Friday, September 2, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews GIOVANNI'S ROOM

James Baldwin
Random House

Ms. Hen decided she wanted to read a book by James Baldwin, so she did some research. She discovered GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN was his most famous novel, but she was more interested in GIOVANNI’S ROOM because it takes place in Paris, and it’s about a man trying to suppress his homosexuality, which is more to Ms. Hen’s taste.

At the beginning of the novel, Ms. Hen discovered that David's lover is about to be executed. It takes the entire book to find out why. Ms. Hen was enthralled by the style of writing in this novel. James Baldwin is a master of words, and Ms. Hen didn’t know why it took her so long to read his work.

This novel takes place mostly in Paris, and the city plays a large part in the narrative. The descriptions of staying out late at bars and eating in cafes early in the morning, and the streets, the neighborhoods, the scenes were all so vivid that Ms. Hen could picture herself there with these people, drinking, and being young and carefree in the city of lights. It made Ms. Hen nostalgic for a time she had never had, but that is what outstanding fiction should do.

Another successful aspect of this novel is the portrayal of the anguish of futile love. David becomes involved with Giovanni, and moves into his squalid room outside the city center, where they get to know each other, and become lovers. David stays in the room while Giovanni goes to work, cleaning and getting ready for him to come back. They both know their relationship could not last, because David has a fiancée and they are two men living together. They know it could not be forever, but the question is, when would it end? They don't know until it happens.

The other characters treat David and Giovanni with disdain. They don’t like that the men are happy, and insult them at every turn. Jacques, who was with David when he meets Giovanni, resents their relationship. Jacques and Guillaume have money and David and Giovanni do not, so the couple is at a disadvantage.

Ms. Hen thought that the women are not treated with respect in this novel. Hella, David’s fiancée, rants about how she is glad she only had a woman’s mind, which has limits. This section gave Ms. Hen a bad taste in her mouth. She realized that this novel was written by a gay man in the 1950s, and she understands that he might not have been progressive on women’s issues, and he could have believed that a woman is decoration, and beneath her husband. Everything about this novel was perfect, except for this page. Ms. Hen was disappointed.

She was not disappointed when she found chickens mentioned in the novel. The four men are at a bar early in the morning, when Jacques is urging the men ahead, “and Jacques, pushing us all before him as though we were his chickens.” Ms. Hen thinks it is charming that he is treating the men like chickens, because they’re not chickens, and if they think Jacques thinks they are, he could be in trouble.

Ms. Hen loved reading this novel. She likes reading about other people’s strange and wild lives. And to experience Paris in its visceral glory in the 1950s is magical. Ms. Hen recommends this to anyone who loves Paris, and reading about tragic gay love affairs.

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