‘Giovanni’s Room’ Revisited

James Baldwin’s 1956 novel is a layered exploration of queer desire — and of the writer’s own sense of self.

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Nobody wanted it. Certainly not the folks at Alfred A. Knopf, who published his first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” in 1953. Back then, the young James Baldwin — he was just 28 when “Mountain” came out — had a protector named William Cole, who was Knopf’s publicity director. Always on the lookout for fresh voices, the publicist read magazines like The New Leader, Commentary and The Nation, where, a few years earlier, essays and reviews by a man named James Baldwin had begun to appear with some frequency. And what Cole found in the emotionally charged writing were thoughts that sometimes — thrillingly — strained against its own gorgeous, literary, knowing style: Baldwin “read,” but from up high. Cole brought a few of his pieces to Knopf’s editor in chief, Harold Strauss, who contacted Baldwin’s agent and learned that he was at work on a novel.

When Knopf eventually received the manuscript for “Mountain,” it appeared that its peripatetic author — who had lived abroad, mostly in Paris, since 1948 — had typed the story out on all sorts of typewriters and on many different kinds of stationery. No matter. What held the book together was Baldwin’s extraordinary sensibility, and his deep understanding of his 14-year-old protagonist, John, who feels — who knows — life might be something else if prejudice and poverty and his hateful and hated father, a part-time Pentecostal preacher named Gabriel, didn’t threaten to follow him all the days of his life and beat him out of heaven when he got there. Not that John believes he belongs in paradise, not really. He is too filled with sin. There is, primarily, the sin of his mind, which is unlike others in his community:

John excelled in school ... and it was said that he had a Great Future. He might become a Great Leader of His People. John was not much interested in his people and still less in leading them anywhere.

And there are the sins his body houses and that he has no name for but that become more pronounced when he horses around with a beautiful young male member of his father’s congregation named Elisha, an experience that brings John no closer to intimacy but a great deal closer to the closet, because for sure his feelings for Elisha make him an abomination forever and forever in a world where there is no room to hide.

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Baldwin was made to feel suspicious and grief-stricken about his body long before he or a loving man could claim it. Born in Harlem in 1924, he was the first son of a woman named Emma Berdis Jones, who worked as a domestic. In 1927, Berdis married a Harlem-based preacher named David Baldwin. The couple were part of the Great Migration; Berdis had come up to New York from Maryland and David from New Orleans. Eventually they had eight additional children together. As the eldest, Baldwin looked after his younger brothers and sisters; he was also despised by his adopted father, who never missed an opportunity to call him ugly. As a consequence, Baldwin, searching for some kind of validation — and to best his father at his own game — became a boy preacher; at 16, he left the church forever. But it never left him. He was a few days shy of 19 and living away from home when David Baldwin died, still “locked up in his terrors,” as Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son,” his 1955 essay. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was a memory of Baldwin’s mother’s love, his father’s bitterness and the world that made him, the bastard child perpetually in search of legitimacy while knocking up against and trying to topple the status quo.

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a beautiful novel in part because its author understands the interiority of the characters who recall so much during a particular church service. There, in that world of parishioners crying holy, the small community lives surrounded by other sounds. Indeed, the book is filled with sounds — sounds that are shaped by sin. Like privacy, silence is a rare commodity among the poor, who are always forced to live in public. There’s the sound of John’s parents having sex. The sound of rats in the wall and the sound of praying, or of evil, secular music on the streets. The sound of Gabriel slapping John’s mother, Elizabeth. The sound of Bette Davis’s fury and needling in one of the wicked, godforsaken movies John sneaks off to see in Times Square. The sound of hearts and minds breaking all around John in those filthy Harlem streets where the damned are made blacker by the absence of His light.

In any case, Cole was taken by Baldwin’s “vertical saints” in “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a book Baldwin had worked on for about a decade by the time it was published, and it was Cole, too, who sent it to writers Baldwin admired — Marianne Moore, for one, who said that its “verisimilitude is continuous; it does not lapse.” It generated some sales and decent notices and that was that. But Cole was away on vacation in 1955 when “Giovanni’s Room” came in, a book Baldwin had written to him about from Paris. (Original title: “One for My Baby.”) By the time he returned, the slim, intense novel had been rejected. In his letter, the esteemed editor Henry Carlisle — he would go on to work with the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — said the company was turning down “Giovanni’s Room” not because it lacked fine writing, but because it had so few credible characters and would do nothing to serve Baldwin’s reputation. And that the book’s failure had nothing to do with its subject matter.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

“Giovanni’s Room” was Baldwin’s bastard child in the way he was a bastard child. Imagine the various publishers’ surprise when this novel of gay and bisexual love showed up over the transom. (It was eventually published in 1956 by the Dial Press.) What did it mean, the 31-year-old Baldwin telling a story he wanted to tell that wasn’t the kind of story he was supposed to tell? Wasn’t he black and queer and from poor-ass Harlem? What did he know about white expatriates carrying on with the French and Italians in post-World War II Paris? Wasn’t that the province of Sartre, of Juliette Gréco? Oh, right, he had lived there — in Paris — since 1948, and had published, in 1953, in Harper’s, an essay titled “Stranger in the Village,” about his time in Loèche-les-Bains, a tiny Swiss town where his sometimes lover, the artist Lucien Happersberger, had a family house. Baldwin was likely the first black person to ever visit it. His very presence changed and challenged the idea that “Europe” was synonymous with “white.” Still, how did any of this qualify him to dream up this new book? How dare he call on what he knew — his experience — and marry it to his imagination, that which the soul rumbles around in, alive to discovery? That wasn’t a black man’s job, let alone right: to hatch things out of his imagination, and then add to it — for the sake of verisimilitude — from the pot of his own experience. No. No one wants that. What one wants, says the publisher, or whomever, in 1955 — and even now when the catchword is “urban” — what one wants after “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and those marvelous pieces about the Harlem ghetto, blacks and Jews in Harlem and so forth, is a more authentic blackness: The dirt and sex you wrote about in “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and some of the essays. Can you forgo your imagination and be black for me?

That was one response. And in the time since the book was published, there has been a proliferation of responses and ideas about what Baldwin was up to with those characters who always seem to live at night — nights as dark as a closet. A long time ago, in the late 1980s, I had a Panamanian-born friend, fluent in French, who worked at the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, a gay bookstore on Christopher Street in New York. The store no longer exists, just as my friend no longer exists (he died from complications of AIDS in 2003). “Giovanni’s Room” was one of the store’s biggest sellers, and while my friend and I had strenuous arguments about the book — as a devoted Francophile, he adored the novel’s cruisy milieu — we were often touched by the number of kids who frequented the shop, looking for a way to love, and responded to Baldwin’s story. Today, when a great many arguments and complaints from the queer quarters of the political sphere have to do with what has been done to queerness by the patriarchy and by whiteness, Baldwin asks, in “Giovanni’s Room,” what love looks like, ultimately, when we leave all those bags at the door — and if we can. Do we know how to live in a purely queer world not defined by resistance or self-hatred? Despite its tragic ending, “Giovanni’s Room” is a curiously hopeful book; like many morality tales, the story is meant to be instructive; the author wants you to love, but he doesn’t necessarily want the love he describes in his story to happen to you. And if it has happened to you, how to undo it?

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

“GIOVANNI’S ROOM” IS a tighter novel than “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and explores a different aspect of Baldwin’s voice — that of Baldwin the playwright, whose characters are often too emphatic in their discussion of the self. The earlier book illustrates the power of family lore meeting the artist’s imagination, and how those stories influenced John’s, and thus Baldwin’s, making and unmaking. “Giovanni’s Room,” on the other hand, is an attempt by the young writer to come to terms with just being. To achieve that, though, Baldwin needed a metaphor, the distance of whiteness. Part of the book’s oddness is because Baldwin associated whiteness with knowingness. In a 2018 interview, the late writer Toni Morrison, a friend of Baldwin’s for many years, said that she and Jimmy used to talk about the little white man who sat on your shoulder while you were writing, entreating you to explain black people to white people. In her fiction, Morrison sent that man packing, while in some of Baldwin’s stranger early essays, such as 1951’s “Many Thousands Gone,” where he talks about “the Negro” as a cultural artifact in an oddly sociological tone, that little white man hops all over the page. He’s in “Giovanni’s Room,” too, but as the white man, the book’s narrator, David.

“Giovanni’s Room” begins with a reflection of whiteness. David stands looking out at the world through a darkening window. He’s in a house in the South of France, drinking, and the window is a kind of pool. Like Narcissus, he cannot turn away from what the surface reveals:

My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.

It is whiteness as history, or the repository of a legitimate history. David’s personal history includes his girl, Hella, who, at the start of the book, has left him to return home to America, and it also includes, perhaps more significantly, his former lover, Giovanni, who is sitting in a jail cell in Paris, waiting to be executed, an imprisonment and death David can’t help but imagine — just as Baldwin read and imagined Sydney Carton’s death by guillotine in Dickens’s 1859 “A Tale of Two Cities” over and over again as a kid; along with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Dickens’s tale of the French Revolution fascinated him.

Unlike Carton, though, there’s nothing noble about Giovanni’s impending execution. Standing in that house in the South of France, David feels like a seer who cannot see; his thoughts and emotional connections sound, despite the precision of Baldwin’s prose, inchoate, thin, alien even. Perhaps there’s a reason David feels so unmoored during most of the story: His mother died when he was 5; he was raised partly in Brooklyn by his father and his father’s unmarried sister. David doesn’t remember his mother, but he dreams about her. She’s the stuff of nightmares:

Blind with worms, her hair as dry as metal and brittle as a twig, straining to press me against her body; that body so putrescent, so sickening soft, that it opened, as I clawed and cried, into a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

Baldwin was writing when Freud, Kafka and, above all for Baldwin, Dostoyevsky, were especially relevant in the larger literary conversation, and the great Eastern European and Russian thinkers are never far from the book’s dilemmas. (While Henry James certainly influenced Baldwin’s interest in the American abroad — he did not take to “The Master” until after he moved to Paris — one feels the distance and intimacy of James’s voice had a much bigger influence on the writer’s “Giovanni’s Room”-era essays than the novel.) Nor are the author’s American contemporaries Norman Mailer, William Styron and James Jones — which, coincidentally, was Baldwin’s name until his mother married David Baldwin. Unlike those white guys, though, Baldwin didn’t have a war to cover in his book. But he did have, like them, a protagonist with a penis that is in conflict with a world that threatens “to swallow me alive.” One warm summer night, the teenage schoolboy David and his friend Joey are hanging out in Brooklyn when they share a bed. Waking up, David sees not only Joey’s face of love but himself in a disfiguring light. One feeds off the other:

We were both naked and the sheet we had used as a cover was tangled around our feet. Joey’s body was brown, was sweaty, the most beautiful creation I had ever seen till then. I would have touched him to wake him up but something stopped me. I was suddenly afraid ... Perhaps it was because he was so much smaller than me; my own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing and the desire which was rising in me seemed monstrous.

David does not consider his size — his strength — an attribute, one that Joey digs. His young friend’s pleasure, combined with the new vulnerability of love, makes David feel conspicuous — “gross.” Which is to say that their lovemaking has made David aware that he has a corporeal self, one that troubles and excites another human being. How is he to stand this? One way of getting rid of the flesh and its disturbing habit of replicating desire is by clamping down on it, or trying to nullify it. After David parts from Joey, he shuts him out of his life. Not long after that, David gets into a car wreck. After he’s released from the hospital, he convinces his father to let him go out and find a job instead of going to college. Some time later, he heads to France.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

BALDWIN PUTS DAVID through a lot in the first 20 or so pages of the book to justify his escape. But it’s not really an escape, because the questions of desire and what constitutes a home follow David across the sea. Baldwin wrote his second novel during the Eisenhower presidency, at the start of the Cold War, when queers were stuck between a big rock and an uglier hard place. You could be arrested for “soliciting” while being forced to live in the world in a kind of mental and physical drag — a straight-male drag that celebrated the best America had to offer, which is to say an ennobling, potentially violent masculinity. And just as Baldwin needed the metaphor of whiteness in his book to talk about, or more specifically, to question his own idea of what constitutes intimacy between men (and if it was possible at all), so, too, is David made to fall in love with Giovanni during his second year in Paris.

By the time David meets Giovanni, he’s down on his luck financially. His father wants him to return home to the States and grow up. One day, David hits up an old acquaintance named Jacques for 10,000 francs. Jacques is a gay businessman who mourns our inability to be restful and at peace with one another. “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden,” he says to David. “I wonder why.” But that is some time after David accompanies Jacques to a bar, “in a noisy, crowded, ill-lit sort of tunnel,” run by Guillaume, a gay femme Catholic. Guillaume’s place is populated by an array of night people, including, Baldwin writes, “les folles, always dressed in the most improbable combinations, screaming like parrots the details of their latest love affairs — their love affairs seemed to be hilarious.” He goes on:

Occasionally, one would swoop in, quite late in the evening, to convey the news that he — but they always called each other “she” — had just spent time with a celebrated movie star, or boxer. Then all of the others closed in on this newcomer and they looked like a peacock garden and sounded like a barnyard. I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody, for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them.

Giovanni is the new barman. He’s Italian, and his naturalness of form and expression stands in stark contrast to the others. He is the “nigger” in this wilderness of artificiality, and whiteness, and through him Baldwin exercises what Toni Morrison might have called a profound act of “othering.” For those queens to exist, there must be a “real” man on the premises, one who is desired but who is also less than himself because he is more “primitive,” more “real.”

David and Giovanni’s bar banter is pretty incredible. Giovanni holds the grandeur of Europe over David’s head, saying Americans always fail to measure up, which David counters in language that sounds less like fiction than like Baldwin:

You people are impossible. ... You’re the ones who killed grandeur off, right here in this city. ... You people dumped all this merde on us ... and now you say we’re barbaric because we stink.

Giovanni is amused and aroused by David’s earnestness. David is attracted to Giovanni, too; after they meet, David feels a “ferocious excitement which had burst in me like a storm.” The men go to Giovanni’s room together, and in one of the strongest passages in the book, Baldwin allows himself and his protagonist to feel, for the first time, how restful and fulfilling love can be:

I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning, our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

The worms in the cracks are David’s inability to commit to a life with Giovanni, or to get rid of the sense that he himself is a “nigger,” unable to move in the larger world because of the stigma of being gay. In his 1969 essay, “Memoirs of an Ancient Activist,” later revised as “The Politics of Being Queer,” the author and literary critic Paul Goodman writes:

In essential ways, my homosexual needs have made me a nigger. Most obviously, of course, I have been subject to arbitrary brutality from citizens and the police; but except for being occasionally knocked down, I have gotten off lightly in this respect, since I have a good flair for incipient trouble and I used to be nimble on my feet. What makes me a nigger is that it is not taken for granted that my out-going impulse is my right. Then I have the feeling that it is not my street.

David’s whiteness can’t save him, either. He can’t walk down the street with Giovanni in the same way he can with Hella; if he tried, he might be knocked down; his desire is not his right. He cannot be part of the world Giovanni inhabits, and yet he cannot turn away.

Baldwin shows that world with the brilliance of the filmmaker he longed to be throughout his life. When they meet, Giovanni lives in nighttime and early morning Paris, and Baldwin lets us see that realm through places such as Les Halles, where butchers drink Pernod after they’ve made a delivery and streetwalkers rest between clients: an underground that no longer exists but which you can still see in wonderful movies such as the director Martin Ritt’s 1961 film “Paris Blues,” which captures the light and aimlessness and cool of the place. If novelists split off in their books, Baldwin identifies with the way Giovanni is perceived — as the other — but he is the idealized other, capable of kicking ass if you mess with him, an other who would protect Baldwin’s own otherness, if need be. And while “Giovanni’s Room” is one of the least directly political novels Baldwin was ever to write, it is electric with both Cold War and sexual panic. In this, it reminds me of a novel published seven years later: Sylvia Plath’s 1963 “The Bell Jar.” There, as in “Giovanni’s Room,” the protagonist is suffocating under the weight of what it feels like to be a white person in a world she’s supposed to be part of — that her ancestors have made — one that suppresses difference, political and otherwise, at all costs. It’s 1953, and we’re in Manhattan with Plath’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, who says, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.” She goes on:

I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner. ... It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

It had nothing to do with me. Like Esther, David is the voice of American existentialism; they won’t be implicated in the disaster of the world; the point is to fit in, not to stand out. If you do, you could end up with fried nerves or your neck under the guillotine. Fear drives David to leave Giovanni for Hella, a woman he professes to love and who, in her desire for a “real” man, craves the kind of dominance David is interested in, but for himself, with another man. He must be what he sees in that window in the South of France: a conqueror. But David is no victor. And after he abandons Giovanni to this false ideal, Baldwin shows, in passages of great beauty alternating with strange ideas about women and masculinity, how our actions have very real consequences. After he loses his job at Guillaume’s, Giovanni is kept by Jacques, but that is not who Giovanni is. And toward the end of the book, he ends up killing Guillaume, who made a safe place for all those queer men in the first place.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

THE FUNDAMENTAL tension in “Giovanni’s Room” is between the author and his protagonist. David can’t be himself and Baldwin, the son of a man who made him feel repellent, wasn’t entirely himself in this book, either, a book about that which could not be, or at least could not be for Baldwin: the dream of the love of a “real” man, he who also would be, miraculously, a loving father figure.

“Giovanni’s Room” is Baldwin’s “white” novel in more ways than one. It’s the book that the self-described “abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent, and hungry black cat” had to write, less as a way of discussing his sexuality than as a way of discussing what America had done to his sexuality, along with his capacity for intimacy and, indeed, the whole notion of masculinity that his contemporaries and others wrestled with. Of course, Baldwin wanted to prove in this book what he had left America to prove: that he was not “merely” a Negro writer, that he would not let his talent be defined by racial subjects, that he was important enough and as bad as any white boy artist out there. Badder, even, since “Giovanni’s Room” was about sex in a way none of those guys — Jones, Mailer, etc. — could, up to that point, ever relax long enough to explore so fully in their fiction. Of course, there were homosexual overtones in Jones’s “From Here to Eternity” and Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” but who of that group had written about it from the inside? In 1955, Mailer published his essay “The Homosexual Villain” in One magazine. In that piece, he talks about his tendency to use gay men as cardboard villains in his fiction — yet another symptom of his homophobia. And while I don’t think Baldwin wanted to be white, I do think he wanted to be beautiful, and thus desired — and the country that produced him said that one couldn’t be black and beautiful. While America told David that queer was ugly, Baldwin wanted to find out what it was like to pass through society without your race being a story people made up about you, or assigned to you. What if you were free from all that, and the story you told was of yourself? In his fascinating 1956 review of “Giovanni’s Room” in The New Leader, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler wrote, “It is the most amusing of Baldwin’s wry ironies to portray the last stand of Puritanism as a defense of heterosexuality. But if David is our latest Last Puritan, he is by that very token the most uncertain of them all.” Baldwin’s book sounds certain, but it is filled with uncertainties and images and memories that go unspoken, or unrealized, such as the fact that during his time with Giovanni, David not only becomes Joey, the treasured boy from Brooklyn, he becomes his mother — soft against Giovanni’s sturdiness. One wonders if, in dreaming of the masculine ideal in “Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin was writing about what he longed for himself. (His friend and biographer David Leeming has said that Baldwin was always in search of a stronger hand than his.) Part of the ache at the center of the book is realizing that both David and the author are shut off from the possibility of a real love with a real queer body, one that is male and female and “they” all at once.

Credit...Photo by John Edmonds. Styled by Carlos Nazario

To the end of his days, Baldwin believed that his book had been turned down because of its content, and the fact that he had gotten “uppity” in taking on the white bohemian world. Of course, there’s some truth in that, just as there’s some truth in most things. But I think the publisher’s response was complicated by a number of factors, including the fact that Baldwin doesn’t own up to using Hella the way David uses her: as a kind of beard to advance the real love story. Back then, Baldwin couldn’t do without Hella, because how do you tell a love story between two men? (The author would grow into this in novels like 1962’s “Another Country” and 1979’s “Just Above My Head.”) Toward the end of his life, he was still struggling with ideas he didn’t know how to address in the novel. In 1985, he published “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” one of the last pieces he would live to see in print. (Baldwin died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1987.) Here, he lives in his sexuality without metaphor:

My father kept me in short pants longer than he should have, and I had been told, and I believed, that I was ugly. This meant that the idea of myself as a sexual possibility, or target, as a creature capable of inciting desire or capable of desire, had never entered my mind. And it entered my mind, finally, by means of the rent made in my short boy-scout pants by a man who had lured me into a hallway, saying that he wanted to send me to the store. ... Shortly after I turned 16, a Harlem racketeer, a man of about 38, fell in love with me, and I will be grateful to that man until the day I die. I showed him all my poetry, because I had no one else in Harlem to show it to, and even now, I sometimes wonder what on earth his friends could have been thinking, confronted with stingy-brimmed, mustachioed, razor-toting Poppa and skinny, popeyed Me when he walked me (rarely) into various shady joints ... I knew he was showing me off and wanted his friends to be happy for him.

In a flash, Baldwin was the victim of molestation, and in another flash, there was love and protection. There was David Baldwin, and there was the poetry the young artist couldn’t help but share with a Harlem racketeer who couldn’t help but love the poet. You’ll find all of that in “Giovanni’s Room,” but transmogrified through layers of Baldwin’s deepest longings as a gay man, to be cherished and held, and to be seen and not seen, all at the same time. Still, what draws lovers of the book to its story of betrayal and the possibility of redemption through truth and, ultimately, to the question of the body as home, is the vision of Baldwin stumbling through it, sure-footed and alone, walking toward the idea that love may come attached with different ideas of what it should look like, feel like, but in the end, it’s what you do with its responsibilities that renders you genderless — and human.

Hilton Als is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

The images in this story had existed, in some form, in the minds of its creators for over a decade. Shot by the New York City-based artist John Edmonds and styled by Carlos Nazario, the pictures are a visual reimagining of “Giovanni’s Room.” The book was personally significant to nearly all the main collaborators, all of whom (including the critic and New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, who wrote the accompanying piece) are queer men. “This story had permeated my mind,” says Edmonds, who first encountered “Giovanni’s Room” a decade ago, at age 20. “It was the first novel I read about a relationship between two men.” Likewise, the New York-based actor James Cusati-Moyer, who portrays the novel’s namesake character in the images (and appears in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” on Broadway this month), remains captivated by the book some 10 years after he first read it. “I always fell in love with the character of Giovanni,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of one day playing that role.”

As the team arrived in Paris for the shoot this past July, the city was in the grip of a heat wave. There was a “Parisian fatigue in the air,” says Cusati-Moyer, which helped conjure the feverish mood of the book. Edmonds, whose work was featured in the most recent Whitney Biennial, had found a crumbling apartment near Place de la République to replicate the novel’s main setting and procured a catalog of objects that appear in the book: a crucifix, a cut-glass whisky tumbler. Nazario, who also lives in New York City, kept the clothing timeless (“It’s an age-old tale,” he says). But in one aspect, the story deliberately veered from its source material: “Baldwin came to prominence in a very different time in America, where a black artist had to write a white narrative about white characters to be avant-garde,” says Edmonds. “In retelling the story through a set of images, I wanted one of the characters to be black.” In this version, the book’s white protagonist, David, is played by the British-Nigerian dancer and model Temi Bolorunduro, who lives in London. “While we were remaining true to the essence of the novel,” says Cusati-Moyer, “we were also staying true to the potential of what this love story could have been.” — ALICE NEWELL-HANSON

Models: James Cusati-Moyer and Temi Bolorunduro. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner. Grooming by Adrien Pinault using MAC Cosmetics. Set design by Nara Lee. Casting by Calvin Wilson for Establishment Casting. Production: Kitten Production. Photo assistant: Christian Bragg. Lighting assistants: Laurent Chouard and Alfa Arouna. Grooming assistant: Pal Berdahl. Tailoring: Laetitia Raiteux. Stylist’s assistants: Raymond Gee and Joel Traptow