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James Baldwin: Giovanni’s Room

David is a white American who had been brought up by his father (his mother died when he was five), who wants him to be tough and manly. He travels to Europe. His girlfriend, Hella, whom he meets in France and to whom he proposes, goes off to Spain to think about his offer, leaving him in France. However, David has homosexual feelings and has tried to repress the feelings he had for a boy back home. David, left alone in Paris, associates with gays and meets a handsome Italian barman, Giovanni. David falls in love with Giovanni and they have an affair, despite David’s feelings of guilt. When Hella returns, David abandons Giovanni and convinces himself that Hella is the one for him. David and Giovanni have one last fling before Giovanni, now jobless, kills the aristocratic gay, Guillaume, in a fit of rage. David and Hella split up when she finds him with another gay lover and David is left to think about his one true love, the day Giovanni is set to be guillotined.

Though the book is clearly much more than just a gay novel, it has been heralded by the gay movement. Baldwin is, of course, also exploring issues about American and European values (Henry James who explored this issue, though of course, in a very different way, was one of Baldwin’s influences). More particularly, he is concerned about how people can be caught in the cultural stereotypes their society imposes on them, whether it is African-Americans or, in this case, gays. It didn’t quite work for me but it is still a fine novel.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Dial Press