This was a deeply poignant read, where the poignancy creeps up on you and drags you under water and makes you lose your breath. That is the power of Baldwin’s writing.
Part One is made up of the ending scene of the story and a series of flashbacks of the narrator David’s recent and more distant past. That ending scene involves the impending dark fate of his lover Giovanni and it gives a distinct fatalistic and remorseful air. In the recent-past flashback, it is mechanically revealed that David has a plan to marry his girlfriend Hella, who is away in Spain thinking over their relationship. This is followed by flashbacks to his motherless childhood, his relationship with his conventional father, and a sexual fling with a boy in his school days.
Part Two tells of how he meets in a Parisian bar a handsome and poverty-stricken Italian migrant Giovanni who works there, with whom he falls in love but tries to resist with all his might. Two shady characters, Jacques and Guillaume (Giovanni’s boss), also appear on the scene. During the stint spent in Giovanni’s dingy rented room, David learns of his wretched experiences with Guillaume, but feels a need to keep aloof. Giovanni finds out about Hella and taunts David about his relationship with her. Giovanni then gets blamed for a theft and sacked from the bar. Encroaching helplessness, guilt and fear compel David to decide to give up the relationship. I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Savior had met in me. Out of desperate need, Giovanni goes to Guillaume and implores him to give back his job. Then something vile happens.
Overall, what deeply moved me was the character Giovanni. There is a sweet, naked sincerity and fragility in him under his forced self-possession that is so irresistible. He looked at me and I saw in his face again something which I have fleetingly seen there during these hours: under his beauty and his bravado, terror, and a terrible desire to please; dreadfully, dreadfully moving. He will remain one of my favorite literary heroes!
This is a riveting description of Giovanni’s room:
But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.
I’m giving this heart-breaking novel 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.