James Baldwin’s Paris has enthralled me ever since I read Giovanni’s Room. It is a place of hope and destruction. Freedom and hiding. Acceptance and shadows.
Having learnt that Baldwin remained in Paris to escape racism in America from 1948 onwards – seeing it as a refuge of sorts – novels like Another Country and Giovanni’s Room become more pertinent. Paris was not just a city of escape for his characters, but for himself too. What struck me about Giovanni’s Room when I first read it was the way that we amble down the streets of Paris with David and Giovanni – almost hand in hand with them – as if it is both a mirage and a prison of sorts.
In both Another Country and Giovanni’s Room, Paris acts as a refuge for queer experience. Away from the ironed and pressed straightjacket of America, the streets of Paris offer a way for these characters to live. To love.
But Baldwin was not deluded by Paris. He was not made utterly dizzy by the heights of the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps that is why his characters ultimately always return home – to America. Perhaps Paris remains a refuge for only so long before it becomes a sour-tasting piece of gum you have chewed for too long. Baldwin himself returned back home in the 60s, but never firmly planted his feet there again.
France’s tolerance for LGBTQ+ residences during Baldwin’s time makes it a particularly attractive location for novels like Giovanni’s Room. However, I argue that the seedy underbelly of this world that Baldwin presents – claustrophobic rooms, old men, and murder – portrays a world where nowhere is completely safe. Even on the streets of Paris love is still confined to a room with painted windows. No one can see in or out. The world becomes smaller.
Paris becomes a double edged sword.
It is both a mistress of warm embraces and cold rejection. And that is what is so magical about Baldwin’s presentation of it. Is it for those that are running? For those that sprint and sprint away from the harsh reality of society until they double over and gasp for breath only to be kicked in the gut?
Baldwin continues to be an inspiration for me; the way that he constructs the emotions on the page is utterly mesmerizing. I would argue that his depiction of the physical world around his character plays into this largely. For who is Rufus without Harlem? Who is Giovanni without his tiny room? Baldwin understood the utter significance of having somewhere like Paris as the backdrop for his texts. It was not just his home, but the home of queer experience in his texts.
Yet Paris becomes suffocating. David’s claustrophobia in Giovanni’s Room is called to mind here. He ‘felt that the walls of the room were closing in on’ him in Giovanni’s room, and from this point forward every room he enters becomes a prison of sorts. Paris becomes a prison that he carries with him even when he leaves.
James Baldwin is a master. And what better a Muse than Paris?