Inside Giovanni's Room
Rarely in my reading life, a book makes itself brilliant in the last pages. James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room works that way. It dazzles in its last chapters not only because the characters come to their final places (even though we know from the beginning about the fate of Giovanni), but because it is done with originality and even tenderness for humanity, for love, for the tragic fates of gay men in 1950s Parisian society.
The book is layered, complex, and filled with meditations on what it means to be a man, an American, a gay man, an expat, and in the final chapters, how being a woman is defined in relation to maleness and sexuality. This is where I heard Baldwin's revolutionary voice pure as a crystal bell. Written in the 1950s, Baldwin had left behind racism in the U.S. and lives in Paris like the main character, David. Who but a gay, Black expat - who but Baldwin? - would, at a crucial moment in a novel that is populated by men's bodies, desires, and emotions, eloquently and with complexity address feminist displacement?
This is a book I read most of thinking, "OK. I'm still reading, but not sure I like it," and finished on the porch with the first rainy sky of spring moving in thinking, "Oh! Oh! I get it!" I love a book made so carefully that it's easy to look back to the place where a theme or question or idea was first explored without a lot of labor because the story moves crisply about its pattern. A great mind is at work inside Giovanni's Room.