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I'd never read any Baldwin and it was high time to fill in the gap. I think "Giovanni's Room" is a good way to get to know this extraordinary author. The writing is filled with beauty, the characters are potent and alive, and Baldwin's ability to evoke time and place (cities, seasons, an entire era) is masterful. The tone is unrelievedly elegiac; the sad ending is announced at the very beginning, and there is precious little joy in the narrative. Every character is at some kind of impasse. But Baldwin describes everyone with such vivid detail that their dead-ends blaze in Technicolor.
Dan Butler is a fine actor, and he doesn't fight the dolefulness of the book. He lives it. He has good timing, he finds non-stagy ways to evoke the characters, and he turns Baldwin's novel into a subtle, powerful monologue. He has variety and soul.
What's the catch? Something that could have been avoided, alas. There is a lot of French in this book--most of it takes place in Paris, some in the south of France--and Butler has no idea how to pronounce the many, many French phrases. It's not merely that he has an American accent. Sometimes I simply could not figure out what he was saying at all. He's such a believable, sympathetic reader. I wish he'd taken the time to coach the French and get it right. He doesn't even pronounce the title character's name correctly; sometimes he gets the name "Guillaume" right but in the next paragraph he'll call the man "Zhee-yome." Etc. For me, a distraction and an irritation. For another reader, perhaps less of an issue.
"Giovanni's Room" is shortish--a manageable length, and I think a beautiful entry into the world of James Baldwin. I am ready for more.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
"for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom."
- James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room
Baldwin is everything. He ability to articulate the struggle to be a man in a world where both black men and gay men were considered 2nd class (if lucky) citizens taught me. He is the reason I read (or at least one of the reasons) good fiction. It transports me into the experience of the other. His writing is a gift. The emotions of this novel are expressed as if Baldwin's heart was set aflame in Paris. In Giovanni's room, Baldwin carves his pain and his struggle with fire into the oppressive clouds of the Parisian night. I sort of knew what I was wading into reading Giovanni's Room. I knew Baldwin was gay and this was considered both a great novel AND a great piece of gay fiction. It is hard to imagine, however, Baldwin ever wanting to be dropped into ANY corner, locked into any room. Black. Gay. Saint. Yes, the man was certainly all those, but he was also so much more.
I don't want to come across as presumptuous, but I think Baldwin would reject the idea that this is a gay novel. I think Baldwin is expressing the anguish and the pain felt by ALL those who are denied (for whatever reason) the ability to freely love. The closet is far too dark, far too cold, far too confining, and does not allow for the other. Baldwin is teaching that we NEED the other to be human. Baldwin's novels are essentially that. They transcend race, sexuality, gender. They are about the need to be recognized, loved, and free. It reminds me, someone who has been prodigiously privileged because of my race (white), sexuality (straight), gender (cis) about the pain others go through just to catch a moment of things I take for granted every day.
14 of 15 people found this review helpful