Last summer, I wrote a post about what I saw to be a sad truth of the publishing industry: we would not likely see the Great Gay Novel anytime soon. “It’s a non-homosexual world, and the majority of those who are buying, selling, and reading literature are non-homosexual,” I wrote. “When a marginalized group of people are being packaged for a larger, mainstream audience, the representation is never truly going to be honest or believable to LGBT readers.” To be fair, that was before I read James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room earlier this month; now I’m willing to say it’s the only Great Gay Novel we’ll ever need.
Baldwin’s novel follows David, a young American man living in Paris, who recounts the story of his Italian lover, Giovanni, who is to be executed for murder the following morning. They meet in a gay bar where Giovanni works, his mysterious presence bringing in older customers like David’s friend’s Jacques, who are attracted to Giovanni’s sexual ambiguity. But the attraction between David and Giovanni is instant. The two begin an affair, and David moves into the titular room. It is only a matter of time, of course, before David, confused by his emotions for Giovanni and feeling stifled by the confines of the tiny flat, rushes from Giovanni’s arms and back into those of his fiancée, for whom he doesn’t have particularly strong feelings.
It’s complicated now to discuss David as a gay man. He never comes to his own conclusion, nor does Baldwin himself give us a definitive answer. Caught in between the titular character and his fiancée, Hella, David’s sexual and emotional yearnings are incredibly complex. He may be gay, he may be bisexual; all we know definitively is that David is unsure of who he is, and like many young people who are unable to figure themselves out, his indecision directly affects those around him, with incredibly tragic consequences.
That David is a young American who is closeted directly relates to Baldwin’s own experience as a young, gay, black man who felt too much like an outsider in his own country to remain there. As an expat, Baldwin gave himself the freedom to find himself as a person and as a writer. It’s interesting, of course, that David seems unable to truly discover who he is; rather, he aimlessly wanders France, falling in love with Hella, falling in love with Giovanni, and judging the actions of other men who seemingly have the ease he wishes for himself. And David is as self-aware as he is self-hating, knowing full well the harm he is causing himself: “People who believe they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.”
Yet David is unwilling to see how his emotions and actions affect others. After he leaves Giovanni without a word once Hella returns from traveling in Spain, he acts surprised when he runs into Giovanni again and sees how distraught he is. David begins to resent Giovanni for his ability to express himself emotionally; once time goes by and Giovanni goes through a downward spiral — ruining himself, effectively, by becoming a hustler and no longer carrying the mystique that originally attracted others to him — David begins to loathe him for his seemingly feminized characteristics. This is, of course, all born from David’s own self-loathing; he got too close to Giovanni and found himself losing control of his own steely emotions, and his only course of action was to bolt from the complications of the relationship.
This personality flaw could be a direct response to David’s own sexual confusion. In the context of the time, when society’s attitudes were much more strident against queerness, it makes complete sense that David was too scared to feel comfortable and relaxed with Giovanni. But even in a time when marriage equality is spreading across the US and being queer has less of a stigma, David still reads as a completely modern character. While we make progress as a community, queer people still find themselves without real role models for how our relationships should work, and that’s what makes Giovanni’s Room so powerful nearly 60 years after his publication.
As Jacques tells David, “Somebody… your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour — and in the oddest places! — for the lack of it.” It’s something we refuse to admit to ourselves very often; the quest for love is seemingly slight, even though companionship is a primary goal for nearly everyone — male, female, straight, or queer. We too frequently run from the prospect of real, serious love because it’s too scary and too real; the only constant, from the time before Baldwin published this book to today, is our tendency to selfishly deny our own desires and needs as much as we ignore those of others.