Giovanni’s Room – Paris


Even though I do it myself sometimes (like now), I have a problem with people who can write fiction when they write non-fiction, because fiction is art and non-fiction is…something else. Non-fiction can tell you the truth, which is important, but fiction does something much better: it points to the places where the truth is hiding and lets you tell it to yourself.

The best writers write about the thing we call human nature (because we don’t have better words for it), and few write about it as well as James Baldwin. Take this observation from his novel Giovanni’s Room:

Behind the counter sat one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies, produced only in the city of Paris, but produced there in great numbers, who would be as outrageous and unsettling in any other city as a mermaid on a mountaintop. All over Paris they sit behind their counters like a mother bird in a nest and brood over the cash register as though it were an egg. Nothing occurring under the circle of heaven where they sit escapes their eye, if they have ever been surprised buy anything, it was only a dream – a dream they long ago ceased having. They are neither ill- nor good-natured, though they have their days and styles, and they know, in the way, apparently, that other people know when they have to go to the bathroom, everything about everyone who enters their domain. Though some are white-haired and some not, some fat, some thin, some grandmothers and some lately virgins, they all have exactly the same, shrewd, vacant, all-registering eye; it is difficult to believe that they ever cried for milk or looked at the sun; it seems they must have come into the world hungry for banknotes, and squinting helplessly, unable to focus their eyes until they came to rest on a cash register.

The pulsing undercurrent of the novel is the heartbeat of Paris. Baldwin writes eloquently about the City of Lights and its inhabitants:

The city, Paris, which I loved so much, was absolutely silent. There seemed to be almost no one on the streets, although it was still very early in the evening. Nevertheless, beneath me – along the river bank, beneath the bridges, in the shadow of the walls, I could almost hear the collective, shivering sigh – were lovers and ruins, sleeping, embracing, coupling, drinking, staring out at the descending night. Behind the walls of the houses I passed, the French nation was clearing away the dishes, putting little Jean Pierre and Marie to bed, scowling over the eternal problems of the sou, the shop, the church, the unsteady State. Those walls, those shuttered windows held them in and protected them against the darkness and the long moan of this long night. Ten years hence, little Jean Pierre or Marie might find themselves out here beside the river and wonder, like me, how they had fallen out of the web of safety. What a long way, I thought, I’ve come – to be destroyed!

The line between writer and character can get a little blurry in first-person fiction and knowledge of the author kept tripping me up and I would sometimes see David as a black man in my mind’s eye. To remedy this confusion Baldwin wisely describes David in the first paragraph this way:

My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faces away from Europe into a darker past.

Because the characters in Giovanni’s Room are white and the setting is Paris, the book does not dwell on American racial inequality the way much of Baldwin’s non-fiction does. It does dwell significantly on another of his well-known themes: sexuality.

Tomorrow: Giovanni’s Room – Sex

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