Wednesday, April 16, 2014

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin

Yes, it's a hopeless, despairing novel from and for the homophobic 1950s, but Giovanni's Room still seems to me a fairly bold book for its time. Although Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar beat Baldwin to the subject matter by a handful of years, and Jean Genet had already laid definitive claim to the French gay underground in his seminal spurt of novels from the late 1940s, Baldwin's book still carries an impressive charge of literary daring. Giovanni's Room is the gay novel Dostoyevsky might have written had he been seduced by Henry James: it marries lurid melodrama to moral soul-searching, the whole written in a beautifully polished prose. Of course it has its flaws--inconsistent characterization, clich├ęd dialogue, a melodramatic denouement that exists more to close the narrative than to deepen the characters and themes--but for me all of this is outshone by Baldwin's triumphant invention of David, the narrator. Here is the tragic portrait of a self-loathing gay man whose puritanical horror of his desires leads him to self-dissolution, a sort of soul-suicide, at novel's end. David's alcohol-fueled 'dark night of the soul' (the intense 'present tense' of this flashbacked novel) concludes when he dissolves his love for Giovanni in the grim, flesh-eating acid of Christian spirituality. This is David's final 'conversion experience' and, as the explicit parallel with Giovanni's execution makes clear, it is a strategy as tragically life-denying and life-ending as Giovanni's murder of Guillaume. I suppose the ending could be interpreted more positively, perhaps neo-platonically, as the promise of spiritual union to two souls sundered in the sullied flesh. But the text seems to privilege neither of these interpretations. Rather, however we might read the rhetoric, it leaves us with a vague sensation of death-in-life. To criticize this ending as too despairing, as some have, is simply ahistorical. We must remember that unless you were rich and/or Gore Vidal, the Fifties were not a particularly positive decade in which to be gay.


This seems the place to add that Baldwin's better first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, also concerns itself, albeit less centrally, with the nexus of Christian moralism and homosexual desire. For anyone wishing to deeply understand the attraction of fundamentalist religion to millions of Americans, even today, Go Tell It On The Mountain is the book to read.

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