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Giovanni's Room
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New School Classics- 1900-1999 > Giovanni's Room - SPOILERS

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Melanti | 2383 comments This thread is for a full discussion of our July 2018 New School Group Read selection, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin.

Discuss any spoilers in this thread.


Carlo | 206 comments I thought the author captured the emotions of the characters very well in this book, particularly the inner angst of David.


Inkspill (runinkspill) | 299 comments I'm half way through, I like how the story is presented to illustrate how torn David is -- and in the process creating chaos.

Also, not sure how reliable he is as narrator.


Melanti | 2383 comments I read this last year and it was one of my favorite books of the year.


message 5: by Katy, New School Classics (new)

Katy (kathy_h) | 9860 comments Mod
Melanti wrote: "I read this last year and it was one of my favorite books of the year."

Good to know. What do you enjoy the most about the book? The writing, the story, ...?


message 6: by Melanti (last edited Jul 05, 2018 03:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Melanti | 2383 comments The writing, especially, though I enjoyed the story too.

(Avoid the audio if you can speak French.)


Inkspill (runinkspill) | 299 comments Melanti, I'm not surprised this was a favorite of yours, yeah, the writing is just amazing


Thorkell Ottarsson This went straight to my list of favorite books. So beautifully written, simple, effortless and lyrical.

Now to spoilers. I would love to hear what others things of the main characters. Are David and Giovanni gay or bi sexual? To me it is obvious that Giovanni is Bi sexual. David might be just as well. Does it matter? Well in a way it does in at least two ways. One that James Baldwin is dealing with the theme people barely knew about back then. Secondly what it says about these two men. It is one thing to know that you are gay all your life, another to find these desires late in life and not know what to do with them. I'm guessing that it would be harder to justify it (if you see it as something wrong, that is). It might feel like less of a choice if you are homosexual but more so if you are bi. Not that I'm saying it is. I'm just trying to put myself into the shoes of bi sexual men back then.

And then there's Hella who is just as much of a victim of society. It broke my heart when she talks about her future. Find a man to care for and who will take care of her and her life is set. One gets the feeling that she is in Europe to experience freedom for the last time, before she settles down and has children.

How come this book has not been turned into a film? The book is perfectly structured for a film and quite visual.

Anyway, this is just the second book by Baldwin that I have read. The other one was The Fire Next Time. Loved both of them. What should I read next by him?


message 9: by ALLEN (last edited Jul 09, 2018 12:49PM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments GIOVANNI'S ROOM is the novel alluded to by Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the first sequence of the 2005 biopic, CAPOTE. It was considered Baldwin's "problem novel" because of its bi- or homosexuality.


Quiver (quiverquotes) | 1 comments Two years ago Giovanni's Room won a Lit Hub contest for best erotic passage.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...

I read the article after I'd finished the book, and was retroactively pleased that I'd noticed the passage while in the midst of the story and that I'd thought it particularly tender at the time... I'm curious if others did too.


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ALLEN | 623 comments The late Florence King once opined that "there are two things no author can describe, and one of them is a sunset." But I thought Baldwin did very well. Thanks for the article, Quiver!


Laurie | 1700 comments Melanti wrote: "The writing, especially, though I enjoyed the story too.

(Avoid the audio if you can speak French.)"


Been listening to the audio and I had to laugh at the pronunciation of the French until just now, he keeps saying "moan-sewer" for monsieur. I think I have to stick with the written book from now on.


Aubrey (korrick) Thorkell wrote: "Anyway, this is just the second book by Baldwin that I have read. The other one was The Fire Next Time. Loved both of them. What should I read next by him?"

My vote's for Another Country.


message 14: by ALLEN (last edited Jul 12, 2018 05:54AM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Aubrey wrote: "Thorkell wrote: "Anyway, this is just the second book by Baldwin that I have read. The other one was The Fire Next Time. Loved both of them. What should I read next by him?"

My vote's for Another Country."

I think that's a great choice too, Thorkell.
Though if you wanted to start earlier in Baldwin's career, the semi-autobiogaphical Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) has much to recommend it.


Thorkell Ottarsson I have bought a copy of both of those. Thanks!


message 16: by Laurie (last edited Jul 13, 2018 06:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Laurie | 1700 comments I finished reading this yesterday, and I thought the emotional struggles of David and Giovanni's were the strongest part of the story. These men are constantly looking for something and they both seem unsure what they are seeking. David has left the US and his complicated relationship with his father. He thought he found happiness with Hella, but she needs time to think about marrying him. So David is still seeking in his own way. Giovanni left his hometown and his lover after the birth of their stillborn son. He ran away at a time of great vulnerability and he is still extremely vulnerable.

I don't see either David or Giovanni as emotionally strong men at this point. It isn't at all surprising that their affair ended so badly since they were both too needy and unaware of what would fulfill their needs.

I was disappointed in Hella's attitude that a woman isn't really a woman until she has a man. I understand the time period, but this attitude seems more like what men believed women think than an actual 1950s female mentality. Especially the mentality of Hella who was someone independent enough to go running around Europe on her own.


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Phil J | 627 comments I read and loved The Fire Next Time last year, but I'm having a hard time getting into this one. I'm kind of interested in finding out how Giovanni's death sentence comes about, but all the scenes of men hanging around and talking are not holding my attention.

I have to keep reminding myself that the protagonist is an upper-class blond haired-blue eyed type. I wonder why Baldwin made that creative choice.


Aubrey (korrick) Phil wrote: "I have to keep reminding myself that the protagonist is an upper-class blond haired-blue eyed type. I wonder why Baldwin made that creative choice. "

It was hard enough getting works centered around black or queer issues published back in the day. Imagine trying to do both. The fact that Baldwin achieved mainstream success during his time had as much to do with the concessions he was forced to make to mainstream hatred as with the quality of his writing.


message 19: by ALLEN (last edited Jul 16, 2018 01:52PM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments I would go with that interpretation, too. It's worth acknowledging that during these years and the ones immediately following, the treatment Baldwin got in New York was nothing short of absurd. A nice hotel would accept him as a guest, then make him ride the freight elevator or check in very late at night (i.e., so as not to offend the white patrons.) Cray-cray!

It got to where Baldwin was more comfortable living in Paris. Now, I'm not saying the French were without racism, but for them, being a celebrated author was enough to outweigh vulgar considerations of skin color. Not so here!


BAM the enigma I just finished rereading this this morning and loved it just as much the second time around. It has every element of a tragic love story. It’s so touching and yet so trampling. Goes straight to the soul. I decided to go in the other direction in a way and bought The Well of Loneliness to now get a woman’s perspective.


message 21: by Phil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Phil J | 627 comments BAM wrote: "I just finished rereading this this morning and loved it just as much the second time around. It has every element of a tragic love story. It’s so touching and yet so trampling. Goes straight to th..."

I think that's why I'm only able to get through 10-20 pages per day. "Tragic love story" is my least favorite genre. I picked this book up solely because of the author, and I didn't know what I was getting into.

I have a French question: "Vache" means "cow," or so I thought. I thought perhaps it meant "mean" or "rude" in the context that Baldwin uses, but he also uses "mechant" and, I think, "gauche" which already have those meanings.

What does it mean to be cow to somebody? I already know what it means to be a duck, but this one is new to me.


Carlo | 206 comments It means annoyingly awkward or b**chy. Slight less offensive than the b word but insulting none the less.


BAM the enigma Ooooh good question!
I’ve called women I’m not getting along with cows. Not a weight thing


message 24: by Phil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Phil J | 627 comments Carlo wrote: "It means annoyingly awkward or b**chy. Slight less offensive than the b word but insulting none the less."

Thanks, Carlo.


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Greg | 446 comments Thorkell wrote: "Are David and Giovanni gay or bi sexual? To me it is obvious that Giovanni is Bi sexual. David might be just as well. Does it matter? .."

It seems to me that David is probably more toward the gay end of the scale than anything. He seems only marginally interested in women, though he desperately tries to make himself believe something different.

I find the early episode with Joey completely heartbreaking and very telling. What happens with the father afterwards, what his father expects.

I wonder some years from now if people will even be able to understand this book? It is such a deep, sensitive, and masterful portrayal of that atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and self confusion that is very much rooted in the way society was at that time for a person like David.

Look what happened when David merely talked to Giovanni. He became the topic of conversation in the entire bar, or at least he thought so, which amounts to the same thing in terms of the affect on him. The last thing he would want is a legion of men talking about his secret. How could he control who they spoke to, what they said and to whom? In David's words, "and then I was afraid. I knew that they were watching, had been watching both of us. They knew ... now I was in the zoo, and they were watching." He sees himself as an animal, a curiosity through their eyes, and it terrifies him.

Giovanni on the other hand sees things simply. He feels, he acts. But David cannot choose; he cannot act. David perpetually sits paralyzed between his strong desire and his equally strong fears. So he is always half in and half out - he never steps firmly in any direction.

My personal opinion as to why Baldwin made David white: imagine how vulnerable he must have felt exposing so deeply the inner workings of a mind under this kind of pressure that he must have known well. He couldn't have written such a searing portrait without deep psychological understanding. Maybe it was a touch less vulnerable to put that distance between himself and the narrator by making him white? Maybe also, making him black would have raised a host of other issues, and Baldwin wanted to keep focused on these ones instead so he could fully plumb the depths of them?


message 26: by Leni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leni Iversen (leniverse) | 1236 comments I read this a couple of days ago, and while I haven't gotten around to taking part in the discussion while it was still July I am very glad the book won the poll and kicked my arse into reading it. Between this and Go Tell it on the Mountain I now want to read everything Baldwin wrote.

On the one hand I find it hard to relate to the extreme angst experienced by David, and even more difficult to relate to Hella's notion of womanhood. But the writing is so compelling I believe in it fully. I also spent a year in Paris some 16 years ago, and almost 50 years after Baldwin wrote this book there are a lot of things that were still the same. I stayed a long while in a youth hostel run by an aging alcoholic who only hired good looking young men, and who insisted they would drink with him in his office. Jobs were hard to come by and paid little, especially for foreigners. Housing was hard to come by, especially for foreigners, and cost much. Small rooms or studio flats and room mates were common. And sexual dramas played out everywhere, including mixed sex ménage à trois. The stories I could tell! Except that I can't tell them as well as Baldwin does. (Still, I wish I'd kept a diary.)


message 27: by ALLEN (last edited Aug 01, 2018 06:57AM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Leni, after reading your post I was reminded that in the original (theatrical, Broadway musical) of CABARET, the Sally Bowles figure was British and her conflicted beau was American.

Well, you may lack a diary but at some point in the future there's a novel you might write . . . and I want to be there in line at your first signing.

Glad you liked GIOVANNI'S ROOM. It used to be the novel people didn't usually mention. Have you considered THE FIRE NEXT TIME? That's nonfictional Baldwin at his 1960s politically strongest.
The Fire Next Time


message 28: by Leni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leni Iversen (leniverse) | 1236 comments ALLEN wrote: "Leni, after reading your post I was reminded that in the original (theatrical, Broadway musical) of CABARET, the Sally Bowles figure was British and her conflicted beau was American.

Well, you ma..."


Thank you. :) I lack an overarching plot for a novel, but I have been toying with the idea of a series of interlocking short stories. I toy with a lot of ideas though, so you might not want to hold your breath.

Non-fiction 1960s political writing? Sold. Or, at least, added to my TBR for future purchase/library request.


Kathleen | 4190 comments So glad you enjoyed Giovanni's Room, Leni. I felt the same way about reading everything of his. I second The Fire Next Time, but if you're looking for fiction, I also loved Another Country.

And please, please do the stories. Don't let what happened in Paris stay in Paris!


message 30: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Kathleen wrote: "So glad you enjoyed Giovanni's Room, Leni. I felt the same way about reading everything of his. I second The Fire Next Time, but if you're looking for fiction, I also loved [book:Anot..."

Kathleen, I agree with you totally.
Everybody: Listen to Kathleen; I bet she's very well-read in Jas. Baldwin.


Kathleen | 4190 comments ALLEN wrote: "Kathleen wrote: "So glad you enjoyed Giovanni's Room, Leni. I felt the same way about reading everything of his. I second The Fire Next Time, but if you're looking for fiction, I also..."

Ha! Thanks, Allen, but those are the only three I've read! I have no doubt that you can't go wrong with any of his writing. :-)


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ALLEN | 623 comments Kathleen wrote: "ALLEN wrote: "Kathleen wrote: "So glad you enjoyed Giovanni's Room, Leni. I felt the same way about reading everything of his. I second The Fire Next Time, but if you're looking for f..."

I don't know Baldwin's *oeuvre* well enough to comment on it broadly, but what I've read of his are GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, GIOVANNI'S ROOM, ANOTHER COUNTRY and some of his essays ("The Fire Next Time" is essentially a big essay). I've loved all the fiction with the possible exception of ANOTHER COUNTRY, which I merely liked) and found the essays very worthwhile.


message 33: by Greg (last edited Aug 02, 2018 05:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 446 comments ALLEN wrote: "Kathleen wrote: "ALLEN wrote: "Kathleen wrote: "So glad you enjoyed Giovanni's Room, Leni. I felt the same way about reading everything of his. I second The Fire Next Time, but if you..."

I agree Allen - I loved several of his other books more than Another Country. I did like Another Country, but only the last 1/5 of the book blew me away the way Baldwin's writing usually does in the psychological detail and the lyricism of the prose.


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ALLEN | 623 comments And -- wouldn't you know -- that was the one that got assigned in college because it was the least problematic of his problem novels. I went to college in the middle 1970's and even then, GIOVANNI'S ROOM was all but untouchable -- too gay. I'm proud to say that times have changed.


message 35: by Greg (new) - rated it 5 stars

Greg | 446 comments ALLEN wrote: "And -- wouldn't you know -- that was the one that got assigned in college because it was the least problematic of his problem novels. I went to college in the middle 1970's and even then, GIOVANNI'..."

It is a good thing! :)


Candi (candih) | 799 comments I finished Giovanni's Room just before we rolled over into August. It was my first Baldwin novel, and I am now a huge fan! I have read through this thread and intend to read the suggestions for further reading. The writing was exquisite and the story heartbreaking. I found the characters to be so well developed and that is always a big 'selling point' for me. Even if I cannot relate to a character, as Leni stated I found them to be wholly believable as well.

Greg, I agree with your opinion that David was gay rather than bisexual. I felt that he was never being true to himself when he was with Hella or any other woman.


message 37: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments That was my feeling too.


message 38: by Leni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leni Iversen (leniverse) | 1236 comments Am I the only one wondering about David's father? All those women his sister was accusing him of going to see at night, maybe they were men. His expectations of David and of what it was to be a man, their inability to communicate, I just think it would be painfully ironic if this was all caused by the father being conflicted by his own sexuality rather than by him being a macho lout.


message 39: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Nothing's impossible, but I took it to mean that both father and son had powerful sex drives. If the father comes across looking like a hypocrite, that wouldn't be out of the question either. I do get the impression that a generation gap is opening up between David and his father. I suppose the father, whether he 'strays' in the direction of his own gender or to women, embodies the feeling of "Keep up appearances and otherwise, don't get caught."

Am I the only one who feels that way? There is much that Baldwin does not describe explicitly; the focus seems to me to be on the passion of the young people, particularly David.


message 40: by Leni (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leni Iversen (leniverse) | 1236 comments True. Extramarital affairs with women would have been sensored by society as well. But Giovanni strikes me as having a similar attitude to appearances. He tells David to just marry Hella as a front and keep him on the side. On the other hand that was probably a move of desperation in order to keep David from leaving him completely. I'm not sure if David struggles because of a desire/ideal to be genuine and monogamous that he can't live up to, or if his inability to commit just boils down to fear. Then again, Giovanni is seriously messed up and looking for a saviour, and Hella goes from being fun and independent to desperately needing a man so she can have babies and be the little wife. A genuine relationship is impossible with either of them.


message 41: by ALLEN (last edited Aug 03, 2018 03:12AM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Good points all, Leni. I can see why GIOVANNI'S ROOM has become one of the most-loved James Baldwin books. In the post-Stonewall, pre-transparency era in which I grew up, this book was not much read outside of gay circles or by Baldwin specialists or completionists. In fact, the Truman Capote biopic CAPOTE (2005) even has Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in 1959, joking about James Baldwin's "problem novel" -- apparently this one, first published in 1956.


lethe | 128 comments ALLEN wrote: "In the post-Stonewall, pre-transparency era in which I grew up, this book was not much read outside of gay circles or by Baldwin specialists or completionists."

Maybe that was true in the US?

My mum had a copy of the Dutch translation on her shelf (published 1972) and I and several of my classmates had Giovanni's Room on our self-chosen book list for English in high school (1977).


message 43: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Yes, I was referring to the US. The way our local school districts are run, a virulent complaint from one or two parents is often enough to ban a book -- and our lingering Puritanism is sometimes construed to mean that if one kid doesn't get it, none do -- I myself fought long and hard to expand the optional (I believe you call it "self-chosen") list but was told it wouldn't be "fair." I still don't fathom that reasoning because I interpret 'fairness' to mean equal opportunity and not equal outcome, but that's the reason why even CATCHER IN THE RYE is STILL not to be found on many American public-school bookshelves.


lethe | 128 comments 'Optional' is a far better word for what I meant :) We were allowed to choose the books ourselves, with a few caveats (comics etc. were not allowed, and I think Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances and such weren't either).

No doubt some put Giovanni's Room on the list because it is a short book, but oh well.

Catcher in the Rye was actually taught and read in class.

Sad that school libraries in the US have to bow to the parents' wishes. It goes against the professional code to ban controversial books.


message 45: by Phil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Phil J | 627 comments ALLEN wrote: "Yes, I was referring to the US. The way our local school districts are run, a virulent complaint from one or two parents is often enough to ban a book -- and our lingering Puritanism is sometimes c..."

True story:

I teach Reading in grades 6-8, which is ages 12-15. I used to have carte blanche when offering books to students. Two years ago, one of my colleagues gave Speak to a 7th grade girl who was not ready for it. The girl had nightmares from it, and her parents came to the school and raised hell. So the principal called a meeting of the reading teachers and said that we need to get permission slips signed before assigning a student a book with mature themes. We asked him which books he meant, and he said any books that a parent might be offended by. Furthermore, the permission slips have to be specific to the book and specify the potentially offensive content. So I have to read and write a new permission slip for every edgy book on my shelf.

I began quietly removing books from my bookshelf and making a pile in a closed cabinet behind my desk. Because they tend to have explicit language and content, most of the LGBT books are in that pile.

Last year, some of my students identified as gay partway through their eighth grade year. I started handing them and their friends books from the pile behind my desk. I did not get permission slips signed. I knew there was one student whose parents might object, but I thought that these books were important enough for her at her stage in life to take the risk. One student said Will Grayson, Will Grayson was the most important book he'd ever read.

No one complained, so I guess I got away with it.

My point is, there is a lot of pressure on schools, so don't judge us too harshly. I still get heat from the students for reading And Tango Makes Three during banned book week, and that's about penguins. Penguins.


Melanti | 2383 comments lethe wrote: "'Sad that school libraries in the US have to bow to the parents' wishes. It goes against the professional code to ban controversial books. ..."

Something to keep in mind is that a lot of the lists of "banned" books are actually challenged books. There's a big difference there.

Challenging just means that parent(s) brought up a concern regarding a book. It doesn't necessarily mean it was removed from the curriculum or library. Challenging is pretty frequent, but actual removal is less so common.

Even banning can take different forms. It could be removed from the curriculum, but stay in the library, or vice versa. It could be removed from the library entirely. Or it could be put on a list of books that need a permission slip to check out.

That being said, I find it really unlikely that schools in the US had Giovanni's Room in their libraries back in the 1970s. Which is a shame.


lethe | 128 comments Melanti wrote: "Something to keep in mind is that a lot of the lists of "banned" books are actually challenged books. There's a big difference there."

Thanks for the explanation, Melanti.


message 48: by ALLEN (last edited Aug 03, 2018 02:06PM) (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Probably UK readers were a lot more tolerant in their attitudes toward literary homosexuality over the period I'm thinking of (ca. 1960 to 1990, even to 2000). For one thing, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967 following the issuance of the Wolfenden Report (and for a few years prior, people knew it was coming.) When the law was changed nationwide, the law's the law. Not in the U.S. with its more decentralized setup. And by that I include thousands of school districts inside of fifty different states.

For another thing, UK citizens on the whole were probably more tolerant. There's an understanding there that gay expression can get into the culture without making its consumers gay. For a long time even the most liberal of male politicians on this side of the pond would not endorse gay issues, either because it was "a bridge too far" or because he was afraid his constituents would think him closeted or gay (and as we know, that does happen -- think of that Idaho Senator).


Melanti | 2383 comments Allen, please keep the conversation on Giovanni's Room rather than politics. We're getting too off topic here.

Discussion about censorship of books is OK, since did pertain to this book at one point, but not the whole Trump administration and deVoss.

We try to keep this group as politics free as possible.


message 50: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN | 623 comments Melanti wrote: "Allen, please keep the conversation on Giovanni's Room rather than politics. We're getting too off topic here.

Discussion about censorship of books is OK, since did pertain to this book at one poi..."


Sorry....I should have known better. I won't go off on that kind of rant again -- at least, not here! Thank you for your patience.


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