Monday, 27 October 2014

Wot I'm reading: (slightly) Gay Paree in the 1950s

JAMES BALDWIN: Giovanni's Room


In the beginning was the word, and the word came from Gore Vidal: The City and the Pillar (1948). In 1953 the word came from Mary Renault: The Charioteer. Then in 1956 came Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, recently given a new edition in the UK and the USA. These three are the 'pivotal' gay novels of the mid-20th-century, and I've now re-read two of them, with Mary Renault still to be revisited.

David, a blond all-American WASP with a mainly heterosexual past, falls in love with a gorgeous Italian barman. Their affair is brief and intense, doomed by David's inability to commit to a homosexual relationship. We know from the beginning that Giovanni is facing the guillotine but we don't know until nearer the end what crime he has been driven to and how much responsibility David bears for driving him to it.

This, because of its time, is a very 'respectable' read with no explicit sex scenes, but it resonates with a powerful emotional intensity. Visibly influenced by the great French writers - Proust, Gide, Genet - the writing is always elegant and occasionally a bit precious: "I felt myself flow towards him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up." In the last chapter, as the story moves from gay romance into melodrama, there are even a few faint echoes of Hemingway.

1950s Paris - "this old whore", Giovanni calls the city - is vividly evoked: her riverside promenades, her louche bars, her Bohemian artists, her sensation-seeking visitors. Beyond his major works which played a key role in the civil rights movement, Baldwin made a significant contribution to the 'canon' of expatriate life and gay fiction. Giovanni's Room may seem dated to the modern reader, but it remains a major milestone in the history of gay liberation.

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