God, Giovanni's Room
is heart-breaking. I've been avoiding reviewing it, a bit, because it boils so much to the surface. No summary or review could do this book total justice. What Baldwin achieves is a desperate account of two gay-or-bisexual men struggling with their sexuality, their society, and most importantly their identities: identities which are at once masculine and yet deprived of that masculinity by their complicity with a society that doesn't understand them. Baldwin's artistry is formulating a novel about same-sex love that isn't an absurdly supportive utopia nor a bland coming-out story (see: all LGBT literature, most of which is aimed at young adults, and is stylistically reflective of that audience). Giovanni's Room
is the dusk to E.M. Forster's dawn in Maurice
Baldwin's real achievement is to make his story universal. The love between Giovanni and David is not a "homosexual love" or "same sex love" - it's just love, and Baldwin tells us that is all love needs to be to be real. Perhaps it is the effect of reading Barthes that I find myself disdainful towards the self-bulwarking of gay "otherness" - newspaper stories which send the overt message of "gays can do it too!" actually serve to reinforce that gays are something other than normal. Those stories do not change the perception that "gays cannot" but rather reinforce it by providing the exception to the rule. "A little 'confessed' evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil'
" By admitting the small prejudice, you allow the larger prejudices to grow disproportionately. Baldwin refuses to let his novel be about gay men in love, and instead makes it about two people in love. The closest comparison I can find in my literary repertory is The Age of Innocence
, which I think is an apt sister novel to Baldwin's. Restrained by a rigged society and his engagement to the fair Hella, David must give up his true passion for Giovanni. But it is so much the worse ending for Giovanni than Ellen Olenska: while Ellen lives a supposedly fulfilling life in Paris, Giovanni rapidly descends to corruption, self-loathing, and death:
"If you cannot love me, I will die. Before you came I wanted to die, I have told you many times. It is cruel to have made me want to live only to make my death more bloody."
David's role in Giovanni's life is not that of a passive lover, he and Giovanni share something real, a true kinship which David cannot feel for Hella and which Giovanni cannot bear to lose.
I find significance in the names of the three lovers, David, Hella, and Giovanni. David is from the Hebrew for beloved, and he is mutually beloved by Hella and Giovanni, though he largely resents those loves, first Hella's then Giovanni's. He feels as burdened by their loves as he does by the constraints of appearances and by society, and so he can never be truly happy, he can never truly relish in the love of another, because he cannot bear to the the object of affection, only the subject. David is profoundly selfish, and profoundly evasive to the attention he receives. He paradoxically wants love but cannot bear the responsibilities that go with it. In the Bible, David is much loved by God, but his sexual transgressions with Bathsheba bring hate and misfortune to him. Baldwin's David likewise betrays Hella, and the war between his compunction and his survival instinct ruin what life remains for him: Giovanni is gone, Hella is gone, what remains of his life is a homelessness (if, in fact, home is where the heart is) and an emptiness. He is inconsolably lost: he is haunted by the past that remains inside him, but also by the past which has escaped him:
People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen forget.
David manages to be doubly the madman.
Hella, derived from "Helga," though with the unavoidable echo of "Hell," means, ironically, "blessed." What is she blessed with? She is naive and insecure, she is alternatively too timid and too bold to find love with David. She chooses a long engagement and spends that time alone in Spain rather than in Paris with David. Hella reminds me very much of James' "innocents abroad" - and for that reason I find her being blessed only by way of her avoiding the ultimate corruption of David's black heart. Her blessing seems to her like a curse, but ultimately we feel she is far better off alone than she would be had she tied the know with our narrator, a man so confused and self-loathing he is incapable of loving anyone. For David, he knows that life with Hella would be a "Hell" to him, it would be to chain him to something less than love, something like friendship, but which would block him forever from his true passion. His love for Giovanni has made love for Hella impossible, and marriage to her would be a constant reminder of what he has lost.
Giovanni is a derivative from the Hebrew for "God's Gift" - and he is a blessing to David. Giovanni shows David what love is capable of being, what it means to find love and solace in another human on this Earth. But David cannot accept this gift. He grows hateful of it. It is not love or deference for Hella which makes David give up Giovanni, but his own blindness and self-hatred. He is not deserving of Giovanni's love, and it makes us hateful to ourselves, even the most selfish of us, to receive something in the name of our merits when we have not lived up to those merits. Those undeserved gifts are a constant reminder of our inadequacies and instead of raising us up they tear us asunder from the inside-out. Giovanni is the gift of real freedom, the freedom of choice - the gift that God bestowed on man. "For nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.
" David cannot bear the responsibility of choice: particularly the choice between a precarious bliss with Giovanni and an assured unhappiness with Hella.