Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

An elegant read which joins the two others about penniless American writers in Paris, this one set in the 1950s.  http://gtobserver.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-big-sea.html

I thought the writer captured tastefully well the ambivalence of the protagonist about his emerging homosexuality.  I always find American books rather strange in that they are deeply self-involved, one never gets to see Americans in the context of their families and friends-- it's always the 'lone-wolf' against the World.  The immediate exception that comes to mind is 'To Kill A Mockingbird' - where the story situates the children, father and  town in the wider society.
So in this one, we never really get an idea of how the protagonist developed after the death of his mother at 5yrs-- I rather got the impression he raised himself and then after having a sexual experience with his 'bestie' he shuns him and even bullies him... maybe accounting for the 'low-down' Caribbean men who are aggressively macho but then there is an apparently thriving trade in male prostitution.
 The real puzzle for me was Giovanni who came from, it seems, a solid working-class background and was married but abandoned everything when his child was stillborn, to arrive and seek his fortune in Paris... although considerable younger than the American I couldn't figure out how Giovanni was immediately comfortable in his homosexuality-- he sounded like the 'male' character in the coupling with the American and hence his humiliation when circumstances forced him to turn to prostitution and presumably act the 'female' of the older homosexuals who preyed on him. It was not so much about the sex as about power.

I was fascinated by the instant attraction of the two men, Giovanni comfortable and the American not.. though in the anonymity of Paris I would have imagined he should have been-- but he seemed to be in denial of himself. By the time the American acknowledged that he loved the Italian, tragic events had unfolded and I felt a bit of contempt for his cowardice. For me the book was about inequality and lost opportunities.  There are some sage observations about the lot of women but at least to give Hella credit.. she cut her losses and ran.

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