James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: A Window is Also a Mirror

“That idea you had of me, who was she?

A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you.”

— Taylor Swift, All Too Well

Giovanni’s Room, this deceptively slim volume, isn’t difficult to read at all. In fact it is almost too easy— not so much to read but to fall into it and let it consume you whole. The only requirement for doing so seems to be the ability to bear up under the sheer and rocking weight of it that demands to unravel its reader— its captive— like an unwilling confession.

The protagonist’s David’s narrative about Giovanni, his male Italian lover then ex lover, and Hella, his female American fiancee then ex fiancee, is told in retrospect. David stands in a room in the South of France through the night as he recounts it, facing his reflection in the glass of a window. This image is apt: his narrative is a progressive revelation that his fluctuating love and hate for those around him are but byproducts of the way he projects his own admirable and despicable traits onto them: his sexuality, his neediness and ego; his frightening ability to moor and unmoor himself in and from imaginary harbours.

The many strands of Giovanni’s Room’s narrative can be unified into the main motifs of escapism, sex (the body), identity and truth— hiding from it or facing it, and the consequences of choosing either and both.

The novel opens with David’s self-introduction. Part of it goes: “My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past”. A central concern in Giovanni’s Room is that of the grotesque and the abject— the unacceptable parts within the glorified and therefore untruthful narratives of ourselves and the fragile, false and pitiful worlds we build and protect. The novel speaks of the attempt to abolish completely these ugly truths, and of the futility of this attempt. Baldwin reminds us that while this paradox is universal and inescapable, our lies nevertheless cause many deaths— emotional and physical; of the self and of others.

David grows up in the physical care of his father and his father’s sister Ellen. Emotionally, there exists also a third presence— his dead mother: “… no matter what was happening in that room, my mother was watching it. She looked out of the photograph frame… My father rarely spoke of her and when he did he covered, by some mysterious means, his face; he spoke of her only as my mother and, in fact, as he spoke of her, he might have been speaking of his own. Ellen spoke of my mother often, saying what a remarkable woman she had been… Years later, when I had become a man, I tried to get my father to talk about my mother. But Ellen was dead, he was about to marry again. He spoke of my mother then, as Ellen had spoken of her, and he might, indeed, have been speaking of Ellen”. David’s mother, in a photograph is in effect a blank canvas upon which they paint their own portraits and others’— Ellen sees in the photograph an opportunity to exalt herself; David’s father his own mother and then his sister. This projection—which always involves self-exposure— is also an attempt at self-erasure: David’s father covers his face. It is as if projection is a means of disowning shame and of being prideful without being sinful.

David does a similar thing when he rejects and despises the first boy he ever sleeps with, Joey: “that body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured until madness came , in which I would lose my manhood… I was ashamed. The very bed, in its sweet disorder, testified to vileness… I picked up a rougher older crowd and was very nasty  to Joey. The sadder this made him, the nastier I became”. David hates Joey’s innocent body—which awakens him to the fact within him that mars the picture of himself in his own head— and imbues it with shame, in an attempt to remove the fact and the shame from himself, and hates the body (Joey’s) in which he misguidedly thinks they now reside. His resulting cruelty suggests that such a disowning means that he also loses his heart, humanity and compassion. He does the same to Giovanni and to Hella later on. Following Joey, David begins to unpeel from his familial relationships, his sexuality and from meaning— “I wearied of the motion, wearied of the joyless seas of alcohol, wearied of the blunt, bluff, hearty and totally meaningless friendships, wearied of wandering through the forests of desperate women, wearied of the work, which fed me only in the most brutally literal sense.” He ends up boarding a boat for Paris, symbolic of the way he runs in circles within himself trying to escape himself, a running that comprises the constant internal motion and the inability to be at peace within. He crosses the ocean in an attempt to create physical distance from the inescapable: “Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly  does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced”.

In Paris, he reenacts the same drama, albeit with different actors and scripts, resulting in a devastating closing scene— David may or may not have caused Giovanni’s execution on death row. David finds with Giovanni a second chance at what he could have had with Joey, and the invitation to find his own heart again; to live in his truth instead. Jacques, an older acquaintance, tells him: “Come out, come out, wherever you are… Love him… love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? since you are both men and have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes and most of that… in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty— they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something that will make both of you better—forever— if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe… You play it safe long enough and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body forever and forever and forever”.

Nevertheless, David rejects this option, choosing instead to project and to retreat, growing to hate Giovanni and the room they live together in. His gradual change of heart is described: “Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface upon which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorised so many mornings, noons and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes became a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest a skull beneath. The sensual lips turned inward, busy with the sorrow overflowing from his heart. It became a stranger’s face— or it made me so guilty to look on him that I wished it were a stranger’s face. Not all my memorising had prepared me for the metamorphosis that my memorising had helped to bring about”.  It seems that David speaks not of Giovanni, but of himself, as he slowly transforms into a monster, wreaking hurt and destruction on Giovanni, Hella and peripheral lovers as he uses them as mooring posts and as pressure release valves in turn. Perhaps everything he writes of Giovanni and of Hella is in truth a confession.

The novel ends with both the long night and David’s reminiscences coming to a close. At the same time, in a prison in Paris, Giovanni is taken out of his cell to the guillotine. The physical destruction and disposal of the body into which David has attempted to purge so much of his own self-hatred and ugliness seems to free him. As the dawn breaks, his reflection in the mirror grows faint—he laughs at the sight, laughing for the first time that night. He then leaves the room, apparently now free of his ties to Giovanni, of their bond and of any responsibility it entails. As he walks to the bus stop, he shreds the bulletin informing him of Giovanni’s sentence. Again though, his attempt at escaping himself through another’s body is not quite successful: “Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of (the pieces of the bulletin) back on me”.

David’s mother’s photograph, a beautiful woman silent and blank, represents the perfect narrative; a false and neat fantasy that offers the viewer refuge from themselves. The problem with using other people as such a refuge is that once in a while, they talk back, sometimes in our own voice. And at night, in darkness, solitude and silence, a window becomes also a mirror instead of just an escape hatch, and we are forced once again to face ourselves.

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