In the darkness of Giovanni's Room the reader comes across not only a love affair that blossoms between two people but also a story that defies preconceptions. James Baldwin's 1957 novel proved to be controversial for various reasons: the main characters are two white men; it takes place in Paris, far away from the social upheaval the US was undergoing at the time. And finally it places the theme of homosexuality, still a taboo subject in most black literature, at the heart of the narrative.
Baldwin's standing as a writer did not suffer too much as he had already published a very successful novel (Go Tell it On the Mountain) and a trail-blazing collection of essays, Native Son. Therefore Giovanni's Room was seen mainly as an exploration into themes like homosexual love, misogyny and the cultural gap between nations.
David's confusion renders the novel its tragic tone. In trying to commit to his girlfriend and attempting to keep Giovanni, David leads the latter towards his tragic fate. Critics have always been divided as to whether the outcome of the affair was intended as punishment for Giovanni, the only one of the two men who wants to take their relationship further.
In the same way that David in the novel is faced with the choice between his American fiancée and his European boyfriend, Baldwin, too, grappled with alienation from the culture whence he came. His intention was to be acknowledged simply as a writer, yet the pervasive racism in the United States hindered those ambitions. Hence Giovanni's Room importance in freeing the young Baldwin and allowing him to wander through territories that most black writers at that time would have eschewed.
This review appeared first on Catch a Vibe, a new online alternative guide to black culture in London.