Spatially and spiritually, Paris begs its inhabitants to reflect and ruminate in their surroundings. New York, conversely, is perpetually in motion, encouraging its citizens to strive for growth and velocity in both a quotidian and metaphorical sense. “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, released in 1956, explores this dichotomy through the vessel of a complex and deeply emotive romantic tragedy.
The novel chronicles a young American man (David) in 1950s Paris as he dives into an intense love affair with an Italian bartender (Giovanni) during time apart from his fiancée (Hella). Its pages span a wide variety of evocative and culturally penetrative themes including sexuality, personal freedom, social alienation, and childhood trauma; furthermore, Baldwin’s position as a black man championing the stories of white gay men brings an additional layer of nuanced, experiential perspective to an already multifaceted narrative. For example, the novel begins with a somber declaration from our narrator, David, undeniably drawing from the author’s personal vantage point: “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” (9).
This story is idiosyncratic in myriad ways. Notably, it is conveyed primarily in the present, future and conditional tenses, allowing for a reading experience that is highly immersive. Additionally, the narrative oscillates between multiple time frames at once, indicating the protagonist’s unique relationship with temporality. However, the most interesting aspect of the novel, from my perspective, is the way in which its setting in Paris (and Europe at large) defines its tonal significance.
For David, who is from New York, traveling in Europe is profoundly liberating; it frees him from his regimented life plan and instills in him a willingness to take risks and indulge in spontaneity. His “nights [in Paris] 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” (11). Traveling can provide us with an empowering sense of liberty that sometimes leads us to phases of romantic delusion. The end result, in some cases, is reflecting on our choices with bittersweet regret once we are tempered by retrospect.
During his second year in Paris, David meets Giovanni at a gay bar, seamlessly igniting a whimsical and suggestive conversation about each of their personal histories:
“You are an American?” he asked at last.
“Yes,” I said. “From New York.”
“Ah! I am told that New York is very beautiful. Is it more beautiful than Paris?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “no city is more beautiful than Paris—”
“It seems the very suggestion that one could be is enough to make you very angry,” grinned Giovanni. “Forgive me. I was not trying to be heretical.” Then, more soberly and as though to appease me, “You must like Paris very much.”
“I like New York, too,” I said uncomfortably aware that my voice had a defensive ring, “but New York is very beautiful in a very different way.”
He frowned. “In what way?”
“No one,” I said, “who has never seen it can possibly imagine it. It’s very high and new and electric—exciting.” I paused. “It’s hard to describe. It’s very—twentieth century.”
“You find that Paris is not of this century?” he asked with a smile.
His smile made me feel a little foolish. “Well,” I said, “Paris is old, is many centuries. You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by. That isn’t what you feel in New York—” He was smiling. I stopped.
“What do you feel in New York?” he asked.
“Perhaps you feel,” I told him, “all the time to come. There’s such power there, everything is in such movement. You can’t help wondering—I can’t help wondering—what it will all be like—many years from now” (35 – 36).
Giovanni resembles Paris in his beauty, charm, and self-assuredness; his past experiences have led him to where he is now. David resembles New York in the fact that his sense of self is not yet fully realized, but rather, is constantly developing, with posterity as an ultimate goal.
Moreover, although “Giovanni’s Room” was written over a decade ago, its distillations of both cities still resonate with me as deeply insightful. I, too, am infatuated with both cities for the polar opportunities they provide. Paris lends itself to the notion of preservation and contemplation. With massive clouds, abundant greenery, plateaued rooftops and century-old historical sites accessible on every corner, it makes me want to slow down, observe, and take note of the past. On the other hand, New York is attached to a fiery and relentless sense of collective ambition. When I wake up in the city with a million things to do, embedded in a community with similarly driven individuals and a landscape that champions height, efficiency, and technological splendor, I feel as though as I am driving history as opposed to dwelling upon it; the future feels paramount. For this reason, I can completely empathize with David’s mindset.
As much as I love New York for that very sense of propulsion, it is refreshing to take a break from its commanding power, movement and electricity, even if just for a brief period. Engaging in travel-oriented fantasies doesn’t have to be as extreme as falling into a torrid love affair like the one Baldwin depicts. It can simply mean taking time for oneself in an environmentally present way and embracing the absence of certain everyday impositions.
If “Giovanni’s Room” says anything about travel, it is that striving for complete escapism is quixotic and dangerous. However, it also illustrates the sheer magic that can ensue when one chooses to indulge in their foreign surroundings. For me, in Paris, that means taking note of all the time gone by, in my life and in the history of this city. After all, there is plenty of time to come.
Baldwin, James, and Caryl Phillips. Giovanni’s Room. Penguin Books, 2001.