Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room

by James Baldwin

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Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin's now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345806574
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Series: Vintage International
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 63,511
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

James Baldwin was the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time, among other books.

Date of Birth:

August 2, 1924

Date of Death:

December 1, 1987

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

St. Paul de Vence, France


DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City

Read an Excerpt

I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of the window pane. 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 faced away from Europe into a darker past.

I may be drunk by morning but that will not do any good. I shall take the train to Paris anyway. The train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and, even, dignity on the straight-backed, wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same. We will ride through the same changing countryside northward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris. Someone will offer to share a sandwich with me, someone will offer me a sip of wine, someone will ask me for a match. People will be roaming the corridors outside, looking out of windows, looking in at us. At each stop, recruits in their baggy brown uniforms and colored hats will open the compartment door to ask Complet? We will all nod Yes, like conspirators, smiling faintly at each other as they continue through the train. Two or three of them will end up before our compartment door, shouting at each other in their heavy, ribald voices, smoking their dreadful army cigarettes. There will be a girl sitting opposite me who will wonder why I have not been flirting with her, who will be set on edge by the presence of the recruits. It will all be the same, only I will be stiller.

And the countryside is still tonight, this countryside reflected through my image in the pane. This house is just outside a small summer resort — which is still empty, the season has not yet begun. It is on a small hill, one can look down on the lights of the town and hear the thud of the sea. My girl, Hella, and I rented it in Paris, from photographs, some months ago. Now she has been gone a week. She is on the high seas now, on her way back to America.

I can see her, very elegant, tense, and glittering, surrounded by the light which fills the salon of the ocean liner, drinking rather too fast, and laughing, and watch- ing the men. That was how I met her, in a bar in Saint- Germain-des-Pres, she was drinking and watching, and that was why I liked her, I thought she would be fun to have fun with. That was how it began, that was all it meant to me; I am not sure now, in spite of everything, that it ever really meant more than that to me. And I don’t think it ever really meant more than that to her — at least not until she made that trip to Spain and, finding herself there, alone, began to wonder, perhaps, if a lifetime of drinking and watching the men was exactly what she wanted. But it was too late by that time. I was already with Giovanni. I had asked her to marry me before she went away to Spain; and she laughed and I laughed but that, somehow, all the same, made it more serious for me, and I persisted; and then she said she would have to go away and think about it. And the very last night she was here, the very last time I saw her, as she was packing her bag, I told her that I had loved her once and I made myself believe it. But I wonder if I had. I was thinking, no doubt, of our nights in bed, of the peculiar innocence and confidence, which will never come again, which had made those nights so delightful, so unrelated to past, present, or anything to come, so unrelated, finally, to my life since it was not necessary for me to take any but the most mechanical responsibility for them. And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no one to watch, no penalties attached — it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.

I was thinking, when I told Hella that I had loved her, of those days before anything awful, irrevocable, had happened to me, when an affair was nothing more than an affair. Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of those boyish, zestful affairs — which are, really, when one thinks of it, a kind of higher, or, anyway, more pretentious masturbation. People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

I repent now — for all the good it does — one particular lie among the many lies I’ve told, told, lived, and believed. This is the lie which I told to Giovanni but never succeeded in making him believe, that I had never slept with a boy before. I had. I had decided that I never would again. There is something fantastic in the spectacle I now present to myself of having run so far, so hard, across the ocean even, only to find myself brought up short once more before the bulldog in my own backyard — the yard, in the meantime, having grown smaller and the bulldog bigger.

I have not thought of that boy — Joey — for many years; but I see him quite clearly tonight. It was several years ago. I was still in my teens, he was about my age, give or take a year. He was a very nice boy, too, very quick and dark, and always laughing. For a while he was my best friend. Later, the idea that such a person could have been my best friend was proof of some horrifying taint in me. So I forgot him. But I see him very well tonight.

It was in the summer, there was no school. His parents had gone someplace for the weekend and I was spending the weekend at his house, which was near Coney Island, in Brooklyn. We lived in Brooklyn too, in those days, but in a better neighborhood than Joey’s. I think we had been lying around the beach, swimming a little and watching the near-naked girls pass, whistling at them and laughing. I am sure that if any of the girls we whistled at that day had shown any signs of responding, the ocean would not have been deep enough to drown our shame and terror. But the girls, no doubt, had some intimation of this, possibly from the way we whistled, and they ignored us. As the sun was setting we started up the boardwalk towards his house, with our wet bathing trunks on under our trousers.

And I think it began in the shower. I know that I felt something — as we were horsing around in that small, steamy room, stinging each other with wet towels — which I had not felt before, which mysteriously, and yet aimlessly, included him. I remember in myself a heavy reluctance to get dressed: I blamed it on the heat. But we did get dressed, sort of, and we ate cold things out of his icebox and drank a lot of beer. We must have gone to the movies. I can’t think of any other reason for our going out and I remember walking down the dark, tropical Brooklyn streets with heat coming up from the pavements and banging from the walls of houses with enough force to kill a man, with all the world’s grownups, it seemed, sitting shrill and dishevelled on the stoops and all the world’s children on the sidewalks or in the gutters or hanging from fire escapes, with my arm around Joey’s shoulder. I was proud, I think, because his head came just below my ear. We were walking along and Joey was making dirty wisecracks and we were laughing. Odd to remember, for the first time in so long, how good I felt that night, how fond of Joey.

When we came back along those streets it was quiet; we were quiet too. We were very quiet in the apartment and sleepily got undressed in Joey’s bedroom and went to bed. I fell asleep — for quite a while, I think. But I woke up to find the light on and Joey examining the pillow with great, ferocious care.

“What’s the matter?”

“I think a bedbug bit me.”

“You slob. You got bedbugs?”

“I think one bit me.”

“You ever have a bedbug bite you before?”


“Well, go back to sleep. You’re dreaming.”

He looked at me with his mouth open and his dark eyes very big. It was as though he had just discovered that I was an expert on bedbugs. I laughed and grabbed his head as I had done God knows how many times before, when I was playing with him or when he had annoyed me. But this time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known. And he did not resist, as he usually did, but lay where I had pulled him, against my chest. And I realized that my heart was beating in an awful way and that Joey was trembling against me and the light in the room was very bright and hot. I started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one."
—Michael Ondaatje

"A young American involved with both a woman and a man...Baldwin writes of these matters with unusual candor and yet with such dignity and intensity."
The New York Times

"Absorbing...[with] immediate emotional impact."
The Washington Post

"Mr. Baldwin has taken a very special theme and treated it with great artistry and restraint."
Saturday Review

"Exciting...a book that belongs in the top rank of fiction."
The Atlantic

"Violent, excruciating beauty."
San Francisco Chronicle

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Giovanni's Room 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
carlosmock More than 1 year ago
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, 1956 Plot summary: Part one David remembers his first experience with a boy, Joey, who lived in Brooklyn, too. The two bonded and eventually had a sexual encounter during a sleepover. The two boys began kissing and making love; the next day David left, and a little later he took to bullying Joey in order to feel like a real man. David now lives with his father, who is prone to drinking, and his aunt, Ellen. The latter upbraids the father for not setting himself as a good example to his son; David's father says that all he wants is for David to become a real man. Later David comes home drinking too, and drinks and drives once, ending up in an accident. Back home the two men talk, and David talks his father into letting him skip college and get a job instead. He then decides to move to France to find himself. After a year in Paris, penniless, he calls Jacques, an older homosexual acquaintance, to meet him for supper and ask for money. In a flashforward, Jacques and David meet again and talk about Giovanni's fall. Back into the plot line, the two men go to Guillaume's gay bar. They meet Giovanni, the new bartender, whom Jacques tries to make a pass at, until he gets talking with Guillaume. Meanwhile, David and Giovanni become friends. Later, they all go to a restaurant in Les Halles; Jacques enjoins David not to be ashamed to feel love; they eat oysters and drink white wine. Giovanni recounts how he met Guillaume in a cinema, how the two men had dinner together because Giovanni wanted a free meal. He also explains that Guillaume is prone to making trouble. Later, the two men go back to Giovanni's room and they have sex. Part two David moves into Giovanni's small room. They broach the subject of Hella, about whom Giovanni is not worried, but who reveals the Italian's misogynistic prejudices about women and the need for men to dominate them. David then briefly describes Giovanni's room, which is always in the dark because there are no curtains and they need their own privacy. He goes on to read a letter from his father, asking him to go back to America, but he does not want to do that. A subsequent letter from Hella announces that she is returning in a few days, and David realizes he has to part with Giovanni soon. Setting off to prove to himself that he is not gay, David searches for a woman with whom he can have sex. He meets a slight acquaintance, Sue, in a bar and they go back to her place and have sex; he does not want to see her again and has only just used her to feel better about himself. When he returns to the room, David finds a hysterical Giovanni, who has been fired from Guillaume's bar. Hella eventually comes back and David leaves Giovanni's room with no notice for three days. He sends a letter to his father asking for money marrying Hella. The couple then walks into Jacques and Giovanni in a bookshop, which makes Hella uncomfortable because she does not like Jacques's mannerisms. After walking Hella back to her hotel room, David goes to Giovanni's room to talk; the Italian man is distressed. David thinks that they cannot have a life together and feels that he would be sacrificing his manhood if he stays with Giovanni. He leaves, but runs into Giovanni several times and is upset by the "fairy" mannerisms which he is developing and his new relationship with Jacques, who is an older and richer man. Sometime later, David walks into Yves and finds out Giovanni is
Guest More than 1 year ago
I cannot even begin to express what this book means to me. James Baldwin stole my soul when I read it. He's wonderful. I just happened upon it during a time in my life when I was confused and didn't know what to do, and this book (believe it or not) helped me cope with my choices. It was so incredibly realistic and intense, and utterly heart-wrenching, I couldn't put it down. It was exactly what I needed. I could identify with the main characters so easily (oh David, you are my muse. How did I ever live without you?), and they just suck you right into their lives. I adore this book beyond compare. It's a must read. Go read it!
TN1796 More than 1 year ago
My first introduction to Baldwin's work. I wanted to read one of his books after seeing the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." This novel was a great start, short yet so well-written. The best compliment that I can give it is that I want to read more Baldwin.
Nickelini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't want to start describing this book, because it is so rich and full of material that I'm afraid I would write an essay. I wish I was studying this at university and had to write about it.Yes, it's about a young man's struggle for his identity, and his struggle with his homosexuality, but it's more than that. I loved the contrasts between clean and squalor, and between Americans and Europeans. The filth reminds me of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and the louche, hard-drinking expatriates remind me of The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. But Giovanni's Room is more interesting than either of them.This book must have made quite the explosion in the book world when it was published back in the 1950s. Not only is it an exploration of forbidden sexuality, but it's a book about a white man written by an African-American.Recommended for: lovers of rich, intense literature.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have read "Giovanni's Room" before, but so long ago that all I remembered was that the story involved homosexuals and Paris.Written in the mid-1950s and set in Paris, this is the story of a reluctantly homosexual American having his first real same-sex relationship with an Italian waiter. No happy endings here.
strandbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I probably read this with too high of expectations because I loved Go Tell it On the Mountain. This is a short novel about a man fighting his homosexuality. I'm amazed that it was written in the 1950s. The first portion with David's flasbacks to growing up in Brooklyn being raised by his widowed father and aunt, and his reaction to his first homosexual experience. As the book moves into his adulthood in France, I lost connection with the characters. Even Giovanni seemed very flat, and I didn't really care for his breakdown at the end.
drugfiend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful novel about love. And Paris is a city full of desperate longing it seems...
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Baldwin followed up the success of his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), with Giovanni¿s Room (1956). The book came as a surprise to readers who expected more ¿African-American literature¿, instead, they got a book centered on homosexual Caucasian characters in Paris; moreover, Baldwin was very frank in his depiction of gay love which came as a bit of shock to people. While ostensibly the novel is about a man who struggles to be true to himself in the face of conventional morality, the tale of forbidden love and the difficulties of a doomed relationship transcend ¿gay fiction¿, and I really liked this book. One of the more memorable chapters had the main character seeking out and having meaningless, casual sex in order to reassert his heterosexuality; Baldwin¿s descriptions of the psychology and feelings that go along with this are outstanding.Quotes:On love and settling down:¿¿I told her that I had loved her once and I made myself believe it. But I wonder if I had. I was thinking, no doubt, of our nights in bed, of the peculiar innocence and confidence, which will never come again, which had made those nights so delightful, so unrelated to past, present, or anything to come, so unrelated, finally, to my life since it was not necessary for me to take any but the most mechanical responsibility for them. And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no one to watch, no penalties attached ¿ it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom. I suppose this was why I asked her to marry me: to give myself something to be moored to. Perhaps this was why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. But people can¿t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.¿On memories of lovers lost:¿Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeth¿s witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are coming ¿ God grant me the grace to live them ¿ in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night¿s impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head.¿On forbidden love:¿Each day he invited me to witness how he had changed, how love had changed him, how he worked and sang and cherished me. I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. I am safe. Sometimes when he was not near me, I thought, I will never let him touch me again. Then, when he touched me, I thought, it doesn¿t matter, it is only the body, it will soon be over. When it was over, I lay in the dark and listened to his breathing and dreamed of the touch of hands, of Giovanni¿s hands, or anybody¿s hands, hands which would have the power to crush me and make me whole again.¿On parents:¿He thought we were alike. I did not want to think so. I did not want to think that my life would be like his, or that my mind would ever grow so pale, so without hard places and sharp, sheer drops. He wanted no distance between us; he wanted me to look on him as a man like myself. But I wanted the merciful distance of father and son, which would have permitted me to love him.¿On suicide:¿I had thought of suicide when I was much younger, as, possibly, we all have, but then it would have been for revenge, it would have been my
MarlaneAR More than 1 year ago
Very good novel. Hard to put down, especially towards the end. Had my heart pounding !! 
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Miko-Pony More than 1 year ago
I've read this book three times, and each time brings out a new feeling toward the characters. David(the narrator), is not someone who is easy to like. He is homophobic(despite falling in love with a man), and often cruel to those he cares about. Giovanni also evokes mixed feelings. One minute he is charming, and the next he is a whining mess. Even while you hate them, Baldwin has a way to tear at your heart and wish the ending was different. This isn't a gay lovestory. This is the story of a man who is afraid of love, and a man who falls in love too easily. I recommend it to everyone.
vinnivetti More than 1 year ago
Amazing book. He is a pioneer!
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InNaMin More than 1 year ago
This book was greatly written and showed some true cruelities but realities of the cold world.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
James Baldwin is my fav author of any time . But i tyhought this was one of his best books . All his book are soo good that you never want to put them down . When i read this i thought poor Giovanni and his lover . I really recommened this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Baldwin¿s portrayal of the human condition and the fluidity of sexuality is so compassionate and so very tender that the reader walks away with not only a genius story, but also a clearer conception of our own selves. The foreboding, suffocating confines of Giovanni¿s room is a metaphor for not only the gay population, but also for any individual who feels claustrophobic in their own life/relationship. James Baldwin seems to be not only a masterful writer, but someone who understood much more than we ever will. Giovanni¿s Room is a gem of a novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Giovanni's Room is a powerful work of enormous insight dealing with the search for identity. It is remarkable on so many levels, from the power of its descriptions and words to the depth of its various messages to the compelling nature of its story. It commands to be read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is truly a must read! This book is beautifully written. Mr. Baldwin did a superb job describing how David (the lead character) and Giovanni (his male lover) meet and fall in love. Their love story is beautiful and tragic. As a LGBT counselor, I have recommended this book to many of the people I have talked with. This story appeals to everyone: gay and straight. This book is moving and it touches your heart. Don't be surprised if you are moved to tears towards the end. This is one of the best stories that I have ever read and it sustains its title as a classic of gay literature.