James Baldwin is a literary legend. Few can speak as a person of color and queer activist. His novel “Giovanni’s Room,” written in 1956, is a testament to his intersectionality and unique insight.
In the novel we meet David, a man who is having a homoerotic affair in Paris. David disdains the random nature of relationships as he grapples with how people, even those he trusts, are volatile. The book routinely hits on the aspects of decision making and its double edge. There is a double edge in David–he leads a double life as a gay man and a straight man. The story takes place in both the past and present, with the majority of his interactions with his lover Giovanni told in flashback.
David feels old and the weight of his secret life ages him throughout the story. His shame coupled with Giovanni’s past of promiscuity and criminal behavior balances their relationship. Both are too afraid to move on and incapable of making a decision, yet they sign a silent agreement to be with one another. David comes from a fairly privileged upbringing while Giovanni was more of a derelict. The two rendezvous at a bar owned by a mutual friend named Guillaume. In time, their romance blossoms.
David’s fiancée, Hella, is more of a friend to him than a romantic partner. Though they share a strong bond, David views his fiancée and family as illusions. The crux of the story comes when Hella follows David and catches him romancing a sailor (not Giovanni). David confesses his exploits with Giovanni to Hella and she takes the news as betrayal. She reacts by condemning masculinity as a whole. She speaks to men’s indecisiveness, a trait David knows all too well.
Giovanni is accused of murdering Guillaume, a greedy and cantankerous character. When Giovanni is incarcerated, David travels to see him in Paris. His efforts are in vain though, as Giovanni already execution date had been set. He is to be beheaded by guillotine. David tears up the notice of Giovanni’s execution in one last renouncement of his past, as though he himself is executing Giovanni, and therefore a part of himself, from his memory.
Society pressures men to fill these masculine roles and it takes years to break the shackles of that influence. So much of queer life is conforming into an impossible mold. For queer men, specifically, the pull of masculinity is so strong that to accept any feminine role is to revoke that masculine privilege. David longed for the Rockwellian visage of normality; the family, the domesticity. Giovanni provided a version of that, but it did not fit David’s cultural values of heteronormativity.
Baldwin knew exactly the subversive notions he was delivering in his story. It’s not a forbidden romance cliché as much as it is an indictment of heteronormativity and homosexuality within one’s personal struggle with its realities. The character David is unknowingly queer. He could have been happily fluid or bisexual, but in many ways he was forced by society to keep his identities separate.
The book ends with this uncertainty. The tension is abundant and the lack of any resolution is essential to its prose. David represents many gay men who feel indecisive and beyond controlling their own lives.
“But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers, and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives you these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say yes to life,” This is my favorite quote from the book. It embodies the character struggle of real and fictionalized gay men. Saying yes to love, friendship and responsibility is fairly simple in contrast to saying yes to life. Saying yes to life means accepting the things you detest about yourself, the things you don’t want the world to see, the inalienable qualities of your very existence. Saying yes to life is coming out of the closet or choosing not to. It can be seen as a means of survival or an attempt at achieving personal happiness. Baldwin offers a tale of what happens when a man says yes to life, but a life far removed from who he is. What remains is the tragedy of indecisiveness and the roads not taken.
Intersection was created to uphold the rich tradition of altering tradition. Baldwin’s ideas might not seem as radical now, but for his time they were almost treasonous. Mccarthyism and censorship are echoes of an archaic time today because people like him reformed the zeitgeist. Baldwin said yes to life by reconstructing how life is depicted in literature. With that in mind, it’s Intersections goal not to define, but seek out those who defy definition.