Sunday, 20 November 2016

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: an antidote to shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first discovered Giovanni’s Room, but I was quite young, maybe 14 or 15. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and there was a wonderful independent bookstore in town, a place called Hawley-Cooke, where, since I was a bookish kid, I spent pretty much every Friday night. This store had a section dedicated to lesbian and gay literature, tucked away in a back corner, and each time I went I would spend a few sweaty minutes there before I snatched a title and carried it to another part of the store to sit and read.

I have mixed feelings about lesbian and gay sections in bookstores now, but it was a wonderful resource for the pre-internet kid I was. As a student in Kentucky’s public schools, which means I wasn’t getting much of a literary education, I didn’t have any idea what names to look for. I chose books almost at random, based on their titles, I guess, or their covers, a method that led me to Edmund White, Yukio Mishima, Jeanette Winterson, Baldwin. It’s hard to overstate what those books meant, growing up in the American south, or the solace I took from them and from their vision of queer life as possessed of a measure of human dignity. It didn’t matter that that dignity was so often the dignity of tragedy; it was still a kind of antidote to shame.

Shame is one of the central subjects of Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956 and recounting a tormented love affair in Paris between the American narrator, David, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender. But that’s not stating it strongly enough: the whole novel is a kind of anatomy of shame, of its roots and the myths that perpetuate it, of the damage it can do. And also of its arbitrariness, since as rebuttal to any claim that shame might be some natural accoutrement of queerness – the belief that lies at the heart of David’s malaise – the novel offers the fact of Giovanni, who seems immune to shame, or at least to the shame that plagues David. And it is this freedom that makes him available to the joy and love David finally believes men can’t share with one another. That was the balm of the book when I first read it, the sense it gives that the tragedy it recounts is anything but inevitable, the result not of some ineluctable dynamic of same-sex desire but of the limitations of David, a grievously damaged man.

I read Giovanni’s Room again in college, and once more after that, several years later, when I considered assigning it to my high school students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I read it again recently because I was asked to speak on it, which I had been asked to do because it has often been referenced in discussions of my own novel. I knew that I owed the book a great deal, and it’s a debt I’m eager to acknowledge. But I hadn’t realised until this recent rereading, which was also the first time I read the book as a novelist, just how much I had learned from it. I had never studied fiction before I wrote my first novel; all of my education in craft was of this unconscious kind, an imitation of things I admire in the books I love.

I remembered, of course, the narrative elements my book shares with James Baldwin’s: an American narrator abroad, overcome by feeling that, for all its force, runs hot and cold, desire wrangled with ambivalence. But I was struck this time by formal and stylistic strategies I think I must have first encountered in the book. I hadn’t read Henry James when I discovered Giovanni’s Room, and so I suspect this was the first time I had encountered a novelist tracking Jamesian microclimates of feeling, something Baldwin does throughout the novel to great effect. There’s a marvellous moment just before David and Giovanni meet, when David moves through a crowd of men excited by the presence of the new bartender: “it was like moving into the field of a magnet or like approaching a small circle of heat.”

But what I admire most in the book is its peculiarly lyrical conception of time. The novel is framed by present-tense scenes set at the end of the drama, in the night before Giovanni is going to be executed. This frees Baldwin from any of the sometimes clunky strategies of narrative withholding and suspense. All of the book’s major plot points are declared in the first pages: we know that David has abandoned Giovanni, we know that David’s ex-fiancee Hella has returned to the United States, we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to die.

There’s a strange kind of pleasure in disclosing so much of the story up front. Placing the point of telling here gives Baldwin access to the entire narrative at every point, allowing him to move freely back and forth across the entire timeline of the action. On the first page of the book, David casts forward into the future, imagining the bus ride he will take to Paris; on the second, he remembers meeting Hella; immediately after this first scene, the book dives into the deep past of David’s childhood. This rather extraordinary freedom with time is put to very moving effect at several points in the novel, perhaps most of all when, in giving a sense of David’s few happy weeks with Giovanni, Baldwin both holds time in abeyance and allows us to track its passage. He does this by means of a generalised, flyover narration of a “typical day” – morning, noon and night – that is interrupted by scenes in which we can hear the pleading of an increasingly agitated and perplexed Giovanni.

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