James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, grapples with the insistence of love that human assumptions and norms make improbable, if not impossible. The story centers on the intimate liaison between the blonde American, David, living aimlessly in Paris, and the beautiful Italian, Giovanni, who works at a Parisian gay bar. Other striking characters swirl around this couple, including David’s American fiancée, Hella (traveling in Spain for most of the novel); Giovanni’s greying, gay boss, Guillaume; and another older and wealthier gay man, Jacques.
The entire plot is narrated by David. It takes place over the course of one agonizing night that will end with Giovanni’s guillotined death at sunrise. After Hella has closed the door on a taxi and on a future life with him, David pauses on his reflection in a window and begins to reflect backwards on all that has led him to this horrible moment. The plot’s tension is structured like film noir: readers are told the end at the beginning, this brute revelation produces the plot’s anxieties, a voice-over guides us through what happens, and the entire spectacle is presented in chiaroscuro.
One single plot element motivates me to post on this novel and that is Giovanni’s backstory of his stillborn son and fury at God, a plot-point I wish to consider in relation both to the novel’s title and to David’s repeated invectives about his “stinking,” “dirty,” “filthy” room.” I feel certain that scholars have addressed all of this, but my limited search through databases and blogs failed to turn up anything substantial. [The exception is Prof. Raymond-Jean Frontain’s essay, “James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and the Biblical Myth of David,” CEA Critic, WINTER 1995, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 41-58. Frontain discusses Giovanni’s backstory in one paragraph on page 43 of this essay.]
Giovanni’s words to David are delivered near the end of the novel, in Chapter 4, as David is literally inching his way out of Giovanni’s room for the last time. In one long paragraph, which I cite below, Giovanni tells David that he came from a village in Italy where he had a “girl” who gave birth to a stillborn son:
“I left my village one wild, sweet day. I will never forget that day. It was the day of my death–I wish it had been the day of my death. I remember the sun was hot and scratchy on the back of my neck as I walked the road away from my village and the road went upward and I walked bent over. I remember everything, the brown dust at my feet, and the little pebbles which rushed before me, and the short trees along the road and all the flat houses and all their colors under the sun. I remember I was weeping, but not as I am weeping now, much worse, more terrible–since I am with you, I cannot even cry as I cried then. That was the first time in my life that I wanted to die. I had just buried my baby in the churchyard where my father and my father’s fathers were and I had left my girl screaming in my mother’s house. Yes, I had made a baby but it was born dead. It was all grey and twisted when I saw it and it made no sound—and we spanked it on the buttocks and we sprinkled it with holy water and we prayed but it never made a sound, it was dead. It was a little boy, it would have been a wonderful, strong man, perhaps even the kind of man you and Jacques and Guillaume and all your disgusting band of fairies spend all your days and nights looking for, and dreaming of—but it was dead, it was my baby and we had made it, my girl and I, and it was dead. When I knew that it was dead, I took our crucifix off the wall and I spat on it and I threw it on the floor and my mother and my girl screamed and I went out. We buried it right away, the next day, and then I left my village and I came to this city where surely God has punished me for all my sins and for spitting on His holy Son, and where I will surely die. I do not think that I will ever see my village again.”**Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room,Vintage International Ebook Edition (New York, 2013), p. 139. Bold added.
This is the entirety of Giovanni’s story, delivered with syntax that flows, cracks, and fizzles around eleven mentions of death, dying, and burial. Giovanni is interned in and by his grief. His “room” is the affective space of mourning for his dead son and of losing the uncomplicated life of marriage, family, and faith he had in the village. His “room” is also the theological space of guilt for having acted out his anger so materially against God, and, finally, his “room” includes the physical spaces of entrapment—the “maid’s room” he shares with David, the upper room where Guillaume tries and finally succeeds in seducing him, and the prison cell.
Framing the story around Giovanni’s grief and around his love for and anger at God, re-frames David’s dismissive use of burial in the previous chapter:
“I’m talking about that room, that hideous room. Why have you buried yourself there so long?” (117, bold added)
as well as David’s anxious thoughts about Giovanni’s prison cell:
“I wonder about the size of Giovanni’s cell. I wonder if it is bigger than his room…” (112).
Giovanni does not lose faith in God, but he does lose the innocent assumption that the promises of God’s love guarantee life, health, and safety for self and kin. He remains buried in Paris not because his God is dead but because he feels his God has punished him for his anger and for his naivety that a life of faith could not include a stillborn son. David is for Giovanni the possibility of resurrection. The love he once had for God and girl might be redirected to David. Just before delivering the story of his dead son, Giovanni cries out to David that he “worked, to make this room for you” (137). It is only in giving himself over to his love for David, a love that insists on blossoming, that Giovanni begins to work on the room, to tear off the wallpaper, to push through the bricks in order to build a recessed bookcase. In telling David about weeping for his son, Giovanni interjects, “since I am with you, I cannot even cry as I cried then.”
But David, too, is interned; or, David is too interned. He repeatedly kicks Giovanni back into his rooms, into grief, internment, entrapment, even as the reader gets the sense that David’s kick is really aimed at himself. He is haunted by nightmares of his mother’s buried, rotting corpse. He is closeted by his disgust at his desire for men. He buries his memory of his first love, Joey. He constantly disparages Giovanni and his “filthy little room” (142).
The novel ends with potential redemption, in the fully Christian sense of the word, but only as torn fragments:
“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it” (168).
Here love’s insistence and love’s impossibility are sutured to a sacredness that is not trite or metaphorical. The double injunction (“must…must”) to believe in a release from his situation through “the heavy grace of God” is neither an obvious liberation into sexual freedom nor an attainment of clear conscience. But it does create an anchor in something like raw vulnerability, a tether that is not without pain, but is a way onward.