Sunday, February 24, 2019

Classics Club Spin #19: Giovanni's Room

This man was so talented!
I felt compelled to read more of his work 
after reading and reviewing 
This book did not disappoint! 
Neither did The Fire Next Time 
which I read just before Giovanni's Room
My immediate reaction to reading this book:
"Wow... That was really depressing..."
However, depressing as I may have felt it to be, 
I quickly decided this was likely an accurate reflection 
of more than just one man's conundrum 
when faced with sexual attraction  
that did not appear to fit 
with the heterosexual norm of the time. 

This book begins with David looking out of the window of the house in southern France that he and Hella had rented. This is following Hella's departure and an official end to their engagement. He is wondering if he ever really truly loved Hella at all... Then we learn that he had been living with Giovanni. In his "room." It was literally only a room. And not even "big enough for two." In so many ways...

David muses that perhaps his desire to "moor" himself to Hella and her decision to accept his proposal while traveling in Spain was nothing more than a desire to dispense with their "freedom," which he believes to be "nothing more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom." This is a rather well-worn conundrum. How effective is a human at handling complete "freedom," as it were? And, really, is there such a thing? I believe that in reality all of us humans "conform" to many varied social and cultural expectations, else there would be complete chaos and no cooperation or coordination amongst us, wouldn't there?
But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers, and their friends,
anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away
and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life. (10)

In recalling his first sexual encounter with another man, David depicts his great shame at the "vileness" represented by the tangled sheet at the foot of Joey's bed. Then he fears losing his manhood if others find out and finally, of his own father, who has no one (David believes) but him in his life since David's mother had died. Though it's rather obvious that David's father is an alcoholic who more often than not drags himself home late at night 'drunk as a skunk', as they say. His father's sister, Ellen, with whom they live, tries to get his father to realize what affect his behaviors can have on David:

'I certainly don't care...what you do with yourself. It isn't you I'm worried about...
It's only that you're the only person who has any authority over David...
And he only listens to me when he thinks it pleases you. 
Do you really think it's a good idea for David to see you staggering home drunk all the time?
And don't fool yourself...that he doesn't know where you're coming from, 
don't think he doesn't know about your women!' (3)
Unfortunately, David had never even considered women in his father's life...until then. And forever after he could never see a woman without wondering if his father had been "interfering" with her... Their argument concluded,
'And listen,' said my father suddenly, from the middle of the staircase, 
in a voice which frightened me, 'all I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. 
And when I say a man, Ellen, I don't mean a Sunday School teacher.'
'A man,' said Ellen, shortly, 'is not the same thing as a bull. Good-night.'
'Good-night,' he said, after a moment. 
And I heard him stagger past my door.
From that time on, with the mysterious, cunning, and dreadful intensity of the very young, 
I despised my father and hated Ellen...I don't know why.
But it allowed all of Ellen's prophecies about me to come true. 
She had said that there would come a time when nothing and nobody would be able to rule me, 
not even my father. And that time certainly came. It was after Joey. (23-24)

David admits
The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel. I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, 
I could not even admit it to myself; and, while I never thought about it, it remained, 
nevertheless, at the bottom of my mind, as still and as awful, as a decomposing corpse. 
And it changed, it thickened, it soured the atmosphere of my mind. 
Soon it was I who came staggering home late at night, it was I who found Ellen waiting up for me, 
Ellen and I who wrangled night in and night out. (24-25)
This basically sets the tone for the whole novel, as David later becomes embroiled in an affair with Giovanni, while his fiance is traveling in Spain, trying to decide whether she wishes to accept David's proposal of marriage. 

I could not help but wonder what affect a more open society might have had on David. When he specifically mentions there is NO ONE with whom he can speak about his male-to-male encounter with Joey and his father's irresponsible and neglectful behaviors. Would counseling have helped David better cope with these experiences? I just can't imagine that having someone he could trust to confess these feelings to wouldn't have helped him and perhaps he could have better determined his place in this world. Am I being too hopeful? An eternal optimist? I don't know, but I can't think it would have made his situation and adult life any less than it was... He was a "lost soul," in my opinion. And I felt so very sorry for him at this point. To feel totally abandoned, on your own, with no confidante or other support...that can be disabling. 

We were not like father and son, my father sometimes proudly said, we were like buddies.
I think my father sometimes actually believed this. I never did. 
I did not want to be his buddy; I wanted to be his son. (26)
A friend and I were discussing this very issue just the other day. It is a line that can be very difficult to determine sometimes--as a parent you don't want to alienate your child, yet there are situations when you must assert yourself as the "parent" and risk that occurring. And there is no tried and true "rule" to follow, it is a crap-shoot at best, and each child and parent relationship is totally unique to those two individuals. There is nothing easy about it. But it is obvious that David's father was living his own life independent of any parental responsibility or positive role modeling. Therefore, David is adrift in life and never seems to achieve any sense of stability. David continues,
He wanted no distance between us; he wanted me to look on him as a man like myself. 
But I wanted the merciful distance of father and son, 
which would have permitted me to love him. (26)

David is hospitalized after causing a wreck in his car which was full of his friends. It is after his father's visit that he realizes his father is in no shape to be a true parent. David finally moves out on his own which creates enough distance 
...much easier to deal with him and he never had any reason to feel shut out of my life 
for I was always able, when talking about it, to tell him what he wished to hear. 
And we got on quite well, really, for the vision I gave my father of my life 
was exactly the vision in which I myself most desperately needed to believe. (30)

It is at this point in the book that Baldwin waxes philosophical in a way I believe only he can/could do...
...I am--or I was--one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, 
on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. 
This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself.
People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny 
can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. (30)
As he continues within that long paragraph I realize that I have lived in exactly that same self-deception in adulthood. I convinced myself at 10 years into my first marriage that I could do this. I could manage to withstand a spouse who refused to work for consistent income and spent every evening drunk, to raise my sons in a home where I could provide a counter-influence as a responsible hard-working adult. I managed to convince myself I had done exactly that for another 12 years, but at what cost to myself. For those 12 years I was rarely ever "happy" as a person, but I managed to survive, as did my sons. There was much chaos and some tragedy, but I don't know that our lives would have ended any better if I had left at that time and immersed us into dire poverty. If only I'd had financial security, then I could have established a single-parent household and provided a relatively secure future for my children. But I didn't have any money to fall back on and had to make the best decisions I could at the time. But yes, it did definitely require me to become a "specialist in self-deception." I had to continually convince myself this was the best decision of all alternatives. I could indeed do this... Baldwin is so very intellectual, yet so very perceptive and emotionally aware. And...he could put all that into words that resonate so deeply and clearly, even 63 years later!

As I read, I kept reminding myself that this book was first published in 1956!! Amazing! I would think Doubleday & Company took quite a risk in releasing this book at that period of time in the US. The world, especially in the US was decidedly NOT open to such sexuality! At least not in my part of the world, the US midwest. 

David describes how his life continued in much the same pattern, he would convince himself he could be heterosexual until he found himself attracted to and in bed with another male which occurred intermittently throughout his life. Even while in the army, with another soldier who was eventually court-martialed out for his sexuality. It is when Giovanni enters his life that he finally submits to a full-on relationship with another man...

The room was small, I only made out the outlines of clutter and disorder, 
there was the smell of the alcohol he burned in his stove. He locked the door behind us, 
and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other--
with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. 
I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get away from here, I am lost. 
But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; 
soon it was too late to do anything but moan. (86)
What struck me the strongest was the immediate immersion of David into Giovanni's sub-culture of homosexuality. As if there is a separate world within society-at-large to which "these people" are relegated. And I assume that is true. One of my cousins lived in just such a world and I did somewhat understand that his sexuality plunged him into a "sub-culture," a world in which I could never be a part. And that is just so sad, in my opinion, because it automatically creates separation and that sense of social isolation--having no one in whom you can confide or even just honestly share your thoughts and feelings, let alone life experiences. He eventually turned to drugs and alcohol to escape or numb himself to the reality of his life and died young. Although his family has never, to my knowledge, honored or publicly acknowledged his death and life, I think of him each and every day, concentrating on the positive memories. That is my homage to him, and hopefully, thereby to all who are similarly marginalized by our society. 

...Giovanni had lost his job and we walked around in the evenings. Those evenings were bitter.
Giovanni knew that I was going to leave him, but he did not dare accuse me for fear of being corroborated. I did not dare to tell him. Hella was on her way back from Spain 
and my father had agreed to send me money, which I was not going to use to help Giovanni, 
who had done so much to help me. I was going to use it to escape his room. (100)
I believe Giovanni did love David, and perhaps too much. Giovanni struck me as a "clinger," someone who wants one person to provide him/her with everything necessary in their life, to be with them every second possible and have no separate life experiences--"smothering," in a word. This made Giovanni quite vulnerable, as David became all too aware. Though David realized he must leave in order to 'save himself,' as it were. Added to this was the claustrophobic atmosphere created by "the room," which Baldwin does an excellent job of describing to make the reader feel the cloistered atmosphere contained therein. 

David takes the coward's way out, just simply leaving Giovanni, with no forewarning, effectively abandoning him. (I admit I hated him for doing that to Giovanni. Though in a demented way, I could kinda understand...) In the aftermath, Giovanni becomes partner to a "sugar daddy" and eventually is convicted of killing a man and is sentenced to death. Once Hella returns to France from Spain, David tries to "find [his] way in her again, as though she were a familiar,  darken'd room in which I fumbled to find the light." Ah, what great literary talent! Referring back to "that room" but in the context of trying to re-establish a heterosexual relationship with Hella! Their first evening upon being reunited in Paris,
I held her close and kissed her, closing my eyes. 
Everything was as it had been between us, and at the same time everything was different. 
I told myself I would not think about Giovanni yet, I would not worry about him yet;
for tonight, anyway, Hella and I should be together with nothing to divide us. 
Still, I knew very well that this was not really possible: he had already divided us. 
I tried not to think of him sitting alone in that room, wondering why I stayed away so long. (160)
Ah, it would seem David's ability at self-delusion has finally self-destructed...

It is in David's last encounter with Giovanni that his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with the reality of his life expresses itself as he accuses Giovanni of being afraid to "go after a woman":
[Giovanni] was pale. 'You are the one who keeps talking about what I want. 
But I have only been talking about who I want.'
'But I'm a man, [David] cried, 'a man! What do you think can happen between us?'
'You know very well,' said Giovanni slowly, 'what can happen between us. 
It is for that reason you are leaving me...If I could make you stay, I would.' (189)
I felt so very sorry for Giovanni at this point. While I had some insight into David's decision, I still felt sympathy for Giovanni--he was in love! That is all he knew! And although David did love him, he realized, for a myriad of reasons, he was unable to commit to their relationship long-term. Always sad for one person to be totally committed and the other is unable to reciprocate those feelings... And then, David is similarly unable to commit to Hella, in that she senses his reticence in their own relationship which now exists, and she is unable to accept his distance and their lack of sincere spontaneous interaction. 

I particularly appreciated Baldwin's emphasis on Guillarme, the murdered man, being mythologized in the aftermath of his death, mainly owing to the fact that his family once held an immense fortune and well-known history of affluence. Other homosexual males living in the same area were totally shunned by society, as was he in his lifetime. Amazing what a difference 'social status' can make, isn't it?

As mentioned above, I initially thought this was a depressing read, but then realized it was simply a description of life for those who are marginalized and forced to try to reconcile their feelings in accordance with society's mores and norms, and that more often than not, this is impossible for individuals to accomplish successfully. is just so sad...

Have you read this novel?
Have you ever wondered about it?
I would strongly recommend that you experience it for yourself. 
I found it to be informative and enlightening in a very personal way.
I could easily connect certain aspects of David's relationships to my own.

Happy reading!

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