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Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room


by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary

  • Note to reader: This chapter is primarily told in flashback, but we render it in the present tense.
  • David meets Giovanni his second year in Paris. The morning of the day that he meets him, David is threatened by his hotel keeper, who says that he will be kicked out. He thinks that hotel keepers can smell poverty.
  • His father has money for him, but refuses to send it because he wants David to come home. Whenever his father asks him to settle down, it makes David think of "the sediment at the bottom of a stagnant pond" (1.2.2).
  • While in Paris, David tries to give the impression that he is above everyone else's company by constantly hanging out with them and looking down on them.
  • David has written to friends for money, but with little success. He decides to call on his old acquaintance Jacques, an aging, Belgian-born, American businessman.
  • Jacques invites him for supper when he calls, though David suspects that Jacques curses himself for it a moment later. Jacques is lonely, though, and he will buy his friends if he must.
  • Note to reader: We're discussing later events involving Jacques that David is now looking back on.
  • For a long time, David thinks that Jacques has, in a way, helped to kill Giovanni. Perhaps he has, but David thinks that he is equally guilty.
  • David remembers running into Jacques at a café shortly after Giovanni is sentenced. They both simply exclaim how terrible it is, and neither comments on the fact that the last time Giovanni asked Jacques for money, Jacques had refused.
  • Jacques says that Giovanni began taking opium, but David thinks that this is only a newspaper speculation. He remembers, though, how terrible and desperate Giovanni was.
  • Giovanni had said to him, "je veuz m'evader – this dirty world, this dirty body. I never wish to make love again with anything more than the body" (1.2.11).
  • While David thinks about Giovanni dying and the void it will leave in his life, Jacques says that he hopes Giovanni's sentencing wasn't his fault. He says that if he'd known the situation he wouldn't have hesitated to give Giovanni the money.
  • Both of them know that this is not true.
  • Jacques asks if they are happy. David says no. He says, "It might have been better if he'd stayed down there in that village of his in Italy and planted his olive trees and had a lot of children and beaten his wife" (1.2.16).
  • Then Jacques says something that surprises David. He says, "Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden. I wonder why" (1.2.17).
  • They part after that, but David has wondered about that question ever since. He thinks that everyone has his or her own personal Garden of Eden. For Jacques, it was football players. For Giovanni, it was young maidens.
  • David thinks that, once people leave their garden, they have a choice between either forgetting it or remembering it. He thinks that both choices are a sort of madness and that it takes a real hero to do both.
  • Note to reader: We're back to the deep past now, when David first met Giovanni and called Jacques for dinner.
  • When David calls, Jacques doesn't want to have dinner at his apartment because his cook has run away. Jacques has a bad habit of making young boys his cooks, even if they don't want to, and they almost always run away.
  • Jacques and David meet at a restaurant on rue de Grenelle, and David quickly arranges to borrow ten thousand francs from him.
  • They have a good dinner, and after decide to go to Jacques's favorite gay bar, owned by a man named Guillaume.
  • The bar gets raided by the police often, but Guillaume always seems to know when it will happen and warns his favorite customers to stay away.
  • The bar is unusually crowded. David remembers seeing the young men and wondering if they were "after money or blood or love" (1.2.22).
  • He recalls how they would come in and brag about having slept with boxers and movie stars, though he never believed them. There is one boy, too, who cross-dresses and is great friends with Guillaume. David is always disgusted by him.
  • The bar is close to David's quarter of Paris, and he admits that he has been in there several times before. Once he caused a scandal by supposedly flirting with a soldier, though he can't imagine that he ever would have done such a thing. All the same, he feels watched when he goes in there.
  • As he and Jacques move to the bar, they both note the presence of an attractive new barman, Giovanni.
  • David offers to bag off and leave Jacques to flirt with him, but Jacques asks him to stay.
  • The sad thing is that David knows Jacques would have to pay Giovanni to sleep with him, and even then Giovanni might not sleep with a man as unattractive as Jacques.
  • David thinks that Jacques secretly despises him and wants him to leave, but David, perhaps out of resentment, forces them to keep up the lie that they are friends. All the same, both benefit because otherwise Jacques will look desperate and pathetic in the bar by himself.
  • David wonders where Guillaume could have found Giovanni. Since he knows Guillaume's tastes, he thinks that Giovanni is like a dream for him.
  • Giovanni asks what they want, and they both order in French. They are excited and order too quickly and Giovanni smiles.
  • Jacques interprets the smile as an opportunity and asks Giovanni if he is new to the area. He asks if it seems strange, but Giovanni doesn't know what he means.
  • Jacques giggles, and David feels ashamed to be next to him.
  • He continues that the reason it would seem strange is because there are only men in the bar. Giovanni says he assumed all their wives were waiting at home, and Jacques asks if he has a wife waiting for him at home.
  • Giovanni turns to another customer and does not respond. Jacques is mildly embarrassed.
  • David kids him that Giovanni is secretly in love with him and just hiding it, that perhaps if he bought him a drink and an Alfa Romeo Giovanni would happily climb into his bed.
  • Jacques says that Giovanni must sleep with girls. He then suggests that David might ask him to have a drink with the two of them.
  • David refuses, saying, "actually, I'm sort of queer for girls myself" (1.2.51).
  • Jacques apologizes sarcastically for threatening David's "immaculate manhood" (1.2.53). He says it would just be a favor.
  • David worries that Giovanni will be confused about who is hitting on whom, but Jacques promises to clear it up.
  • David suggests that they finish their current drinks so they both throw them back. Giovanni comes over to refill them, and David suggests he have a drink with them.
  • Just then, Guillaume comes up to greet Jacques and tease him about hitting on Giovanni. Jacques is pleased to be accused of seductiveness, and the two of them begin making small talk.
  • They move away, leaving just David to buy Giovanni the drink he promised.
  • Giovanni says he doesn't drink alcohol when he works, but asks for a Coca-Cola. David has the same, and realizes that he is quite happy to be talking with Giovanni.
  • He puts the ten thousand franc note on the bar (the one Jacques gave him) and Giovanni thinks that he is rich.
  • David says that is not at all the case, just that he doesn't have change, and Giovanni smiles.
  • Giovanni asks if he is an American, and David says yes, that he is from New York. The two of them begin to discuss the differences between New York and Paris.
  • David says that in Paris you feel "all the time gone by" (1.2.90). In New York, you feel "all the time to come" (1.2.92).
  • Giovanni says that he didn't understand why Americans considered themselves so young, that they were merely emigrants from Europe.
  • David explains that after crossing the ocean, they had very different experiences. Giovanni jokes that they began to act as if they were from a different planet. David is slightly irritated.
  • Looking over, David can see that Jacques is dying to get back to the bar, but Guillaume is keeping him.
  • Giovanni then says that Americans' sense of time is funny, that they treat it like a big parade of progress.
  • He says they act "as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe" (1.2.101).
  • Giovanni says that personally he doesn't buy into any such nonsense. He says, "Time is just common, it's like water for a fish. Everybody's in the water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies" (1.2.103).
  • David disagrees with him strongly, but blushes as he does so. He says that the difference is that men have a choice.
  • Giovanni mocks him and laughs at his American enthusiasm.
  • David says he appreciates Giovanni's enthusiasm as well, "though it seems to be a blacker brand than mine" (1.2.106).
  • David continues the argument. He says that Americans are like little fish nibbling on a giant whale.
  • Giovanni cuts in and says that will not make them whales; all it will do is defeat the idea of grandeur everywhere.
  • David thinks that Giovanni looks at him as if he were completely inadequate competition for an argument. But Giovanni asks him to continue.
  • He says, "You people dumped all this merde [shit] on us, and now you say we're barbaric because we stink" (1.2.114).
  • Giovanni says that he is charmed by David, and asks if he always speaks like this. David says almost never, and Giovanni says that he is flattered.
  • To continue the conversation, David asks if Giovanni likes Paris.
  • Giovanni suddenly becomes shy. He says he doesn't like how cold it is in the winter. He also thinks that Parisians are not nearly as friendly or fun-loving as the Italians, which is what Giovanni is.
  • David points out that the French think Italians have no sense of measure.
  • Giovanni scoffs. He calls France "a country which is falling to pieces, measure by measure, before their eyes" (1.2.121).
  • Giovanni offers to buy David a drink before the "old man" comes back (1.2.121). He asks if Jacques is David's uncle.
  • David doesn't know whether he is alluding to a sexual relationship with Jacques. David says no, that Jacques is just an acquaintance.
  • Giovanni looks directly at him and says that he hopes Jacques isn't important to him because he seems quite silly.
  • David tries to defend Jacques, but he has to admit that Jacques is not very important to him. He feels a tightening in his chest.
  • They propose toasts to one another. Giovanni asks if he comes to the club often, and proposes that he should come more often now.
  • When David acts surprised by his forwardness, Giovanni says, "Tell me, what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for?" (1.2.134).
  • David has the sense that they are approaching deep and dangerous water. He replies that people want to be sure of what they feel.
  • Giovanni laughs and called him a philosopher. He goes to serve someone else, and tells David to wait and see if he feels sure when he returns.
  • David feels uncomfortable because he suddenly realizes that everyone in the bar has been watching them like two animals in a zoo.
  • Jacques escapes from Guillaume, but gets tied up with some of the young boys.
  • When Giovanni comes back, he winks at David and asks if he is sure. David implies that he is, and Giovanni teases him that he shouldn't be so hasty. He wanders off again.
  • An extremely flamboyant man – the flaming princess – emerges from the crowd and begins to make his way toward David. He has on a shirt made of paper thin wafers of different colors and, when he approaches David, he puts his hand on his hip.
  • He asks if David is pleased by Giovanni, and David plays dumb.
  • The man asks again and David tells him to mind his own business and to get the hell away from him.
  • The man tells him that Giovanni is very dangerous. Though David wants to know what he means, instead of asking he tells him to go to hell.
  • The man grabs a crucifix he is wearing on his chest and says that he will not go to hell. He predicts, though, that David will be consumed by a fire.
  • He asks David to buy him a drink. When David refuses, "His face crumpled in the sorrow of infants and of very old men – the sorrow, also, of certain aging actresses who were renowned in their youth for their fragile, child-like beauty. The dark eyes narrowed in spite of fury and the scarlet mouth turned down like the mask of tragedy" (1.2.158).
  • The princess tells David that he will be very unhappy, and turns and walks away through the crowd.
  • Jacques returns and comments on how the whole bar is impressed with David's banter with Giovanni. He asks if there has been confusion.
  • David scowls at him. He suddenly wants to get out of the bar and to find Hella. He tells him that there is no confusion, and tells him not to be confused either.
  • Jacques retorts that he is not at all confused. He says, "Confusion is a luxury which only the very, very young can possibly afford, and you are not that young any more" (1.2.163).
  • David decides to get drunk. Giovanni continues to wink and flirt with him, and Jacques surveys his behavior. David resents him hugely.
  • A number of people are coming in and going out of the bar.
  • David can't even look at Jacques. He drinks in an attempt to drown "the ferocious excitement which had burst in me like a storm" (1.2.171).
  • David thinks that Jacques feels like he has won a bet, that he has finally seen what he has been waiting so many months to see.
  • He wants to leave the bar, to go to Montparnasse (a quarter in Paris), and pick up a girl. He can't, though, and he knows that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter because "they had become visible, as visible as the wafers on the shirt of the flaming princess, they stormed all over me, my awakening, my insistent possibilities" (1.2.172).
  • Note to the reader: We're back to the present tense of the book where David is generally reminiscing about Giovanni from his house in the south of France.
  • Looking back, David thinks that he and Giovanni connected from the first moment that they met and would remain connected even after Giovanni died.
  • He knows that Giovanni will continue to rise in his memory time and again.
  • As he says, "Sometimes, in the days which are coming – God grant me the grace to live them: in the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last night's impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head" (1.2.173).

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