James Baldwin’s _Giovanni’s Room_ (1956) is a challenging work of literature that explores a summer in the life of an expatriate named David who is living in Paris after World War II. David must come to terms with his own contradictory desires. David’s life in Paris in the 1950s--where homosexuality, while not illegal, is stigmatized--affords him a certain amount of space to discover what he wants and what he can accept. His dilemma, on the surface, can be stated simply: he is passionately in love with a young Italian man, Giovanni, yet he is also engaged to Hella, an American woman with whom he can live, on the surface, a ˝socially acceptable˝ life. On a deeper level, the novel is a study of the loneliness that comes with an absence of self-acceptance.
David shares many characteristics with Ernest Hemingway’s young, expatriate anti-hero Jake Barnes in _The Sun Also Rises_. In David, Baldwin has created a character who remains, ostensibly, detached from the world, which lends to his anti-hero a veneer of invincibility and hard assurance. There are a number of passages, especially intimate scenes, described from a mechanical third-person point of view. Giovanni at one point asks David, ˝Do you know how you feel? Do you feel? What do you feel?˝ to which David replies, ˝I feel nothing now, nothing.˝ David’s inability or unwillingness to be honest about his feelings, however, undermines his relationships with others and his sense of self, and ultimately leaves him profoundly alone.
The novel suggests, more hopefully, that the loss of innocence, if accepted, can be the beginning of a journey that leads to knowledge. The novel takes place as a flashback over the course of one evening in a rented house in the south of France before David will take a train back to Paris the next morning. Drinking by himself in the large, empty house and looking at a window, David recalls this statement from an acquaintance named Jacques: ˝Nobody can stay in the Garden of Eden.˝ This is an idea which frames the novel and perhaps offers David one way to understand his life.
A few final notes: The final paragraph of the novel is incredible, suggesting how actions, despite our most earnest hopes when we have erred, stay with us. All of the descriptions of Giovanni’s room are artistic and reflect David’s psychology. The novel portrays a cruel side of Paris (a characteristic, I think, which all large cities share to some degree), where lives on the margins are often bought and sold, and where there can be a calculated indifference to suffering.