Still halfway through “Giovanni’s Room”
Tim: It’s been a little while since I’ve read The Sun Also Rises, so I’ll actually say this in a far more general sense than the title would imply, but I was strongly reminded of Ernest Hemingway while I was reading through Giovanni’s Room. Hemingway and James Baldwin were writing at about the same time, they both (at least in this book) focus on American expatriates in Europe, both deal with protagonists that in many ways just seem to be sliding, foggy, through life one drink at a time. I’m not sure if I have anything more profound to say than that, but similarities in both setting and style were striking to me. Baldwin seems to be given a bit more to wordiness, but that’s not saying much when you’re making a Hemingway comparison.
Debby: Unfortunately, my Hemingway knowledge is disparagingly slim. What I do know of his works, however, strikes as profoundly opposite from Baldwin’s style. Hemingway was, to his core, a “man’s man”. The Old Man and the Sea is a great, heroic battle between an old man and a fish. It is absolutely, unabashedly masculine in both tone and texture. Baldwin’s story is looking at the other side of the spectrum, or rather where the masculine stereotypes intersect with an alternative, carnal nature. Obviously, the protagonist of “Giovanni’s Room” struggles with his sexuality– he desires to rise above the nature of Jacques and various others whom he deems “despicable”, yet it is more for the sake of pretense of societal norms that he defers from that path. What I’m essentially trying to say is that sexuality is something Hemingway never questions, and it is at the very heart of Baldwin’s work.
Tim: Absolutely, their subject matter is very different. No, I’m trying to get more at the style of their actual prose. Baldwin is definitely more ornate than Hemingway, but he’s still fairly direct with the way he writes, and combined with the setting and the plot (Hemingway’s Jacques would be a boisterous man who needed to be put in place, and his Giovanni would either be an old friend or a woman, but there are structural similarities), it’s definitely the first comparison I leapt to. Although I am more familiar with Hemingway, and that is how we analyze new things: by comparing them to what we know well.
Debby: I’m sorry to disagree, but I think Hemingway’s “masculinity” is an absolutely essential part of his style. I think both “directness” and lack of ornate language speaks directly to that. His terse, compact writing style also creates a more manly, no nonsense atmosphere. The subject of masculinity has been at the heart of nearly all the scholarship and critical responses to his work. What’s interesting to note is that as of this day and age, the consensus is that Hemingway’s approach is now being interpreted as masculinity “in crisis”: as in, his extreme machismo grew out of his desire to protect traditional male roles.
Tim: Ok, I think I can get on board with just about everything you said there, but I don’t think it’s an argument against the comparison between Baldwin and Hemingway. If you watch Baldwin’s David, to this point he’s behaved in a way that’s incredibly similar to a Heminway protagonist. There’s nothing about David’s homosexuality that’s made him less manly. He goes to a bar and drinks, he gets annoyed by preening individuals of any sort. He seems caught in the morass of trying to live well, to be a man, in a society that’s judging him by one particular action rather than the whole of himself. He’s still finding himself, sure, but so are plenty of Hemingway’s characters who start off boyish and relatively unempowered.
Debby: Well, in that instance I was simply emphasizing that Hemingway exuded that machismo in both his style AND subject. I see what you’re saying, but you’re referring to the subject again, rather than tone and style. I think Baldwin has a much more poetic, romantic form of writing. From the very opening line we see a more gothic, flowery language exhibited: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He goes on to describe his physical reflection, before letting his mind trail down the list of possible future circumstances. It is much more detail-oriented and poetic than Hemingway! I’m not trying to say that poetry is feminine, I simply think Hemingway works hard to cast a very masculine pall over his works by the way he writes, whereas Baldwin is not so concerned with that image.
Tim: Hmmm….it’s absolutely possible I made the association based on a sense of some of those other elements rather than the writing itself (which I’m recalling an impression of far more than any detail I can bring to mind). And I agree, Baldwin is DEFINITELY more given to ornamentation. I’ll have to pay closer attention for the second half, and maybe we can revisit this at the end of the book.