After my sophomore year at university, I took the $500 I had saved teaching swimming at the local playground and went to Europe, leaving behind the man I then thought I would marry. Michael had just graduated and, that summer, was doing social work among the street gangs of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
He wanted me to leave university for a year and travel with him in Mexico, a country he’d visited and loved. I couldn’t or wouldn’t decide and worried about my scholarship and what my parents would say. I’d also fallen in love, in advance, with Greece and was determined to go there. My future was a purposeful haze, and I probably thought that by excluding nothing I could have everything.
In August 1963 I was staying in Rome and running out of money. Then Michael’s letter arrived. I stood on the pavement outside American Express and read it three times. He was coming to Italy. He had a cheap flight and would meet me in the Piazza Navona on 21 August at 6 p.m. From there we’d go to Greece. He loved me, this I knew. I also loved him. But I had turned 20 that May and was, as we used to say, ‘on the loose’ and wanting to be just that little bit looser if I could get away with it. I was escaping my upbringing (small town Irish-American Catholic), and I considered this mission almost but not quite accomplished. Michael was beautiful, he was sexy and he was good. I could not believe my luck. But it occurred to me that he might be re-entering the novel of my life a couple of chapters too soon.
To compensate for this structural flaw, I went to Athens and had the adventure I wanted to have. Then I nipped back to Rome, found a seedy pensione and holed up there until he arrived. For two days I lived on peaches and pasta and read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
Baldwin’s famous novel was published in 1956 when he was becoming not only America’s foremost Black homosexual writer but also a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin outspokenly held white America accountable for the racism poisoning its society. He insisted that, because whites could not love themselves, they could not love their Black brothers and sisters, and that they paid for their persecution ‘by the lives they led’. Yet Giovanni’s Room contains not a single Black character. It is as if Baldwin is writing above race and gender in order to draw universal conclusions. The boldness of the enterprise still astonishes me.
Baldwin has been accused of indulging his homosexuality, then a crime in America though not in France where the book is set. But he always maintained that his novel was not about homosexuality but American loneliness and insecurity; about ‘what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody’.
David, the narrator, personifies the attitudes and failures of white Protestant America. Attractive, intelligent and well-enough off, he professes to have come to Paris, like so many others, to ‘find himself ’. At the same time, he will not permit anyone to know him. Baldwin, who lived for many years in Paris, was intimately acquainted with its gay, literary and Bohemian circles, and his evocation of the city’s lush, enfolding atmosphere seeps into your pores.
David’s fiancee, Hella, has gone to Spain to allow each of them time to consider their future. In her absence he follows his homosexual inclinations in company with two predatory older gay men, Jacques and Guillaume, meanwhile relying on money sent by his worried father. Through them he meets the dazzling Giovanni who tends bar in Guillaume’s gay establishment. Giovanni fastens upon David who in turn is drawn to the beautiful dark Italian.
David moves into Giovanni’s tiny chaotic room where, over the ensuing weeks, the tragedy of their relationship is enacted. Though he tells Giovanni of Hella’s imminent return, he lives in a state of perpetual deferment, desiring Giovanni yet frightened and even repelled by the way he has touched his soul. Giovanni himself is a creature of light. Though hardly a saint he is authentic, with a sublime candour which Baldwin opposes to David’s duplicity. His flaw is that he fails to protect himself. ‘Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you could have done this if I did not love you?’
According to his biographer, David Leeming, love is at the heart of Baldwin’s philosophy. Love, for him, cannot be safe: ‘It involves the risk of removal of the masks and taboos placed on us by society.’
Not even Hella’s return can force a choice on David. Instead he casually abandons Giovanni, leaving him alone in the room without money or explanation. Resolved to preserve his masculinity, he seeks safety in Hella while concealing his affair with Giovanni. In fact he is incapable of loving either of them.
Out of dubious personal motives, Guillaume fires Giovanni who is shortly accused of his murder. Giovanni goes on the run, is arrested, charged and imprisoned. David’s response is to flee with Hella to the South of France where the couple rent a house. Discovering she has bound herself to a man who can neither love nor make up his mind, Hella sensibly returns to America.
The novel is framed by David’s last night in the house which will also be the last night of Giovanni’s life. As Giovanni awaits the guillotine, David drinks away the anguished hours, re-reading Jacques’s letter with its news of Giovanni’s appalling fate, and remembering the loves he has betrayed.
Michael and I kept our rendezvous in the Piazza Navona. The next day we left for Greece, hitched rides with lorry drivers, slept in olive groves, boarded a boat in Piraeus and got off, by mistake, at the wrong island. I was happier than I ever imagined I could be. A week later Michael drowned in the Aegean.
I finished university, lived in New York, moved to London, became a writer. But my life is demarcated by the before and after of this event. The sharpness of its shadow has not been diffused by the years. Giovanni’s Room was the last book I read before that calamitous journey, made at my instigation, and I wanted to read it again because of the personal significance of its story and a renewed interest in Baldwin himself.
It seems to me now both a fantasy and a morality play. I was surprised – and yet not – to discover that Baldwin worshipped at the shrine of Henry James. Both men are moralists, connoisseurs of the way we treat each other: their very words are moral, allowing for no excuses, no post-modern ‘variousness’. What I had forgotten was the novel’s political dimension.
How extraordinary are Giovanni’s lines in the light of recent events. ‘Time always sounds like a parade chez vous, a triumphant parade, like armies with banners entering a town. As though with enough time . . . and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything . . . I mean all the dreadful things like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe.’
His words are a condemnation not only of David as the good white Protestant, but of the delusion of Manifest Destiny, America’s crusade to clean up and sort out this dirty, disorganized world and establish an ultimate safety in which to pursue a fatal ‘happiness’. For me the novel is prophetic, both about my life and my country: the waning of the Left and its failure to achieve social justice; the resurgence of the Christian Right with its mistrust of dissent and its eagerness to recriminalize homosexuality. Giovanni’s Room remains a memorial to personal and political loss.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 6 © Mary Flanagan 2005
About the contributor
Mary Flanagan is a novelist and critic. An Irish-American living in London, she has published three novels and two collections of short stories, and is currently at work on a third. Her most recent book is Adèle.