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A staunch refusal to look away

James Baldwin died a little less than 40 years ago. Time enough, you’d think, for the writing his towering intellect produced to seem a little less radical. And yet, astonishingly, all the concerns that drove him and animated his indispensable work still confound our society and our doomed-to-repeat-their-mistakes political establishment. From the violent policing of Blacks in the United States to the distancing of gay and queer communities from the mainstream and the ongoing conflict in Palestine — Baldwin’s thoughts on these issues continue to resonate; simply because when it comes to the oppressed, time seems glacial.

Baldwin’s masterpiece of queer love, Giovanni’s Room, was published in 1956. It wasn’t, given the times, easy to get such a book out to the public. His previous publisher turned it down and it was brought out by another to general acclaim. Over the years, the influence of Giovanni’s Room has only grown and it is now considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

The protagonist of the novel, who narrates the story, is a blond white American named David. He’s in the South of France as the novel starts, having just ended his relationship with his fiancee Hella who’s returning to the US. His former lover, Giovanni, is in prison awaiting execution. David’s life is in tatters — he’s “pushing thirty” as his father says in a letter and he doesn’t have a job nor is he in a steady relationship. He’s adrift, looking for something he’s never going to find.

David’s first experience of homosexual love happens when he’s a teenager in Brooklyn. But that summertime encounter with his best friend arouses a disgust within himself and a need to suppress his true nature. “The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and made me secretive and cruel,” David says. He starts drinking and coming home late and gets into a car accident that further seems to ossify his relationship with his father (David’s mother died when he was five years old). He joins the Army where he ensures he follows through on his resolution “…to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

Eventually, David makes his way to France where he meets Hella and starts a relationship with her. She decides to go to Spain for a few months and at a loss to know what to do and also running short of money, he meets an acquaintance, Jacques, an older Belgian-American businessman and together they take in the Parisian nightlife. It is at a bar owned by the aristocratic Guillaume that David meets Giovanni who’s a bartender there. Giovanni himself is from Italy and he has a small room that’s in a constant state of squalor. The two fall in love — or at least it’s full-hearted love on the part of Giovanni while David continues to withhold full affection.

Things don’t last of course — Giovanni’s Room is ultimately a tragedy — betrayals and violence inevitably ensue and all that’s left behind for David are memories of the room where life seemed to “be occurring underwater” where he is certain he “underwent a sea-change”. However, as Giovanni points out in one of his last conversations with David, that "sea-change" is never acknowledged: “You lie so much, you have come to believe in your own lies.”

Giovanni’s Room lends itself to so many readings beyond just a gay love story — it’s also a reflection by Baldwin of his own alienation and loneliness as a Black gay man in a world rife with prejudice. David’s troubles stem from his refusal to acknowledge his truth. But Baldwin did and did so with courage and a refusal to look away from the violent atrocities the world visited upon the weak. Precisely what makes this book and all of his work as vital as ever.

The author is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — it takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:54 IST)

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