I got ‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood after reading fellow-blogger Bina’s review of it. I knew about the film ‘A Single Man’ starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, which came out last year, but I didn’t know at that time, that it was based on a novel. I had never heard of Christopher Isherwood before and as both the book and the film had got raving reviews, I thought I will try to read the book and watch the movie after that. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.
In this brilliantly perceptive novel, a middle-aged professor living in California is alienated from his students by differences in age and nationality, and from the rest of society by his homosexuality. Isherwood explores the depths of the human soul and its ability to triumph over loneliness, alienation and loss.
What I think
To extend the story given in the summary, ‘A Single Man’ is about an English literature professor of British origin who works in an American university and who is gay. He has lost his partner Jim recently in an accident. The book describes one day in his life after this had happened and his experiences with the people whom he encounters – his neighbours, strangers, his students, his fellow professors and his best friend Charlotte.
‘A Single Man’ is a slim novel at around 150 pages. It has beautiful passages in every page leavened with deep insights. The book also depicts the era in which the story takes place – the early 1960s when the Cuban missile crisis broke out – quite beautifully, through the conversations and thoughts of its characters. Christopher Ishwerwood’s style is like the smooth flow of a river. Or like a sophisticated car gliding down the road, when one doesn’t feels the friction of the road, and the car seems to be floating-gliding on the surface. One of the reviews said this about his style – “He strikes a note of great intimacy with the reader as if with a close personal friend, and a sense of total honesty is sought. This style – witty, observant, nostalgic, exact – was Ishwerwood’s great contribution to modern literature”. Very beautifully put and very true. When I read the book, I loved Isherwood’s style so much that I didn’t want it to end. I also couldn’t stop highlighting passages in nearly every page of the book!
I discovered that the movie version of ‘A Single Man’ was being aired yesterday evening and so I thought I will try to finish the book before watching the movie. I didn’t want the movie to spoil any surprises that the book might have. But, unfortunately, I still had around 28 pages left when the movie started. And unfortunately, it did have some spoilers for me. I was quite interested in finding out how such an introspective book would work in the medium of film. I found that the movie was interesting and well-made. Colin Firth does quite well as the professor George and Julianne Moore does quite well as George’s friend Charlotte. Even the character of George’s partner Jim was depicted interestingly in the movie. I noticed that Jim was wearing a naval officer’s uniform in one of the scenes in the movie, and I was puzzled because there was no mention of Jim’s profession in the movie. Then later in the book, towards the end, I discovered a description of how George and Jim met when Jim had taken a holiday when he was in the navy. I liked the fact that the movie screenplay writers had mined the book for information and had tried to make the movie authentic. On the other hand, I also felt that the screenplay had taken a lot of liberties with the book, some major and some minor, and so the film was quite different in many places – for example, while reading the book I felt that Jim was older but in the film Jim is portrayed as a young man, the book describes Kenneth Potter’s girlfriend Lois as Chinese American, while in the film she is not. There were also things in the film which were neither there in the book nor implied in it – for example things which are imagined in the book by one of the characters are spoken by other characters in the film, scenes which are not there in the book are there in the movie, which makes us viewers think about some of the characters totally differently – which made the movie watching experience different.
I had so many favourite passages in the book, that I found it difficult to choose some of them. I am giving some of my favourites here.
But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder; one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly : It will come.
All this while, the tension has been mounting. George has continued to smile at the talkers and to preserve his wonderful provocative melodramatic silence. And now, at last, after nearly four whole minutes, his silence has conquered them. The talking dies down. Those who have already stopped talking shush the others. George has triumphed. But his triumph lasts only for a moment. For now he must break his own spell. Now he must cast off his mysteriousness and stand revealed as that dime-a-dozen thing, a teacher – to whom the class has got to listen, no matter whether he drools or stammers or speaks with the tongue of an angel – that’s neither here nor there. The class has got to listen to George because, by virtue of the powers vested in him by the State of California, he can make them submit to and study even his crassest prejudices, his most irresponsible caprices, as so many valuable clues to the problem : How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade?
Yes, alas, he must spoil everything. Now he must speak.
And now, as George pours the vodka and the scotch he begins to feel this utterly mysterious unsensational thing – not bliss, not ecstasy, not joy – just plain happiness – das Glueck, le Bonheur, la felicidad – they have given it all three genders but one has to admit, however grudgingly, that the Spanish are right, it is usually feminine, that’s to say, woman-created. Charley creates it astonishingly often; this doubtless is something else she isn’t aware of, since she can do it even when she herself is miserable.
…rage without resentment, abuse without venom. This is how it will be for them, till the end. Let’s hope they will never be parted, but die in the same hour of the same night, in their beer-stained bed.
On being drunk
But George is drunk in a good way, and one that he seldom achieves. He tries to describe to himself what this kind of drunkenness is like. Well – to put it very crudely – it’s like Plato; it’s a Dialogue. A dialogue between two people. Yes, but not a Platonic dialogue in the hair-splitting, word-twisting, one-up-to-me sense; not a mock-humble bitching-match; not a debate on some dreary set theme. You can talk about anything and change the subject as often as you like. In fact, what really matters is not what you talk about, but the being together in this particular relationship. George can’t imagine having a dialogue of this kind with a woman, because women can only talk in terms of the personal. A man of his own age would do, if there was some sort of polarity; for instance, if he was a Negro. You and your dialogue partner have to be somehow opposites. Why? Because you have to be symbolic figures – like, in this case, Youth and Age. Why do you have to be symbolic? Because the dialogue is by its nature impersonal. It’s a symbolic encounter. It doesn’t involve either party personally. That’s why, in a dialogue, you can say absolutely anything. Even the closest confidence, the deadliest secret, comes out objectively as a mere metaphor or illustration, which could never be used against you.
“What’s so phoney nowadays is all this familiarity. Pretending there isn’t any difference between people – well, like you were saying about minorities, this morning. If you and I are no different, what do we have to give each other? How can we ever be friends?”
Breeding and Bohemianism
The vets themselves, no doubt, would have adjusted pretty well to the original bohemian utopia; maybe some of them would even have taken to painting or writing between hangovers. But their wives explained to them, right from the start and in the very clearest language, that breeding and bohemianism do not mix. For breeding you need a steady job, you need a mortgage, you need credit, you need insurance. And don’t you dare die, either, until the family’s future is provided for.
The pleasures of driving
And now, as he drives, it is as if some kind of autohypnosis exerts itself. We see the face relax, the shoulders unhunch themselves, the body ease itself back into the seat. The reflexes are taking over; the left foot comes down with firm even pressure on the clutch-pedal, while the right prudently feeds in gas. The left hand is light on the wheel; the right slips the gearshift with precision into high. The eyes, moving unhurriedly from road to mirror, mirror to road, calmly measure the distances ahead, behind, to the nearest car….After all, this is no mad chariot race – that’s only how it seems to onlookers or nervous novices – it is a river, sweeping in full flood towards its outlet with a soothing power. There is nothing to fear, as long as you let yourself go with it; indeed, you discover, in the midst of its stream-speed, a sense of indolence and ease.
Christ, it is sad, sad to see, on quite a few of these faces – young ones particularly – a glum defeated look. Why do they feel this way about their lives? Sure, they are underpaid. Sure, they have no great prospects, in the commercial sense. Sure, they can’t enjoy the bliss of mingling with corporation executives. But isn’t it any consolation to be with students who are still three-quarters alive? Isn’t it some tiny satisfaction to be of use, instead of helping to turn out useless consumer goods? Isn’t it something to know that you belong to one of the few professions of this country which isn’t hopelessly corrupt?
For these glum ones, apparently not. They would like out, if they dared try. But they have prepared themselves for this job and now they have got to go through with it. They have wasted the time in which they should have been learning to cheat and grab and lie. They have cut themselves off from the majority – the middlemen, the hucksters, the promoters – by laboriously acquiring all this dry, discredited knowledge; discredited, that is to say, by the middleman, because he can get along without it. All the middleman wants are its products, its practical applications. These professors are suckers, he says. What’s the use of knowing something if you don’t make money out of it? And the glum ones more than half agree with him, and feel privately ashamed of not being smart and crooked.
I enjoyed reading ‘A Single Man’ and I loved Christopher Isherwood’s luscious prose. I will come back and read my favourite passages from this book again. I also hope to explore other books by Isherwood soon.