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159 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1956
"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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
“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.
“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.”
“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”: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.
“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.”
“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?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.
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.”
“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.”