At my friend’s house a few weeks ago, I pulled a book out of her shelf, and ended up having to steal it. At some point I may send the book back to my friend, but for now the book and I are embroiled in a complicated relationship. The book is Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. It actually makes my skin feel a little bit flushed to write the name of the book, the same way you might blush when saying the name of your crush. Giovanni’s Room. (I still feel it.)
I have read one other James Baldwin book before, and that one I also loved, though with a bit less of a physical response. Giovanni’s Room is short, brutal, and so far absolutely electrifying. It’s a love story in which two men fall in love in a wrenchingly believable way. It is clear from the start of the book that the love between the men is so powerful that it produces a terror in both lovers, which will end in a tragic disaster. And so I am in an addictive situation with the book: I read ten pages, and the writing is so true to life that I feel exhilarated and thrilled by the story, but with the turning of each page it becomes clearer that devastating heartbreak is just around the corner, so I stop reading, because I fear that it’s going to be too painful, and also because I love the world that exists in the book, and I don’t want it to come to an end. Then I look at the book, and think about how I am saving the experience of reading it, and it becomes clear to me that I am simply postponing the rest of my life. Reading the book makes me feel so awake and alive, why would I want to wait for that experience? One reason is that I am afraid that I won’t be able to find another book this good, as though this book is a supply of the feeling of being awake, and I want to dole it out sparingly. But that is stupid, right? The book was just there on the shelf with a thousand other books, and the odds are that it can’t be the only good one out there. But still I am afraid that at the end of the story, I am going to be left alone, like the narrator of the story, drained of passions and unable to find another way to access them.
There are so many love stories pumped into the world, and I almost never believe them. It’s such a boring formula: add A (pretty lady) to B (leading man, attractive or not) ÷ complication in the situation = EVENTUAL HAPPY ENDING. What’s typically missing from the equation is any sense of why these particular people happen to be falling in love. I suppose that my ideal of a specific and particular love is a modern luxury. People used to get married just to keep the farm running. And in my mom’s highschool years, women got married in order to have a roof over their heads after they left their parents. Specific love is a luxury vision that I am happy to share with James Baldwin.
Reading his words, part of what is so thrilling is knowing that he must have known this kind of love, in order to be able to write about it. And that just blows my mind, and breaks my heart. The story he tells here is one in which the love is so specific, that it in fact can’t even survive in the world where the book is set (Paris in the 1950’s). That is what is so exhilarating: you know that they aren’t faking this love, because why would they? It’s such a total pain in the ass to try and make a love work outside of the conventional models, it’s so terrifying and nearly impossible (and in the era of the book, in fact illegal) why would you even bother if it weren’t the real thing? I guess that on the other hand, my vision of “love against the odds” is a certain sort of model as well. It could certainly be played in a boring and formulaic style if one weren’t careful. Luckily for me, Baldwin is a brilliant writer, and he didn’t skimp on fleshing out all the harsh realities.