James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a mainstay on lists of LGBTQ classics. In this introduction from the new Everyman edition, Colm Tóibín unravels the intimately confessional style that draws this beautiful book into so many readers’ hearts
In November 1948 at the age of twenty-four, James Baldwin moved to Paris where he would soon meet and fall in love with a young Swiss, Lucien Happersberger. In the winter of 1951–2, while staying in Switzerland with Happersberger, Baldwin completed his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was published early in 1953. Over the next two years, living mainly in France, he worked on his second novel, Giovanni’s Room.
Some of the atmosphere in Giovanni’s Room came from close observation and experience, as Baldwin made clear in an interview in 1980. He spoke of using some of the people he met: ‘‘We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And two or three days later I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined . . . I saw him in the headlines, which reminded me that I was already working on him without knowing it.’’
Giovanni’s Room begins in a tone that is grave, almost stately. The words in the opening sentences do not have the hushed tone of guilt or confession, which will come later, as much as a ring of certainty, a sense of finality. The voice is not whispering, but speaking as though to a large audience. The tone is almost theatrical, mixing the commanding voice of a single actor on stage with precise stage directions. After the first sentence, ‘‘I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life,’’ it is easy to imagine the actor preparing to turn to face the audience. The next sentence, ‘‘I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow,’’ reads like a stage direction. The sentence after that, however, in a more minor key, is a direction to the actor himself: ‘‘I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane.’’ By the end of the paragraph as the actor explains about his ancestors, who ‘‘conquered a continent,’’ he is facing the audience, who will know that he is white and in full possession of the text’s own grave cadences.
Even though Baldwin did not acknowledge his debt to Hemingway, it is clear that from the second page of the book, when the narrator, David, describes meeting his girlfriend, Hella, using simple words and hypnotic repetitions to evoke a time of easy and carefree pleasures, Hemingway’s shadow has been cast over the prose. But there are other shadows too, competing ones, when the tone of voice moves away from remembering pleasure to a sound that is regretful, weary, rueful, wise. David is ready to judge himself, and ready also to use these pages not merely to explain or dramatize but to expiate his sins, as much as he can, and repent, as much as he can.
Go Tell It on the Mountain dealt with a child preacher; in Giovanni’s Room there is also a religious sense, an aura of moral urgency. The speaker is both performing for us and preaching to himself; he is using his eloquent voice to let himself know what he did. The tone is directed inward, but there is a feeling too that David is almost relishing the sound he makes, his own sweet confessional rhetoric. He is an actor both whispering and performing.
As the narrative progresses, and David tells of a boyhood affair, the prose becomes more dense, with more adjectives and adverbs, and longer sentences. The simplicity of setting the scene has been replaced now by the more complex music of remembering, conjuring up the context in which everything began to unfold. Slowly, this music grows in intensity until it has echoes of the language of Christian preaching or the tones of the Old Testament: ‘‘The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid.’’ Or: ‘‘The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness.’’
Baldwin’s creation of a confessional style, filled with sudden flourishes and painful realizations, has something in common with other texts where the narrator has been wounded or has caused pain and the motives are gnarled and require careful explanation and shifts of emotional gear in a time that passes for tranquility. David’s self-lacerating tone is close, for example, to that of Oscar Wilde in De Profundis, as Wilde in prison is trying to reconstruct what happened to him and his lover, what illusions, self-delusions, and failures of imagination were in place to wreak such havoc in their lives. Just as Wilde will compare himself to Christ in his suffering, David in Giovanni’s Room will say, ‘‘Judas and the Savior had met in me.’’
Baldwin’s book is also close to Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier in the slow and tortuous going over of events in the past in order to come to some understanding of sexual treachery. This is not to suggest that Baldwin was influenced by these other texts, or that he even read them, but rather that the confession form itself, in a time when so much about sex and sexual motive was kept dark and hidden, can have a special and searing intensity. It is especially open to a heightened tone, the tone of self-awareness and self-knowledge being forced on to the page as though after a struggle, the tone of things being said for the very first time.
Baldwin, in this novel, made clear that he could work wonders with the light and shade of intimacy, that he could move easily and effortlessly into a whispered prose, into moments where David is frightened into sharp wisdom, and then, with equal facility, evoke the excitement of a crowded bar filled with sexual expectation. He could enact in his sentences the movement from innocence to danger, the shift from the mundane to something ominous. For example, in the bar where David will meet Giovanni: ‘‘There were the usual paunchy, bespectacled gentlemen with avid, sometimes despairing eyes, the usual, knife-blade lean, tight-trousered boys. One could never be sure, as concerns these latter, whether they were after money or blood or love.’’ This last sentence has some of the lovely, lazy sound of a blues song, or a smoldering, exquisite, slow jazz riff. It is filled with both irony and sadness, but it also indicates the mixtures that will come to dictate the destruction of at least two of the characters in the novel.
The tone continues to shift back and forth from pure eloquence to soaring sequences to simple description. As David and Giovanni meet, one can see the influence of Hemingway once more: ‘‘I watched him as he moved. And then I watched their faces, watching him. And then I was afraid. I knew that they were watching, had been watching both of us. They knew that they had witnessed a beginning and now they would not cease to watch until they saw the end. It had taken some time but the tables had been turned; now I was in the zoo, and they were watching.’’
But he can follow this soon with passages that are pure Baldwin, that have a gorgeous, fearless sound, tempered by dark knowledge and pain, that makes it clear that Baldwin was ready to become the greatest American prose stylist of his generation, such as when, at the end of the chapter, the memory of Giovanni is evoked: ‘‘Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth’s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming—God grant me the grace to live them—in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night’s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.’’