James Baldwin in Paris: On the Virtuosic Shame of Giovanni’s Room

"If France proffered him love, it also bathed him in a peculiar shade of loneliness."

Early in Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s seminal novelistic exploration of queerness, the narrator, David, remembers the first time he held another man’s body close to his own. He has spent a day with his friend Joey in Brooklyn, astonished at “how good I felt . . . how fond of Joey.” Tired, they decide to spend the night in Joey’s apartment, but Joey finds himself too entranced by his friend’s form in the shadowy room to sleep. When he makes awkward conversation about still being up because a bedbug bit him, David and Joey move closer and closer together, until they are cuddling and kissing. The experience shocks David. “It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find,” he reflects. The comparison is remarkable; his moments of intimacy with Joey are at once new and old, new in that he is a virgin to this kind of experience, and old because he has been feeling a quiet thrumming of desire all day with Joey, even if he didn’t fully understand the words of that soft electric language inside him. It is a beautiful “miracle” of a moment.

But the bird is also “doomed,” because, as David quickly realizes, he is as attracted to Joey’s body as he is terrified of its maleness. Joey is a boy, he thinks with epiphanic horror the morning after while his partner for the night is still asleep. He then shifts into a subterranean metaphor he will return to often throughout the book. Joey’s “body,” David muses, “suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured until madness came, in which I would lose my manhood . . . A cavern,” he continued, “ opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern.”

Later, David heads to Paris with his fiancée, and, while she is away, he meets a number of queer men—most notably the eponymous Giovanni, who he decides to room with and who he seems to fall for; Giovanni certainly falls for him. When his fiancée returns, David abandons Giovanni, even as he knows he wants to be with a man. In his betrayed despair, Giovanni loses his job, and then—after his former employer, Guillaume, makes him have sex to regain his job and taunts him—he kills Guillaume. Giovanni goes to jail and is executed, and David, who has finally been abandoned himself by his fiancée after she caught him with a bunch of queer sailors he had unceremoniously gone off to find, feels swallowed up again by this cavern.

He hates himself, this searing prototype of the self-loathing queer person, yet no matter how he tries, he cannot escape from that simplest and most difficult of pursuers: his own desire.

*

For Baldwin, this image of an enveloping cave of the forbidden held great meaning. In 1948, with 40 dollars in his pocket, Baldwin had left New York for Paris, frustrated by the emotional claustrophobia he felt in the American metropolis as a young black man coming to terms with being gay. Emma Berdis Jones, his mother, had left Baldwin’s biological father because of the latter’s drug abuse; Baldwin grew up in Harlem under the stern eye of his stepfather instead, a Baptist preacher who was, like the narrator of Giovanni’s Room, named David. His stepfather had plans for his new son, and Baldwin soon learnt that his stepdad wished him to follow in his footsteps as a preacher. He felt targeted, so he found solace in the places he could exist alone, libraries in particular.

Despite the pelagic weight of his stepfather’s expectations, Baldwin found temporary relief behind the pulpit, attempting to follow the threads of Christianity and his stepfather’s desires to a place, finally, where he could feel comfortable. He trained to become a preacher, cementing the biblical cadence that would characterize his writing for the rest of his life.

He had entered the cavern—and, to his surprise, it was large and well-lit, warm with the glow of candles and lamps.

But the Baptist Church and, later, the Methodism he converted to, both seemed hollow, hypocritical, absurd, and racist, just as New York itself, so often imagined even in its early days as a relative bastion of racial equality, was filled with racial injustice. He abandoned his religious beliefs around the same time he was attempting to come to terms with his sexuality. Soon, New York itself was too much for him to bear, and he decided to leave; perhaps an ocean away, he would find a clearer compass of the self. But, of course, it was a journey inward, as well, a spelunking into a cavernous dark. He did not specially choose France; as he remarked on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, “I didn’t care where I went. I might have gone to Hong Kong, I might have gone to Timbuktu. I ended up in Paris… on the theory that nothing worse could happen to me there than had already happened to me [in America].”

In France, he discovered a new world. There was racism and homophobia, but they felt lighter, less overwhelming, than in America. It seemed less extraordinary and subversive for black and white people to walk together, even hold hands or more, in public. He soon latched onto a bisexual white Swiss artist, Lucien Happersburger, who helped solidify Baldwin’s realization that he was attracted to other men. Happersburger was 17 and his skin was far lighter than Baldwin’s, but that didn’t matter; in this world, Baldwin could ease up, somewhat, and seek out love. “In Paris, I didn’t feel socially attacked, but relaxed, and that allowed me to be loved,” he reflected.

Brimming with a new energy, Baldwin began to write the books that would become his first novels, including Giovanni’s Room, and he forged a lifelong relationship with France itself, which would become his home for decades to come. He had entered the cavern—and, to his surprise, it was large and well-lit, warm with the glow of candles and lamps. The cavern was allure itself, dark and stark from the outside, comfortable and cozy within, at least for a bit. And to enter that maw was more than just to accept his queerness. It was to reject the narrowness of his father’s dreams, the claustrophobia of his childhood. He still grappled with layers of shame, yet even that was a little more bearable there.

France was not perfect. He still had to be wary of the police assuming he was more capable of criminality by virtue of being black, American, and poor, amongst other things, as when the cops arrested him for “stealing” a bedsheet from a hotel room in 1949—despite the fact that an American friend of Baldwin’s had, in fact, brought the sheet himself to Baldwin’s room from another hotel and left it there. Baldwin was jailed, brought to court, and then, by luck, acquitted, but when he returned to his room, he was told to pay immediately or vacate the premises. It seemed a final, cruel slap in the face. In his shame and despair, he took a sheet from the bed—the symbolism doubtless intentional—and attempted to hang himself from an overhead pipe, one of Baldwin’s many-but-little-discussed suicide attempts. By chance, the pipe burst. One of our greatest writers was saved, it turned out, by the shoddiness of his Parisian lodging.

Baldwin would continually pursue unavailable or only partly-reciprocating males.

Despite this early incident, France seemed somewhat progressive in comparison to the prejudice and puritanism of America. Baldwin fell back into a stride of sorts. He began aiming to write fiction as a writer, not a “pamphleteer” (as he pejoratively imagined Richard Wright), and he was nurtured, too, by the idea that he had found a romantic partner.

Unfortunately, Happersburger wasn’t entirely available emotionally. Baldwin suspected this was partly due to the Swiss painter being more attracted to women; he also blamed himself, due to his lifelong belief that he was hideous. His stepfather had long ridiculed his “frog eyes” and gone so far as to call Baldwin the ugliest boy he had ever seen. “I had absolutely no reason to doubt him,” Baldwin wrote of this excoriation in The Devil Finds Work. “This judgment was to have a terrifying effect on my life.” Others casually repeated his stepfather’s sentiments, and he remained convinced of his outer grotesqueness until late into life. “[B]lack, and short, and ugly, and pop-eyed, and you think maybe you’re homosexual,” he described the sources of his anguish in a 1974 interview with Hugh Hebert. (I’ve always thought, contrarily, that Baldwin possesses a striking androgynous beauty in some photos.)

Baldwin would continually pursue unavailable or only partly-reciprocating males: straight men, queer guys who did not fully want him, a bisexual painter married to a woman. If France proffered him love, it also bathed him in a peculiar shade of loneliness he understood, given the solitude he had sought as a boy and the pervading isolation created by American anti-blackness. Happersburger would never fully leave Baldwin—he was by his lover’s side even when Baldwin was near death in Saint-Paul de Vence, his adopted home in southern France—but Baldwin’s amative experiences made him wonder, often, about his desirability.

Perhaps because of all this, Baldwin decided to make the narrator of Giovanni’s Room bisexual and incompletely available. In David’s case, shame over his queerness paralyzes him into unavailability. David, indeed, is one of the most remarkable self-denying, self-hating gay characters in literature, a man who transforms the queerness he cannot accept into a toxic misogyny. Projecting his self-loathing onto a distaff target, David constantly berates women, lies to his fiancée, and even uses a sad girl one afternoon as nothing more than a vessel for sex to “prove” to himself that he is able to have intercourse with women, with almost no concern for how the girl will feel about being used in this way. He is a paradigm of toxicity and repression.

Shame and misogyny are the deep rivers that run through the landscape of Giovanni’s Room, crisscrossing and joining early on. David especially despises effeminacy in men—again, largely out of his paranoid fear of being outed as gay. In one scene, he becomes paranoid that a stranger passing by might have thought him effete. Instead, he wishes to be like a sailor he witnesses one day, who appears almost as a divine vision to him of masculinity. It is no coincidence that he seeks out sailors near the end; they are the gay, more macho crowd he has been looking for, who may be queer, but can, perhaps, “pass” as straight. David is unable to be attracted solely to women, and abhors this; therefore, he decides, with perverse logic, that he must abominate anything related to femininity as an idea. His misogyny is a sad expression of his already frustrating internalized homophobia.

His most potent venom is reserved for trans and gender-non-conforming people. In a passage that could have been lifted from Heart of Darkness, he describes a person who may be a trans woman as an “it,” and then muses that “[p]eople said that he was very nice, but I confess that his utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.” It is a passage I have written about many times, Conradian in its contemptible, cosmic horror that people who seem different from us may still, in fact, be human.

Living as ourselves, Baldwin suggests, is no guarantee of rejecting loneliness; denying who we are is to make us feel lonely even when we believe we are surrounded by friends.

David has a simplistic notion of masculinity: it must be heteronormative, unquestionably so. Queerness, he fears, is tantamount to emasculation. The braiding of the black cave image and emasculation harkens to old colonialist imagery that associated black bodies with heightened sexuality, a sexuality that could only be brought down to size by the colonists through the rape or castration of black slaves; to walk through that black maw is to enter a sexual world that will lead, in David’s irrational mindset, to a loss of his manhood, both physically and socially. Yet David sees his future in that deep, mythic cave, like a glimpse into some seer’s scrying pool; the cave, his version of the closet, is the world he cannot help inhabiting, because it is him. For those of us who live in the closet, the closet becomes part of us, like Kobo Abé’s absurd men who live in boxes in The Box Man—except the closet, unlike those boxes, always hurts, stifles, asphyxiates us.

Baldwin reveals that Giovanni once had a child with a woman back in Italy, but the baby did not survive its birth. That Giovanni’s child was stillborn echoes a Baldwinian theme of uniting death and childhood. At the end of his 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, the narrator, Tish, gives birth, and her child “cries and cries . . . like it means to wake the dead,” a phrasing that links new life with those long laid to rest. This sepulchral association recalls Baldwin’s own painful upbringing under the eye of a cold, pachydermatous stepfather. “I had no childhood. I was born dead,” Baldwin would tell a French journalist in 1974. In Baldwin, the children may as well be ghost as flesh.

Like many queer readers, I remember my first time with Giovanni’s Room in almost sacred terms. It was daring, incredible, uninhibited. The moments where Baldwin’s language seems as virtuoso-like as Paganini on a violin were mind-blowing. On rereading the novel now, though, I feel something quite different. It is so heavy with shame that it hurts. Baldwin’s book is less an affirmation of queerness than an exploration of how much it aches to deny who and what you are and the way we damage both ourselves and our relationships with others when we try to fit parochial societal norms that don’t define us. And it shows, too, as the resonant final image suggests of the scraps of a torn-up letter from Jacques being blown back onto David, how we can never fully escape our pasts, no matter how we try in our present. Living as ourselves, Baldwin suggests, is no guarantee of rejecting loneliness; denying who we are is to make us feel lonely even when we believe we are surrounded by friends.

Baldwin has captured his own early lifetime of shame and filtered it through the alembic of David’s own cave-journey. It is a solid shame, thick, heavy, cold, enveloping like a darkening star. Rereading it, I feel Baldwin’s agony, and—for all the novel’s beauty and bravery in depicting queer love in an era when doing so was risky and rare—it is almost unbearable in its deep-blue gravity.

Giovanni’s Room remains a stunning evocation of how shame persists, paralyzes, and, ultimately, destroys us.

*

When Baldwin tried to publish Giovanni’s Room, he met pushback. His publisher, Knopf, wanted a book about African-American life in Harlem, like his earlier novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain; Baldwin had been pigeonholed not simply as a black American writer, but a specific version thereof. That he was writing a book about white queer men in Europe seemed outrageously antithetical to the image of Jimmy Baldwin his publishing house had conjured up. It “would ruin his reputation,” they said, and he should “burn the manuscript.” Dial Press published it in 1956, but removed his author photo, perhaps out of fear of a black man being associated with an all-white book featuring queerness. Baldwin’s readers were baffled.

David, like the rest of the novel’s cast, was white. At the time, Baldwin thought writing about both about blackness and queerness was too much to take on. “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem,’” he said. “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.” He also struggled with identifying as gay; he disliked feeling tied to labels in general. In a famous interview with Richard Goldstein in 1984, Baldwin claimed that “Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves.” To be sure, Baldwin had long seen oppression against black and queer people as interconnected—“the sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined,” he told Goldstein—but making the characters white was his attempt at exploring queerness directly, even as it meant a lost opportunity to examine the particular issues of being queer and black.

Yet blackness may not be entirely absent from the novel. Many images of queerness in the book are tied to dark colors, from Giovanni’s swarthy complexion to the cavern’s black opening, the repeated color choices possibly functioning as racial referents. David wishes to be “clean,” lily-white in the soul; darkness of any kind scares him. In this way, his internalized homophobia may be bound up with anti-blackness, whereby his vision of a perfect world is one with no “darkness” in it—no queerness, no Otherness. He fears the Other, and fears even more being the Other, just as certain white American hysterically fear losing social privilege when nonwhite Americans gain power. Baldwin would tackle race and queerness more directly later, but his association of queerness with images of blackness may have been his small attempt to fuse the two here.

Baldwin was a master of relaying pain. Giovanni’s Room remains a stunning evocation of how shame persists, paralyzes, and, ultimately, destroys us. I cannot read it how I once did, years ago; it has changed, as books do when we come to them at different points in our lives. But I can understand it, having lived so long in a cavernous closet myself, and I can feel relief that I have embraced my own cave of the self, where joy, not shame, lights my candles, most of my nights.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, Guernica, The Normal School, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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