Friday, February 26, 2010

Christopher Isherwood’s masterpiece seems as fresh as ever

Tom Ford’s film of Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man, is singularly beautiful and very moving. What better time to reread the novel and see how it has stood the test of time. It remains a powerful statement, as important now as when it was written.

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (186 pages, Minnesota University Press, $15.95) is one of the great gay novels of the twentieth century. As simple in shape as a short story, and hardly long enough to be classed as a novel at all, A Single Man resonates with power, as if were a tale by Hawthorne or Henry James.

The story begins when the hero, George, is waking up in his Santa Monica canyon home. George is a fifty-eight year old English professor, originally from England, whose younger lover has died some months before the opening of the story.

George puts himself together, physically and mentally, for the onslaughts of the day; and as he does so, we garner his attitudes toward the neighbors—he sees them as empty-headed breeders—his friends—trying to help him but always saying the same things—and his students—careless and uninterested in what he has to tell them.

In spite of all these negatives, George seems positively to enjoy the day as it opens before him. He takes pleasure in his responses to things, and he remains alert and self-conscious enough to take pleasure in simply being alive.

George watches himself engage with neighbors, colleagues, and students. It is almost as if he is watching from a bemused perspective as this “George” creates certain impressions and invokes specific responses.

The novel remains in a kind of continuous present as George moves through his day. As he does so, the memory of his lost lover—Jim died in a car crash when he was returning to see his family in Ohio—creates a mood of loss.

Out of this loss, George also articulates an anger against the straight world that has militated against him and his kind. He thinks this in various ways, and he almost says it, both in the classroom and late at night when he is sitting over drinks with one of this students.

The loss and the anger are part of the same response, and Isherwood is brilliant at showing how these two things are intertwined. This comes out vividly when George is dining and drinking—with the emphasis on drink—with his forty-something neighbor Charlotte. Charlotte is also from England originally, and she would like nothing more than to wallow in nostalgic reminiscence.

George is tougher than that, and even though he gives Charlotte some of what she wants—telling her about a plan that he and Jim had to take over a pub in the north of England—he also challenges her to face up to what life has offered her.

Later, in something of a drunken haze, with his intellectually infatuated student, Kenny, George comes close to making a political claim of his own. He challenges Kenny and talks about himself by seeming to talk about the young kid and his girlfriend.

The novel tells a lot about what it was like to be gay, or quee-r, in the mid-twentieth century. It also tells a lot about California at that crucial moment of suburban expansion. Isherwood gives us a crystalline portrait of Los Angeles in the sixties, and his gay perspective does more to enhance his deep attachment and wretched alienation. This is a novel to cherish, and we are lucky that Tom Ford has created such a beautiful rendition as he has.

Christopher Isherwood

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