Sunday, November 20, 2016

A classic turns 60: Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

...Giovanni’s Room is one of Baldwin’s only fictional works – the other is a very short story – in which all of the characters are white. He said in interviews that he didn’t feel he could tackle at one time the dual agonies of racism and hatred of gay people, but in fact race runs throughout the book, not least in this horrifying image, which is radioactive with the iconography of American racism. Homosexuality is portrayed in racial terms repeatedly in Giovanni’s Room. Joey, the childhood friend with whom David spent one passionate night, is described repeatedly as “brown” and “dark”. Giovanni himself is “dark and leonine”; more pointedly, he’s imagined in this first scene as standing “on an auction block”. Race is an imaginary category, under constant negotiation; it’s worth remembering that in America, not long before Giovanni’s Room, Italians and other southern Europeans were viewed as non-white. 
America is among the novel’s deepest preoccupations, and this too is something that struck me in a new way as I reread Baldwin’s novel after having written my own. Maybe it’s true that all books about Americans abroad are finally books about America; certainly it’s the deep subject of Henry James’s novels, maybe particularly in The Ambassadors, which was Baldwin’s favourite. I think it’s the profoundest experience of living abroad when one discovers, maybe for the first time, what home means. Or what home meant, since the meaning seems so much to depend on its loss. “You don’t have a home until you leave it,” Giovanni tells David, “and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”

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