Background Reading for My Novel, Part V: Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni's Room

A  book that always seems to appear on anyone’s list of great gay-themed fiction is James Baldwin’s modern-day classic Giovanni’s Room, his second novel, first published in 1956. The Publishing Triangle, the American association of the LGBT publishing industry, has ranked this as number 2 on its list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels, second only to Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. As part of my plan to read an abundance of quality fiction that is gay-themed or of a coming-of-age genre to assist me in own writing efforts, I read this book in early January.

This is the first work of Baldwin’s I have ever read & what an incredible story it is. The protagonist David, a young American living in Paris in the 1950’s, for his entire life has been in complete denial that he is gay. Only when he meets the handsome Italian bartender Giovanni, who works in a gay bar in Paris, does he begin his slow acceptance of his sexuality. Tragically David begins this acceptance of his natural desires & stops lying to himself and others only when it is too late for him to have a long-term relationship with the man he realizes will almost certainly be the great love of his life. You know from the very beginning of this book that there will be a tragic ending and yet I found myself hoping it would not end the way it did.

Being a gay African-American in the 1950’s, Baldwin himself suffered a double dose of persecution and hostility with widespread racism and homophobia permeating American culture for his generation. He emigrated from the U.S. to Paris in 1948 where he felt life would be easier and lived in Europe the rest of his life.

This was a quick but painful story to read; I polished it off in two evenings. The novel is incredibly well written & poignant. Giovanni’s Room was a major breakthrough in the publishing industry, helping to broaden public awareness and opinion on same-sex desires and relationships at least in the minds of the reading public. In light of the growing acceptance of marriage equality, Baldwin’s novel is a reminder of just how far the fight for LGBT rights & acceptance has come since Baldwin’s time. I plan to read more by this brilliant author.

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