‘Ashes in Your Mouth’: Spending Time in Giovanni’s Room.

“You think,” [Jacques] persisted, “That my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

“Why are they – shameful?”

“Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.”

“I asked him, ‘Why?”

“That you must ask yourself,” he told me, “And perhaps one day this morning will not be ashes in your mouth.”

– James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room,

P. 49

I don’t want to try and boil this novella down to a set of simple descriptions, although Baldwin has written a novella that conforms to marketable descriptions in the best possible way. Essentially, Giovanni’s Room is a tragedy, constructed around a compelling mechanism whose various elements lock into place in the novel’s dénouement with a satisfying symmetry.

Popular fiction – which is to say, fiction that is written to sell copies, relies on generating momentum for a reader. It compels their attention through suspense and surprise, before rewarding them with a satisfying conclusion.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, revolves around power of conception, power of observation and power of expression. ‘Power’ in literature can be defined in terms of its intensity, but also in terms of its individuality. The literary novel sheds new light on the human experience.     

The second category, while venerated, is becoming less and less popular; possibly because what I describe as ‘literary’ qualities pull you out of the momentum of story. James Baldwin has, in Giovanni’s Room, achieved that rarest of things; a piece of popular fiction that drives your experience of it, while providing profound insight by way of his skill as an artist.

Simply put, it’s the story of David, a young American in Paris on the cusp of transitioning from his footloose and fancy-free single life to the more sober, mature blueprint defined by the expectations of his family and circumstances ‘back home’.

His girlfriend, Hella, has gone to Spain to work out how she feels about him, and in the meantime, he continues to live life to the best of his untethered ability.

He’s doing it on his father’s dime, however, and when his father refuses to send him the funds to continue, he falls back on some of his shadier associations to secure the means.

When he calls up his friend Jacques in the hope of earning a quick buck turning tricks, he finds himself in a gay bar staffed by the radiant Giovanni. Their affinity lights up the scene, and is commented on by Jacques in the quotation above.  

The remainder of the novel charts their relationship, much of which transpires within the secrecy of the eponymous character’s room. In many ways, it’s a tragedy in the traditional sense; the ‘fatal flaw’ of the protagonist brings his world apart around him by way of a spectacular act of violence.

It’s a satisfying structure, and Baldwin’s eye for detail and universal sympathy for his characters makes for an immensely satisfying reading experience. However, this blog is not a newspaper, and the book is over fifty years old, so I am not in the business of providing balanced reviews, nor an insight into either current literature or current affairs.

Rather, I write about what interests me – the things I find remarkable. Perhaps, in this instance, what I found remarkable, was what occurred in me as I read.

When Giovanni and David lock eyes, it carries all the fulminant excitement of nascent romance. And it was at this point that I twigged to what was going on – David was GAY.

Then, I remembered his absent girlfriend, Hella, and corrected myself, ‘He is actually bisexual.’

And then, I thought, ‘Hang on, Dickhead; that’s not it, either.’

There’s much more going on in the novel, and this is a really great place to elucidate it. A lot of the reason the romance transpires within the privacy of Giovanni’s room is because David is not ‘out’, he wants to keep it private. He seems trapped within himself, as cleverly evidenced by Baldwin’s beautiful observation in the first person, made on David’s behalf:

‘I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal [of the bar surface]. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me.

David’s sexuality is the very definition of fluid, and it may be that the abstract tragedy of the novel is that because he cannot come to grips with it, as observed by his companion Jacques, everything turns to ashes in his mouth.

And the modern compulsion to contain things within neat little labels doesn’t improve the reader’s power of insight, it actually reduces it. Indeed, pinning down an actuality may be about as effective as trying to apprehend a reflection as it ghosts around beneath the surface of our perceptions.

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