James Baldwin and the Paris of the 1950s

A photo of James Baldwin and the cover of his novel Giovanni's Room.

Last weekend, I found myself on the Pont Neuf in the centre of Paris. It was around 10AM on a Saturday morning in June. Normally, this area would be packed with people. People taking pictures of the river. People waiting to begin a walking tour of the Île de la Cité. This weekend, however, the Pont Neuf was eerily quiet. There were no tour groups. No people taking pictures. Just a few Parisians out for their morning jog. Travel restrictions may be lifting across Europe, but it is clear that it will be a long time before Paris is filled with visitors once more. Thankfully, there are countless books, movies, and television shows that are set in Paris to tide everyone over until that happens. This week, I’d like to highlight the works of James Baldwin, and in particular, his seminal novel, Giovanni’s Room.

James Baldwin was an incredibly influential writer, essayist, poet, and activist in the 20th century. His works focused on the intersection of race, class, and sexuality, and he was an important voice of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, is considered to be one of the most important non-fiction books of the 20th century. In 1948, Baldwin immigrated to Paris to escape the rampant racism of his home country, and he lived France on and off for the rest of his life. As a result, many of his works were influenced by his experiences in this country.

In addition to being a black American, James Baldwin was also a gay man. Incredibly, he was writing stories about gay and bisexual men decades before Stonewall and the modern gay rights movement began. In particular, Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, is considered to be a classic of LGBTQ literature. It also happens to be one of my favourite books set in Paris.

Giovanni’s Room tells the story of an American expat who has a contentious love affair with a bartender he meets at a Parisian gay bar. The book is a hauntingly beautiful meditation on what it means to be a man, and an evocative depiction of the poisonous effects of shame on a person’s identity. The prose also exquisitely describes Paris in the 1950s. I may not be living in that particular time period, but this novel is the closest I’ve read to describing the essence of this city that I love so much.

Despite its progressive subject matter, Baldwin’s critics were quick to point out that this book features all white characters. When questioned on this, Baldwin replied that at that point in his journey as a writer, he was not ready to tackle both race and sexuality in the same book. Giovanni’s Room is about the later, but thankfully, Baldwin later gave us many more stories that address both. If you want to explore more of his works, I highly recommend If Beale Street Could Talk and the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. Both are powerful indictments of the historical treatment of black Americans, and they are indispensable resources for those looking to educate themselves on these issues.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a way to be transported to Paris without having to get on a plane, I hope you will pick up a copy of Giovanni’s Room. James Baldwin managed to capture the beauty of Paris in a story that contains very little beauty for its own characters. Simply put, it’s a classic for a reason, so I hope you will find a way to the Paris of the 1950s in the near future.