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Reading group: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is our book for February | Books

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin has come out of the hat and will be our book about love for this month’s reading group.

Baldwin’s second novel was written in 1956 when the author lived in Paris. As he explained in a 1980 interview, this story of failing to find love and a young man doomed to death was partly inspired by real life:

“We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And, two or three days later, I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined … I saw him in the headlines, which reminded me that I was already working on him without knowing it.”

But that’s not to say that this novel is autobiographical. Baldwin explained that he populated Giovanni’s Room with white characters because he couldn’t bear the burden of writing about race issues and homosexuality in one book at that time. “I certainly could not possibly have – not at that point in my life – handled the other great weight, the ‘negro problem’,” he said, in 1980. “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

Even with those self-imposed restrictions, the novel faced a difficult journey to publication. Baldwin had already established a considerable reputation with his superb first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, but his publisher Knopf Doubleday thought that reputation rested on Baldwin being an authority on the “negro problem”. They thought the homosexuality in Giovanni’s Room would alienate the “certain audience” who bought his books. Baldwin later explained to the Village Voice that Knopf told him: “This new book will ruin your career, because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before, and we won’t publish this book as a favour to you.”

Baldwin’s response was perfect: “I told them, ‘Fuck you.’”

He then took a boat to England and sold the book to Michael Joseph before also selling it to the Dial Press in the US. Those fortunate publishers had a classic on their hands.

The quality of the book was soon recognised. In the New York Times, the novelist and editor Granville Hicks declared: “His most conspicuous gift is his ability to find words that astonish the reader with their boldness even as they overwhelm him with their rightness … This is Mr Baldwin’s subject, the rareness and difficulty of love, and, in his rather startling way, he does a great deal with it.”

But even though reviews were favourable, they also give a flavour of just how brave Baldwin had been to write this book in the way that he did. Hicks described “scenes of squalor, with a background of characters as grotesque and repulsive as any that can be found in Proust’s Cities of the Plain”, while David Williams in the Guardian described the book as “an intense, well-composed study of abnormality” – this being a relationship between two men.

Such was the world. But at least Williams also recognised that Baldwin “generates a sort of luminosity which spreads itself over the page”.

Anyone who has read Baldwin will recognise that trait, and understand why the book has stood the test of time. It’s now firmly established as a work of profound artistry and, as the writer Garth Greenwell movingly described it on its 60th anniversary in 2016, it is an “antidote to shame”.

If the first line is anything to go by, it’s going to be a treat: “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.”

I can’t wait to read it – and I hope you’ll join me. By way of further encouragement – and thanks to Penguin – we have five copies of Giovanni’s Room to give to the first five people from the UK to post “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive suggestion in the comments section below. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email the lovely folk on culture.admin@theguardian.com, with your address and your account username – we can’t track you down ourselves. Be nice to them, too.

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