A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I took part in a book pyramid scheme recently. It was a send-it-back, upside-down-tree-connections thing, running through Facebook. My friend D recruited me, so I sent a book to her friend R, who had recruited her. In the meantime, I recruited my friends J and C, and about four others, who each sent a book to D. They, in the meantime, have recruited their own sets of friends, who have sent me a book each. I’ve had four so far, and only one is a book I already own. So you only send one book, and the more people you can recruit, the more books (in theory) get sent to you. I do wonder what happens at the bottom layer of recruits: it’s a good thing it’s only a book, and not wads of cash.
So it’s been delightful receiving books from strangers in the post. I hadn’t read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, but I knew about it, whereas Andrea, who sent it to me, has read it four times, and hopes very much that I will enjoy it as much as her. Well, not so much. It is a powerful and compelling novel, and the characters have absolutely stayed in my mind. The story is told obliquely and in flashback, so we start very near the end, and follow the protagonist’s ruminations about all the people he has let down, betrayed, lost and made miserable. It’s set (I think) in the 1950s, but could so easily have been the 1920s as told by Ernest Hemingway. There is constant drinking and very little enjoyment taken in the drink or in anything else. There are joyless bars in Paris, there are posturing and hissing aggressive people, and there is no loyalty, no pleasure, no passion that forgets the self and thinks only of the other. There is no love, though the characters all pursue it, and talk about it, and tell each other they love each other. Giovanni is the most loving and selfless of them all, and he is the one most crushed and betrayed. God, it’s miserable.
David is an American in Paris, who has asked his girlfriend Hella to marry him, and she’s gone travelling in Spain alone to think about it. In the meantime, he hangs out with his rich and unpleasant friend Jacques in Guillaume’s gay bar, and falls in love with Giovanni, an Italian barman whom everyone on the gay scene desires because he is new and fascinating and very beautiful. Giovanni falls in love with David, and Hella returns. That’s all you need to know.
David is a monstrously egotistical person, incapable of making a decision, content to take money from his father and from Jacques without ever giving them what they want: his father wants his son to return home and work, Jacques wants sex and favours. David, unlike a Hemingway character, doesn’t even have the grace to have a profession or vocation that he doesn’t pursue: he does sweet FA to justify or perpetuate his existence, and I want to smack his face. (Sorry about the Calvinist outbreak.)
I didn’t hate this novel. I’m very impressed by its technical achievement, its grace and passion, and Baldwin’s astonishing storytelling. David’s huge problem is that, as you’ll have spotted, he desires both men and women, and is angry and confused about why his desire for sailors is more satisfying than anything he does with Hella. In the 1950s this was a terrible problem, even in forgiving, licentious Paris. Giovanni’s hand-to-mouth existence and his helpless reliance on the predatory gay scene, dominated by rich men with whom he does not want to have sex, is desperately sad. Hella is an unhappy piece of flotsam in this unwelcoming sea of men who desire each other and want nothing from her but biological accommodation. I did not hate this novel at all: I’m glad to have read it, and I need now to read more James Baldwin. But I did not enjoy it.
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Penguin’s Great Lovers series, ISBN 978 0 141 03294 8, £4.99
Kate writes about books that move her deeply at katemacdonald.net