Giovanni’s Room, Sabbath’s Theater, and Hunger

by Nick

I’ve been meaning to write something about these novels so here are some thoughts.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a really short allegory about a young man’s confusion over his sexuality. It’s a tragedy centered on David, who meets and falls for Giovanni, a poor man working in a Paris gay bar. The book’s very short, sad, and Baldwin surprised me with metaphors and comparisons between vegetation and human beings. I don’t have a lot to say about this one, but as someone who had read almost no Baldwin before this I’m curious about some of his other works. Giovanni’s Room isn’t entirely successful in its attempts to make David an empathetic or sympathetic character. David’s conflict with societally dictated masculinity was the most interesting thing in the novel. That said, I’m a straight white reader. Giovanni’s Room is short enough that if you’re interested in it you should just pick it up.

I’d read praise for Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater but I should have known better. It’s another solid Roth novel (I’ve read some stories, Portnoy’s Complaint, and The Plot Against America) but most of it didn’t amuse me. We have a Rabbit or Portnoy in the novel’s protagonist Mickey Sabbath. He lives in the North East, unhappily married, confronted with his old age and looming death, obsessed with sex, etc. Pretty standard stuff. It’s a bit darker in content than Updike or the other Roth I’ve read so we get more explicit sex scenes. Most of this is what readers have come to expect from this kind of story. Most of the interactions with any of the other characters turn into a train wreck with Mickey trying to manipulate them or have sex with any and every woman he sees throughout the novel. That’s really the biggest downside for me. I got tired of Mickey trying to seduce every woman in the book but his wife. I’m not sure that I needed 350 pages of that. I understand that Mickey’s a creep and the novel presents him as such, but it still tries to eek out the reader’s compassion for him in the last 150 pages. I didn’t have much for him. On the technical end of the spectrum, Roth can write. This novel’s got enough weird stuff occasionally going on too that I enjoyed. For example, Mickey’s mom’s ghost appears throughout and he converses with her, the novel goes into stream of consciousness for 3-4 pages about halfway through, and literary connections are made throughout. Some of the humor worked for me, but the constant sexual manipulation ruined most of it for me. Especially because manipulation is such a constant topic throughout the novel and the book attempts to draw the reader into Mickey’s perversion. I’m pretty confident the novel meant to repulse me with that but that conceptual correlation doesn’t have to result in the reader putting up with all of Mickey’s thoughts.

Knut Hamsun’s Hunger details a young man in extreme poverty and his attempts to attain food, shelter, and money. The protagonist is very eccentric and does a lot of funny things throughout. It has a lighter form of Kafka’s humor in something like The Castle and Hamsun writes in shorter more physically descriptive sentences. Hemingway was influenced by Hamsun and the connection is apparent even if Hamsun isn’t nearly as stark as Hemingway. Part of me thought about Hamsun’s novel in terms of society absolutely draining someone and part of me thought the protagonist’s odd sense of duty and honor more or less led to that. One could condense that by saying the metanarrative of respectability and professionalism is about shouldering out people who don’t possess a certain arbitrary standard of capital and that’s probably about right. This is a fun short novel at 230 pages but I didn’t find a lot to think about here. It’s funny and it details the relationship between art and desperation but Hamsun doesn’t provide much other than that. He doesn’t give the reader interesting witticisms the way William Gaddis does in The Recognitions and I’m afraid very few of the novel’s details stuck with me. If I had to write something longer on this book I’m not sure what else there is to say. Our speaker doesn’t fit in society and yearns for something simpler that will keep him financially stable. His constant reaching for everything, loans, helping people he doesn’t know with money he doesn’t have, attempting to write massive pieces which he scraps before finishing so he can write and abandon other massive pieces is his downfall. There’s any easy capitalism critique there but that’s all I’m going to say. I had some fun with this one but I’m not sure that it was a better choice than reading Pynchon’s latest or any number of other books. It’s alright and I’m glad to have read it given the comparisons drawn between this character and Dostoyevsky’s Roskalnikov and the european archetype of the wandering blank man or the man without qualities, but I can’t say I loved the novel itself.