Reading: Looking Back to Move Forward; 2 from the 1950’s

Today talking about James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, and Barbara Comyns’s 1950 novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, Paperback, 176pp, 2013 Vintage edition, originally published in 1956 by Dial Press

I’ve been doing a lot of looking back in an effort to decide how best to move forward, said reflection having led to my decision that my 2018 year in reading would include at least one backlist book from my massive “To Be Read” stacks for every new release I read. Considering my advanced age and long experience as gay man, one would think I’d have read all the classics of the Queer canon but because of my devotion to another queer author, Garth Greenwell, whose What Belongs To You is one of my favorite books of all time (click HERE for my love letter to it and Mr. Greenwell) and my searching out all his work, I found his appreciation for James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, (click HERE for that article) and realized though I thought I had, I had never read it. I didn’t even own a copy. So, while I have managed to read a backlist book, I didn’t reduce the To Be Read pile.

David, an American expatriate in 1950’s Paris, whose “girl”, Hella, has awayed to Spain to contemplate his marriage proposal, becomes involved with Giovanni. Torn by the conflict between his powerful erotic and emotional attachment to Giovanni and the cultural and internalized homophobia that terrifies him, David is unable to commit to any path, to face his own truth, to come to terms with himself, admitting: “I do not know what I felt for Giovanni. I felt nothing for Giovanni. I felt terror and pity and a rising lust.”

James Baldwin tells us the ending from the beginning; we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to the guillotine, Hella has headed back to America, and David is a mess of guilt, self-hatred, and doubt.

David’s shame is a difficult and painful read, particularly now when homophobic-fascist bigots are determined to undo hard-won LGBTQ progress toward equality and turn back the clock to the atmosphere of shame and second-class citizenship for everyone but white-hetero-cis-males of a certain upper-economic level, efforts at which have increased hate crimes against the LGBTQ community by 700% so far since 45 took office.

Yet, even though it is emotionally eviscerating, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is an invaluable portrait of a particular time and attitude in our history, and reminder of why it is so important we not go back. And the language! James Baldwin’s writing is spare, but utterly evocative, managing to capture an era in the exchange of a few sentences between David and Jacques, the older gay man who has helped David, lusted for David, and for whom David has little use except to use. In the following exchange, Jacques and David are in a bar with Giovanni when Jacques asks David if he intends to write Hella and tell her about his feelings for Giovanni. Listen:

“I really don’t see what there is to write about. But what’s it to you if I do or I don’t?
He gave me a look full of a certain despair which I had not, till that moment, known was in him. It frightened me. “It’s not,” he said, “what it is to me. It’s what it is to you. And to her. And to that poor boy, yonder, who doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Are you going to treat him as you’ve treated me?”
You? What have you to do with all this? How have I treated you?”
You have been very unfair to me,” he said. “You have been very dishonest.”
This time I did sound sardonic. “I suppose you meant that I would have been fair,  I would have been honest if I had — if —”
“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”
“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”
“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”
There was silence for a moment, threatened, from a distance, by that laugh of Giovanni’s.
“Tell me,” I said at last, “is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?”
“Think,” said Jacques, “of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.”
I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me.
“You think,” he persisted, “that my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

It wasn’t so very long ago — my youth, in fact, and I am now in my 50’s — when, in much of the world, the sort of liaisons Jacques had were the only possible type for men who lusted for men. There was no possibility of being openly homosexual, and the puritan attitudes Americans had (and have) about sex coupled with culturally embedded homophobia, made it nearly impossible for gay men (and women, though it was a very different experience but no less dangerous and fraught) to have a positive self-image, to escape childhood, adolescence, adulthood without some measure of self-hate, which often went unrecognized, or, even, was congratulated. Both Jacques and David in the above exchange are displaying internalized homophobia and sex-negativity.

And, yet, Giovanni’s Room was considered too homo-positive when first published, when, in fact, it is a validation of homophobia and self-hate. As I said earlier, I thought I had read most of the Queer Canon through the years, and I did, but looking back, so much of the earlier literature was full of guilt and internalized homophobia and tragedy and struggle — all of which were reflective of Queer experience for much of this country’s existence. Dancer from the Dance, City of Night, Faggots, A Boy’s Own Story, Brideshead Revisited, and so many others, all full of inchoate yearning, once satisfied leading to tragedy, sorrow, ruin.

It’s time for a new literature, for which we must create a new world, the beginning of which is not going back to before. It’s time to undo the disaster or November 2016, restore order and the march toward equality for all, and end the patriarchy. Today. So that for a generation very soon to be, Giovanni’s Room will read as a horror story, unbelievable that attraction and love could cause such agony.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns, Paperback, 214pp, 2013, Virago Modern Classics UK, originally published in Great Britain in 1950 by Eyre & Spottiswode

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths introduces itself to you as a piquant, twee even, romp about young artists types falling in love, defying family, living on little money and lots of love. But soon, Barbara Comyns skillfully twists the fairy-tale-horror-story knife into your unsuspecting gut and takes the reader down the rabbit hole of poverty-stricken young wife and mother, abandoned emotionally, financially, and physically by a husband who turns out never to have loved her and who she realizes she never loved either.

I have never read anything like this, which is to recommend it highly. It is startlingly modern in attitude and experience, despite its having been written nearly 70 years ago, which, as with my recent exploration of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and its depiction of the horrors of Queer life in the 1950’s, is somewhat terrifying that we have not come further along in insuring equality for all people regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality, etcetera.

Sophia, twenty-one, over objections from the family, marries Charles, a painter who only rarely manages to finish a canvas he doesn’t then paint over again. Domestic bliss is short-lived and when Sophia becomes pregnant, Charles is angry and resentful. Things get worse from there. With changing perspectives and shifts in time and attitude, Barbara Comyns writes in an entirely unique and extremely assured voice. She veers from wit — dry and sardonic — to pathos, but never melodramatic mush, just up-front, out there, here it is ugly-life recounting. It is never clear exactly what she is doing until she’s done it, and one is gobsmacked by the power of the prose, plotting, and execution. For me, it was a bit like Flannery O’Connor; a naked, eager naiveté, relentlessly honest, almost too private a view into the events, as if we’re eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session — only, the someone is terribly interesting, amusing, and moving.

Read it. The ending — I am happy to say — offers some hope. And who can’t use a little of that?

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So, there they are, reads 7 and 8 for 2018, both from the 1950s, both part of my effort to read more widely, not just the new buzzy books, but the old buzzy books as well. And, sadly, both describe social attitudes and inequalities that one would think we’d have remedied in seventy years. And we haven’t. So, there is more to do, my friends. More. Although I am not sure what that “more” is or means for me, like I said at the start, I am looking back to determine how I ought move forward. And as with everything else in my life, I find literature to be helpful in the pursuit — our past is prologue and what better way to explore and know it, to try to experience it, than through the reading of fiction from the past by gifted writers. I have history to learn. And future to sculpt. And so, the answer is to explore all that “more” waiting out there to be read, thus, here I am, going.