a stagnant pond.”

“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning.”

“You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you can never go back.”

It’s helpful to know basic French even though most of the phrases in French can be understood in context.


The author, Baldwin, was a gay Black man but the main character is a blonde white man. I thought perhaps the author is saying “let’s deal with one thing at a time.” To say the novel is a classic of gay literature confines it to a category. I would say “it’s a classic,” period. It ranks very high on GR ratings– a 4.4. I’m adding it to my favorites. Thank you to Laura for the recommendation.

Top photo, the author's home in St. Paul de Vence, Provence from theguardian.co.uk
The cafe in Paris where Baldwin wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain from Wikipedia
The author (1924-1987) from aalbc.com
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,715 followers
August 25, 2018
"I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room."

At the end of July, I spent a short but glorious time in 1950s Paris in Giovanni’s room. And I want to tell you about my incredible experience, but I can’t quite figure out how to go about it. Having been left in the thrall of James Baldwin’s achingly exquisite prose, I have been left speechless. I can’t do the book justice. Yet, I want to convince you to read this book if you have not, because you would surely be missing out on some of the best writing in the literary world if you pass it by.

David is an American who has escaped to Paris in an attempt to ‘find himself.’ We hear this story directly from David’s first-person narration, allowing us to have a very intimate relationship and struggling with him in his deepest conflicts and darkest secrets. Reflecting back over time he says, "I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France." You don’t have to be ‘like’ David, a young man struggling with his sexuality as he falls for Giovanni, a passionate young man who offers to share his room with David. Nor do you have to ‘click with’ David – he’s not necessarily a likeable guy. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s gift is to make you identify in some way with his characters and to rejoice in their fleeting moments of pleasure, feel their raw pain, and empathize with their deepest regrets. You see, David also has a woman in his life. He constantly agonizes over his true desires and his sense of convention. Hella offers him an opportunity for what he considers stability.

"I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again."

Throughout the entire novel, there is a feeling of melancholy, the knowledge that tragedy is just around the corner. David, Giovanni and Hella all get swept up in this fatal web that David has created by his self-denial, self-loathing and dishonesty. Giovanni’s room seemed to be a symbol for that claustrophobic sensation of anything that closes you in and keeps your true self locked away and hidden. How to escape the room? Both Giovanni and David are in need of rescue but in different ways. Hella, too, needs to be saved. She had also ‘escaped’ from America to Paris and then on to Spain in search of freedom, a feeling of liberation. My heart ached for her as well. "I began to realize it in Spain—that I wasn’t free, that I couldn’t be free until I was attached—no, committed—to someone."

This was my very first experience with reading James Baldwin. It won’t be my last. Just a couple of days after finishing this book I was on a short trip and all I could think about was searching out a used bookstore and scouring the shelves for anything by this brilliant man! If you have ever felt isolated, confined by convention, in search of loving someone freely, or burdened by regret, then this book is for you. I dare say that encompasses nearly everyone.

"But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life."
Profile Image for Luís.
1,944 reviews609 followers
October 23, 2022
David loves men and hates himself for it. Whenever he succumbs to a young man's charms, he trembles with fear at the prospect of being discovered, thinks of the lewd jokes and offensive words that accompany people of his kind, and fears playing them. To be reassured, the young American leaves for Paris. He can frequent gay circles in relative tranquillity, sheltered from the crowd and familiar eyes.
However, this tranquillity does not push him to assert himself, not even in these closed circles. On the contrary, he proclaims to whoever wants to hear him that he loves women, and the few adventures don't count. Besides, he has a girlfriend and just proposed to her, if that is not proof! She left for Spain alone to take stock before answering did not seem to disturb him too much.
During this absence, David meets Giovanni, an immigrant from Italy. Giovanni is the opposite of her new lover: he gives himself 100% to this new relationship without fear of looks or prejudice. In Giovanni's room, cut off from the outside world, a small bubble of pure love can exist with curtains still drawn. Outside, David cannot bear the brunt of this relationship. "You want to leave Giovanni because, with him, you stink." You want to despise Giovanni because he's not afraid of the stench of love. "
The atmosphere of this book is very oppressive: in the description of the gay environment of the post-war period and the leaden cover of moral condemnation to endure, self-hatred is omnipresent, as is hatred of the other, which has helped bring you down once again. Added to this is a prostitutional relationship that does not contribute to softening resentment because only the rich, or the downgraded, can be immune from prosecution.
We also pity Giovanni, for whom love seems so easy and the weight of the gaze of others so light. Until the end, he will believe in the victory of feelings over the obligation of conformity, ready even to sacrifice a large part of her lover's life for the company of decent people. For that, David would have to stop running. And the game is far from over.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
June 26, 2018
A lyrical work of fiction about the failure of love, Giovanni's Room retraces the missteps that led an impassioned affair between two men away from the promise of happiness toward catastrophic ruin. The first-person narrator's ever-present despair casts a melancholic shadow over the events he recollects, even those that might at first appear to be pleasant. A sense of deep regret pervades all of the novel. From the start, the reader and narrator share an understanding of the story's devastating and inalterable conclusion, making it that much more difficult for both to trek through the memory of misfortune after misfortune. Baldwin's language is haunting, his phrasing striking, his imagery agonizing. Giovanni's Room isn't an easy book to read, but it is an important one.
Profile Image for Ilenia Zodiaco.
267 reviews14k followers
January 23, 2023
Che male certi libri.

Una potenza lirica che spazza via tutta la sporcizia, la crudeltà della fredda pietra grigia che ricopre Parigi.

La storia di un newyorkese che fugge dall’amore, cede alla vergogna per paura della sua omosessualità, prova ad amare cautamente ma non si può, attraversa l’oceano pur di non guardarsi dentro ma non può evitare se stesso.

Sensuale, straziante, allusivo. Al contempo una delizia e una sofferenza. Un libro micidiale.

Mi è venuta in mente una citazione di Dargen: “L'amore è quell'intertempo, in cui qualcuno ti trattiene e ti tira in una stanzetta. E tu cerchi di fuggire e di restare indipendente nel mondo ma quando ci ripensi, ti ricredi e ti, ritiri e ti sembra il caso di restare perché il mondo non è poi così grande e la suddetta stanzetta non è poi così male”.
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,193 reviews1,815 followers
December 12, 2022

Erwin Blumenfeld.

Piccolo grande romanzo.
Piccolo perché breve. Grande perché bello. Molto bello, e ricco, denso, stratificato.
Trent’anni dopo averlo scritto, Baldwin ne parlava così:
La stanza di Giovanni è su cosa succede se hai paura di amare un’altra persona.
E infatti un passo del romanzo recita:
Qualcuno, disse Jacques, tuo padre o il mio, ci avrebbero dovuto dire che non sono mai state molte le persone morte d’amore. Ma milioni di persone sono morte e stanno morendo ora dopo ora per mancanza d’amore.

A me però sembra che questa sia una spiegazione limitata. Non mi pare ci si possa rinchiudere unicamente nel territorio dei cosiddetti cuori d’inverno.
Come se Baldwin volesse distrarre da un altro tema, ancora più centrale, non volesse sentirsi inchiodato a quell’altro. Lui nero e omosessuale.

Vivian Maier.

Il tema centrale è la diversità.
In questo caso, diversità di desiderio sessuale.
Ancor più chiaramente, è l’omosessualità. Quella maschile.

David, il protagonista del romanzo, rifiuta la sua omosessualità (o meglio, bisessualità): perché per un uomo andare/amare un altro uomo era tabù. Proibito. In US era ancora reato.
E probabilmente anche per questo David, e lo stesso Baldwin, si sono trasferiti nella ben più liberale Parigi.
Dove, comunque, nel 1956, rimaneva qualcosa al limite.


Stavo tremando. Pensai: se non apro subito la porta ed esco da qui sono perduto. Ma sapevo che non sarei riuscito ad aprire la porta, sapevo che era troppo tardi; presto sarebbe stato troppo tardi per fare qualsiasi cosa se non gemere. Mi attiro a sé, mettendosi nelle mie braccia come se volesse darsi a me affinché lo prendessi in braccio, e lentamente mi trascinò con sé su quel letto. Ogni singola parte di me urlava no!, ma la totalità sospirò sì.


La diversità di razza viene omessa, tutti i protagonisti sono bianchi.
Ma si rispecchia in parte nella diversità di classe: Giovanni è un contadino, per giunta italiano, e per giunta meridionale – esserne attratti ma anche disprezzarlo era parte della stessa reazione, del suo effetto.
Ed è proprio lui che paga per tutti.
David, il protagonista americano, sufficientemente abbiente da poter vivere all’estero senza lavorare, e senza neppure dover cercare lavoro, senza far null’altro che passare il tempo, è sicuramente di tutt’altra classe. E può permettersi di disprezzare Giovanni perché non cerca lavoro con abbastanza determinazione.

Fa parte della magia di Baldwin, e di questo magnifico romanzo cult, il mettere in scena solo personaggi squallidi: tutti, dal primo all’ultimo, quale più, quale meno, nessuno suscita ammirazione, identificazione - ma tutti sono umani più che umani, tutti stimolano empatia, tutti suscitano emozione e pensiero.

Il documentario del 2016 diretto da Raoul Peck dedicato al romanzo di Baldwin rimasto incompleto ‘Remember This House’. Peck, di Haiti, è l’autore di quello che secondo me è il miglior film sul genocidio del Rwanda, ‘Sometimes in April’.

La stanza è quella di Giovanni, piccola disordinata caotica sporca asfissiante.
Ma da un’altra stanza muove e ritorna il racconto: quella presa in affitto a St Paul de Vence da David e Hella, la sua promessa sposa, per scappare da Parigi, per allontanarsi da Giovanni, credendo di ritrovare se stessi.
Ma David rimane solo, Hella torna a casa in US, si lascia David alle spalle. Non si sposeranno.
E qui, forse, ha davvero ragione Baldwin, “La stanza di Giovanni” è su cosa succede se hai paura di amare un’altra persona: perché per David anche con Hella non funziona, l’amore è autoimposto fino a che non si può più andare oltre, e il gioco è smascherato, il velo cade, e si rimane soli.
Soli come David in quella stanza, davanti alla finestra: al di là, il cielo che s’avvolge di tramonto, e poi sera, e poi notte – al di qua, il suo riflesso sul vetro, immagine sbiadita di sé che lo scava, lo spinge a ricordare, pensare, sentirsi in colpa. Raccontare.

Un’immagine dal film dell’ottimo Robert Guédiguain ‘À la place du coeur’, 1998, tratto dal romanzo di Baldwin ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, che sembra sarà presto nuovamente portato sullo schermo, questa volta dal premio Oscar Barry Jenkins.

Ricordo che la vita, in quella stanza, sembrava svolgersi al di sotto della superficie del mare. Il tempo scorreva indifferente sopra di noi, le ore e i giorni non avevano significato. All’inizio la vita insieme racchiudeva una gioia e uno stupore che erano nuovi ogni giorno. Al di sotto della gioia, naturalmente, c’era angoscia, e sotto lo stupore, paura; ma non si fecero strada in noi finché l’iniziale euforia non divenne come aloe sulla lingua. A quel punto l’angoscia e la paura erano diventate le superfici sulle quali slittavamo e scivolavamo, perdendo l’equilibrio, la dignità e l’orgoglio. Il volto di Giovanni, che avevo memorizzato tante mattine, pomeriggi e notti, si indurì davanti ai miei occhi, iniziò a cedere in punti segreti, iniziò a incrinarsi. La luce nei suoi occhi diventò un bagliore, la fronte ampia e bella iniziò a lasciar intravedere il teschio al di sotto. Le labbra sensuali si rivolsero all’interno, assorbite dal dolore che gli sgorgava dal cuore. Divenne il volto di uno sconosciuto – o forse guardarlo mi faceva sentire così in colpa che speravo fosse il volto di uno sconosciuto. Tutto il mio sforzo di memorizzazione non mi aveva preparato per la metamorfosi che la memoria aveva contribuito a provocare.

Non molto dopo la pubblicazione di questo romanzo, Miles Davis era in tournée a Parigi. Boris Vian lo mise in contatto con Louis Malle che cercava le musiche per il suo nuovo film “Ascensore per il patibolo”: Miles e i suoi musicisti improvvisarono una colonna sonora indimenticabile guardando le scene del film. Un perfetto connubio d’immagini e musica. Incrocio di artisti in un momento magico.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
783 reviews12.4k followers
July 19, 2020
“Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear […] By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride.”
It’s a terrible thing to be driven by fear and shame. To be caught in the web of self-loathing, mistrust, denial, untruths; in the eternal struggle between desire and guilt; a neverending existential crisis that becomes your entire existence. The fight between what is perceived as normal, what is expected from you — and that what is seen as abhorrent, deviant, repulsive.

We lie best when we lie to ourselves, as Stephen King once said.
“And, at the risk of losing forever your so remarkably candid friendship, let me tell you something. Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”
David, a twenty-something American man sometime in the 1950s, is idling around in Paris, where he traveled to “find himself”, running away from his long-suppressed unacceptable to him sexual feelings towards men, his sexual encounter with a friend in his teens forcibly relegated to the back rooms of his memory, with shame driving him towards secure comfort of what’s societally acceptable and familiarly expected from him.
“I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

David is cold, cruel and immensely judgmental. He is terrified of situations that leave him exposed and vulnerable, that make him, in his perception, “lose [his] manhood” by stepping into the scary unfamiliar unknown. The fear leads to self-contempt which ultimately is destructive not just for him but those around him as well. He thinks himself above his gay acquaintances, despises then by finding security in his carefully cultivated straight masculinity, and yet with the strange calculated cruelty exploits his attractiveness to them. Until one day he meets Giovanni and his carefully constructed pretend world is threatening to fall apart.
“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.”
Given a choice between accepting himself and his desires and conforming to his view of what life should be, David runs. Before even getting comfortable in Giovanni’s room - both physical and metaphorical entity - he is looking for a way out, an escape, a reprieve which never comes. Not even running away from Paris helps - because you cannot fun away from yourself by changing addresses.
“Those evenings were bitter. Giovanni knew that I was going to leave him, but he did not dare accuse me for fear of being corroborated. I did not dare to tell him. Hella was on her way back from Spain and my father had agreed to send me money, which I was not going to use to help Giovanni, who had done so much to help me. I was going to use it to escape his room.”
It is a story of strained and doomed love in a grim world of a Paris underbelly of sorts - the gay Parisian scene that we see filtered through David’s eyes is far from the artistic bohemian world but rather the dark, dangerous and sad web of casual encounters, desperate transactional sex, loveless loneliness, shady almost-inhuman in David’s eyes¹ (early on, he refers to a gay character as “it”) and frequently despicable characters. It is not a counterculture by choice - it is a counterculture formed by merciless rejection. This is what David sees and fears and detests and strives to escape from into the bright and shiny “normal” world full of comfortable familiarity.
¹ A chilling, terrifying peek into David’s thoughts aimed at dehumanizing who he sees as “other”:

“I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.”
Yes, it is terrible to be driven by fear and shame and lies. And no surprise that it is paralyzing and suffocating and claustrophobically oppressive - the feelings David contemptuously chooses to transfer to Giovanni and his squalid cramped room instead of seeing it within his own caged heart.

But what’s immoral - as Giovanni lets David know and David reluctantly starts to grasp - is not the physical acts but living life without love. (“I wanted to find a girl, any girl at all.”) David himself casually engages in coldly using a female acquaintance for sex only to prop his faltering sense of masculinity - “But I was thinking that what I did with Giovanni could not possibly be more immoral that what I was about to do with Sue.”

This is a book that blends beautiful and disgusting in David’s eyes. The alluring and grotesque are just a heartbeat apart, constantly clashing, constantly fighting. What wins is shame, constant shame, constant horrifying self-loathing and self-disgust that torment David and break him while forming a restrictive claustrophobic cage around him, just like Giovanni’s room that he came to loathe and fear.
“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.”
David chooses to clutch at what he perceives to be safe masculinity while denying the uncomfortable, less conventional parts of his self. And he is not alone. His fiancée Hella does the same - blindly dives into what she openly sees as acceptable femininity, determinedly and gleefully abandoning the qualities that did not fit with the mid-century American female ideal.
“The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?

With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”
It’s a book of pain and loneliness and crushingly suffocating oppression of fear and shame. It’s unsettling and troubling and yet strangely beautiful. It is a book about terrible people doing terrible things, and nobody is exempt from human awfulness - and a piercing glimpse into the darkest depths of imperfect souls.

It deserves every word of praise that’s been heaped on in the last sixty-plus years.

5 heartbreaking uncomfortable stars.
“Ah!” cried Giovanni. “Don’t you know when you have made a friend?”
I knew I must look foolish and that my question was foolish too: “So soon?”
“Why no,” he said, reasonably, and looked at his watch, “we can wait another hour if you like. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until closing time. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until tomorrow, only that means that you must come in here tomorrow and perhaps you have something else to do.”
Profile Image for Adina .
890 reviews3,540 followers
August 1, 2023
Somewhere between 4 and 5*

I left too much time past since I finished. I wanted to write something that would do this novel justice. I was impressed by the prose and, consequently, I considered myself inadequate to comment. I forgot what I wanted to say, how this book felt so I now feel even worse.

To put it shortly, Giovanni's Room is a novel about a white, blonde American man, written by a black American man. While living in Paris, the narrator gets entangled in a sort of love triangle. While his girlfriend is away in Spain, he starts an affair with a young Italian barman. The narrator switches between guilt and lust through the novel. We know from the beginning that the story will not end well, but the journey was mesmerizing and emotional nevertheless.

James Baldwin can definitely write and I plan to read more of his work.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews599 followers
January 5, 2017
Wow...I read only one review of this book...which was soooo good....
I immediately bought a used copy....yet, I don't think 'any' review prepares a reader for what they are about to experience.

I have two words: Morally Mystifying!!!!

THANK YOU *Lizzy*. I stayed....and I 'was' granted this masterpiece.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
August 23, 2020
‘i scarcely know how to describe that room. it became, in a way, every room i had ever been in and every room i find myself in hereafter will remind me of giovannis room.’

simply beautiful. simply heartbreaking. simply real.

this would probably be a 3 star read if it hadnt been for moments of such elegant prose. i love, love, love the way JB describes human emotions and feelings, particularly love and affection. but the overall narrative, which reminds me very much of the type of storytelling used for all books published before 1980, is not my favourite.

but i do appreciate some aspects of the writing and im quite impressed with the content, which is the heart of this novel.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews185 followers
April 27, 2021
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin was a bold and controversial read for many in 1956, when it was first published.
The protagonist is David, a young American, living in Paris and struggling with his sexuality. He’s in a relationship with Hella, but she’s away for a time travelling in Spain.
Through a small group of cafe acquaintances, most of whom David treats with barely hidden contempt, he meets Giovanni, a young Italian bartender. David’s lonely, threadbare life becomes exciting and dangerous. A sexual relationship ensues that racks him with feelings of love, shame, confusion and guilt.
David craves normality, to abide by the accepted conventions of the time, but he has to act on his natural feelings for Giovanni. They temporarily live a happy, sad, obsessive existence in Giovanni’s unruly, claustrophobic room.
This story of a homosexual love affair is a little fraught and melodramatic in places, but it’s elegantly written and I was drawn into the emotionally tense narrative - the latter, tormented pages of the book flew by.
David is a strange character - it’s easy to have sympathy for his inner turmoil and the impossible decisions he has to make, but he’s very self centred, continually using those around him for money, sex and self validation as he tries to find his place in the world. I actually felt more sorry for those left in his wake, the collateral damage caused by his actions and inner demons.
Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s second novel and was written whilst he was living in Paris - unsurprisingly the setting is carefully drawn, authentic and evocative.
Although this is a bleak novel it’s also a satisfying and strangely gripping read. Much recommended.
Profile Image for Rowena.
501 reviews2,516 followers
December 4, 2013
I wasn't sure any Baldwin book would surpass his Go Tell is to the Mountain, which I loved, but this one was even better and an immediate favourite. This story was wonderfully-written and explored a gay storyline which I have never encountered in African-American writing from Baldwin's era.Supposedly quite a few prolific African-American writers were not such big fans of Baldwin due to this reason.

This story is set in Paris and is about an American man, David, who is in love with both a man, Giovanni, and a woman, Hella. He really struggles to come to terms with his sexuality,and to reconcile his inner conflict.

Baldwin really captures the Parisian atmosphere, and it's obvious he was well-acquainted with the city. Reading his depiction of Paris has really activated my wanderlust.

There's more to the story than the gay storyline, though. Questions are raised about authenticity, the meaning of home, whether we act out of fear or love, etc.

I can honestly say, I have never read writing quite like it before. This is one I plan on purchasing to re-read.
Profile Image for Dolors.
540 reviews2,279 followers
November 1, 2015
It is under the foreign sky of Paris, where identity is protected by anonymity and the most darkest secrets do not transcend the limits of a room, that David, an American young man, is forced to face the convoluted layers of the true nature of his identity. Told in the first-person narrator, Giovanni's Room bewilders the reader because of the perturbing sensitivity with which Baldwin portrays an extremely delicate predicament; that of listening to the self-deprecating inner voices that corrode the consciousness of those who deny their true selves for the sake of indoctrinated conventionalism and a false sense of security.

Desire, repression and an imposed sense of duty present a battle of sorts that is embodied in the deadly love triangle formed by David, his betrothed Hella and his lover Giovanni, who, unlike David, accepts his homosexuality as his only reality. Frightened by the consequences of acknowledging his strong feelings for Giovanni, David enters a spiral of self-deception that drags Hella down to the gutters of an atavistic marriage that complies with the rigid social structures of the American way of life that doesn't contemplate love between equals. Deep down, David's dilemma runs deeper than his stubborn denial for the sake of appearances, his moral struggle discloses a man who doesn't want to dispense with the inborn social status associated to gender.

This book is an obscure, passionate and explicit defiance against racial and gender bias discrimination. Baldwin's deliberate choice to construct a story in which all the characters are white and to bestow thematic relevance to homosexuality is a public denouncement of the preestablished canons promoted by a comfortable majority that sets the boundaries of a mainstream value system.

The image of the empty room with its crumbling walls and a tousled bed is spine-chilling in its validity because it cuts across the apology for the homosexual rights. It is also a universal metaphor that symbolizes that part of ourselves that we desperately want to escape from in a blind struggle against our deepest fears, against the foibles that we agonize over to conceal at all costs, against the irrepressible need for acceptance, even if that means to sacrifice those we love the most, even if that means to sentence ourselves to live of inessential memories and become the ghostly shadow of our past desires.

Beautiful and terrible, ”Giovanni’s Room” is in the end a painful and bitingly honest introspection into the infernos of the nature of humankind, for as David turns his back and leaves the room again and again, we fool ourselves into believing that had we been in his place, we would have acted differently, would have had courage to be fair, would have been more sincere with ourselves and our needs and those of our beloveds.
Wouldn’t we?

“Until I die there will be moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, the 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.”
Profile Image for Donna Ho Shing.
97 reviews47 followers
January 12, 2021
Here's what I'm going to do: buy all Baldwin's books, every single one and just read them all. Back to back to back to back... What a genius this man is. What impeccable, perfect writing. How can a story contained in just 159 pages pack such a punch? HOW?!

Let the record show that on this day James Baldwin officially, OFFICIALLY became my favorite writer (2nd only to Toni Morrison at whose feet I humbly bow, perpetually).
Profile Image for Colin Baldwin.
Author 1 book242 followers
April 22, 2023
I knew little about the author, other than learning somewhere he was a notable social activist, and even less about his novels.
Over the past year, I’ve noticed ‘Giovanni’s Room’ pop up quite a few times on Goodreads. As is often the case, I take note of ratings but shy away from reviews if I’m intending to read something.
That proved useful here given this novel and Baldwin’s style were wonderful surprises.
I look forward to his other works.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,172 reviews8,386 followers
February 11, 2023
No notes. This is a perfect novel from start to finish. The sentence-level writing is immaculate. But also, the plotting? The characters? The imagery & motifs!? This is a syllabus worthy, deep-dive, study every word choice type of a novel. It’s also incredibly sad but you can’t stop reading it. And all in 170 pages!? James Baldwin did that.

P.s. can this be adapted into a film and have Florence Pugh play Hella? Because I *need* to see her deliver that monologue in the last section and finally win an Oscar.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 3 books781 followers
January 20, 2021
A grim tale of human relations, told by one of the most unpleasant protagonists I've ever encountered. The story left me drained and angry, but it's an important book, and an exceptional read.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
576 reviews7,754 followers
October 29, 2014
Love, love, love, love, love this. Baldwin, be mine! This is such a gorgeously written little novel. I can't conceive of how Baldwin fit so much sheer emotion into around 150 pages. Baldwin is practically unknown here in Ireland and it's such an injustice. I want everyone to read this and be in awe of the sheer brilliance of it. (Fans of Isherwood would love this btw)
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,078 followers
October 2, 2018
I like this more than the three stars would indicate. The melodrama was a problem for me. The plot is simple and brilliantly done. David the American doesn’t want to admit he has homosexual impulses. His fiancée, Hella, doesn’t know he’s gay because David doesn’t know it. David is confused, as his friend Jacques at one point remarks. He’s experiencing major cognitive dissonance, simultaneously knowing something and acting as if it weren’t so. For he has met the beautiful, the irresistible Giovanni. Giovanni and David do it in the former’s squalid room, which David sees as a metaphor for punishment and grief, for poverty. There’s no goddamned way he’ll end up stuck in that rat hole. During their renovations, they remove bags of bricks from the room and scatter these in the neighborhood. (?)

Now Hella is returning from Spain where she has gone briefly to think about whether she wants to marry David. David is set to dump Giovanni because he doesn’t want to be a faggot. No way, he wants to be a real American man, with the little woman putting the kids to bed at night while he’s in the study drinking himself to death and dreaming of cock. Soon his fiancée will learn the truth. Giovanni, driven mad by lost love, will be guillotined for a grisly crime. Yes, we’re in Paris. The writing style is assured, even mellifluous, if at times highly melodramatic in the manner of some—my least favorite—of Emile Zola’s novels of social realism. The prose wavers between a kind of operatic hysteria and passages that are sonorous if not haunting. The merde’s about to hit the fan. Clear the room everyone. This would make a lovely opera. Is there a Rossini among us? Here’s your libretto.
Profile Image for هدى يحيى.
Author 9 books16.2k followers
March 6, 2018
وراء كل سعادة تختفي تعاسة
ووراء كل متعة يختفي ‏خوف‏‎‏

الحديث عن المثلية أمر شائك دوما ‏
في كل مكان وزمان
لا تظن أن الغرب قد تخلص من عقدة العنصرية ‏
حتى بين أبناء جلدته ووطنه

فلا يزال المثلي يعامل باضطهاد شنيع‏
يصل للقتل في أحايين كثيرة

نحن دوما أعداء ما نجهل
ودوما أعداء كل ما هو مختلف
ودما تسبقنا كراهيتنا للآخر قبل تفهمنا
هذا إن تفهمنا

عائلة البشر الكبيرة هذه تبدو مخزية في أحايين كثيرة

جيوفاني هو الإيطالي المثلي الذي يقع في حب ديفيد
ولكن ديفيد لديه خطيبة وهو لا يؤمن بالحب كثيرا

وديفيد يقع في الصراع الأبدي بين ما يريد وبين ما يفرضه المجتمع والأعراف من محظورات

ولعله أيضا كان يمقت نفسه أشد المقت لأنه لا يفتأ يعود إلى الخطيئة الكبرى

حينما يموت جيوفاني وتنتهي المآساة المفتعلة تبدأ المآساة الحقيقية
العالم المزيف الذي يحاول ديفيد التعايش معه ناسيا أو متناسيا هذا الذي كان
مكتفيا بثرثرته الخاوية التي يوصلها إلينا بالدوين بأريحية يشوبها احساس عميق بالذنب

فقدان الهوية التي يعاني منها البشر عموما

غرفة جيوفاني رواية جيدة تناسب الوقت التي صدرت فيه
وتناقش أمرا شديد الحساسية برقي إلى حد بعيد
ليس سهلا الكتابة عن المثلية ولكن الكاتب كان ذكيا في الوصف والمشهدية
ذكرني بأسلوب فيتزجيرالد صاحب الرواية الأشهر جاتسبي العظيم

الرواية لم تترجم للعربية
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
September 23, 2017
"for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom."
- James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room


Baldwin is everything. He ability to articulate the struggle to be a man in a world where both black men and gay men were considered 2nd class (if lucky) citizens taught me. He is the reason I read (or at least one of the reasons) good fiction. It transports me into the experience of the other. His writing is a gift. The emotions of this novel are expressed as if Baldwin's heart was set aflame in Paris. In Giovanni's room, Baldwin carves his pain and his struggle with fire into the oppressive clouds of the Parisian night. I sort of knew what I was wading into reading Giovanni's Room. I knew Baldwin was gay and this was considered both a great novel AND a great piece of gay fiction. It is hard to imagine, however, Baldwin ever wanting to be dropped into ANY corner, locked into any room. Black. Gay. Saint. Yes, the man was certainly all those, but he was also so much more.

I don't want to come across as presumptuous, but I think Baldwin would reject the idea that this is a gay novel. I think Baldwin is expressing the anguish and the pain felt by ALL those who are denied (for whatever reason) the ability to freely love. The closet is far too dark, far too cold, far too confining, and does not allow for the other. Baldwin is teaching that we NEED the other to be human. Baldwin's novels are essentially that. They transcend race, sexuality, gender. They are about the need to be recognized, loved, and free. It reminds me, someone who has been prodigiously privileged because of my race (white), sexuality (straight), gender (cis) about the pain others go through just to catch a moment of things I take for granted every day.
Profile Image for Reading_ Tamishly.
4,452 reviews2,402 followers
September 2, 2023
This book is so damn heartbreaking...

This is the first James Baldwin book that I have ever read and... my first impression was that he was such an amazing writer!

Once I started reading this small book, I just couldn't stop myself and I ended up reading it in one sitting.

I love how the characters were so realistically developed. I would say this one is a classic for a reason.

The story is set in the 1950s in Paris where one character staying away from home falls for a bartender. Things get complicated as this character is caught in between his morals and beliefs, decides to marry woman ultimately.

But the consequences of all this leading to a tragic ending and heartbreaks.

The story deals with sexual identity and several social issues, most importantly how the gay community was looked upon those days.

Sadly, such issues are still prevailing. And yes, for that matter I would always support the LGBTQ community 🙋

However, I would say this is a must read. I would say the best parts are the dialogues between the woman and the main character towards the end of the book.

So many quotable lines! This is one of those few books which made me annotate and actually underline sentences 📝

The only parts where I didn't like were how women were described in the book.
Profile Image for Carolyn Marie  Castagna.
290 reviews6,217 followers
March 23, 2021
My heart is currently in a million little pieces!

Words to describe this book: Tragic, Profound, Devastating, Poignant, Harrowing, and many other melancholy words!

James Baldwin illustrates vast and deep emotions in the most succinct writing! He conveys boundless themes without overpowering them with an access of words. This sharp precision adds even more gravity to the topics explored in this story. Every word of this book has a purpose!

My personal favorite aspect of this novel is found in the title. Giovanni's room as a setting, is so much more than just a setting. It is an incredibly clever symbol of the characters and their relationship with one another. It represents how they feel, what they feel, their relationship in general, lust, love, and about a million other things!
I have only one word for that... brilliant!
Profile Image for Christine.
596 reviews1,183 followers
April 11, 2021
Boy, am I conflicted about this one.

First of all, no doubt about it, James Baldwin was a brilliant writer. His prose was stellar. Furthermore, in heart-wrenching fashion he nailed the hell and pure angst facing any of us who found ourselves gay in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s or even later for some). This subject was agonizingly portrayed in a masterful way.

My problem with the story is two-fold. First is the fact that it took nearly half the book before I could engage. Secondly, I did not really connect with any of the characters. Maybe a little bit with Giovanni, but not with any of the others, not even the protagonist, David. Geez, with this subject matter, the tears should have been flowing, but I was nowhere moved enough for even a single tear. In fact, I was actually multitasking during the last chapter—watching an online concert at the same time. Kind of makes me feel like a bad person.

I generally rate a book according to how it makes me feel rather than how brilliant it is. For that reason, I cannot give more than 3 stars. Sorry, Mr. Baldwin (speaking to you up in heaven). I will try again with another of yours soon.
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
August 31, 2020
Is there a way to escape the doom of society if you are not a rich, white, heterosexual, married man having "clean sex" with your own "lawful" wife with the purpose of producing a new generation of rich, white, heterosexual, married men?

Even the wife of this single category of human who is allowed shameless, guiltfree pleasure may not be free from shame and guilt. She may feel guilty for enjoying too much or too little what is expected of her as a marital duty. But at least she will have the safety network of society to protect her when the nausea strikes. For all other human beings, not able to collect privileges like pearls on a string, not able to guide their desire towards conventional patriarchal rules, they are doomed to lose as soon as they enter the game.

Giovanni knew and acted. David decided to block out knowledge and pretend there was nothing the matter. One died, the other lived. Both were doomed.

Reading James Baldwin is like being infused with powerful sentences describing the abyss of patriarchy looming over individual lives. It is like going through the Purgatorio in Dante's Divina Commedia and ending up not in Heaven, but in Hell afterwards. The purity of life as imagined by the happy few who can actually "feel" according to the "moral" compass of patriarchy is hell on earth for all those who have to stay there without being able to live the part they act.

What could have saved David and Giovanni? Unpoisoning their minds maybe, if that is possible?

Taking away layer after layer of self-hatred and carefully implanted shame, until they'd be able to look at themselves in the mirror and see a happy, gay man and be proud? Is that entirely possible, even today? I don't know. I know it is not entirely possible for women, even in the most modern of societies, to break the rules of patriarchy without some loss of status, loss of respect, loss of financial security, loss of professional development. I imagine it would be the same for any person not enjoying the complete protection of privilege. For Giovanni it would never have been possible at the time and in the place where he moved.

The only saving grace is that he found a storyteller to carry his voice beyond the finale.

Love, love, love this short novel. Read it!
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