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52 Books #34: A Single Man

October 3, 2011

Reissued as a Vintage Classic complete with new jacket artwork by someone who clearly hates Christopher Isherwood comes his 1964 short novel A Single Man. I’ve been reading (wading through) Isherwood’s Sixties diaries, in which he makes some — not terribly many — remarks about the genesis, composition and publication of this novel, and, it having been some time since I’d read any of his fiction, I went for this one.

I’d remembered Isherwood as a fairly stately, reserved kind of a writer. Not so, going by A Single Man. This is an overwrought daydream of a novel — or novelette, to use his preferred term, though it does suggest something absorbent in a bad way — in which recently bereaved English professor George Falconer tries to get over the death of his lover Jim, partly by seeking to get under one of his students, Kenny. This is a flippant summary, but something about this book demands hoots of laughter from the reader, so po-faced is it. Suddenly the 2009 film adaptation — directed by fashion’s Tom Ford and starring, as you will recall, a pair of glasses, an angora sweater and Julianne Moore on full scenery-chewing overdrive — seems to be almost restrained compared to the straining metaphor and overweening symbolism that afflicts the book.

This is a shame, because there are a couple of points where this book really hits the mark. I found the way George goes along with Jim’s parents efforts to cut him out of their late son’s life a moving and cleverly layered bit of psychological insight, and the relationship between George and his lush friend Charlotte is well-drawn, even if she does seem another iteration of Isherwood’s beloved Jean Ross/Sally Bowles from Christopher and His Kind and Goodbye to Berlin. (It’s hardly the book’s fault, too, that I found myself feeling the absence of Julianne Moore — by far the best thing about the Ford film — staggering around, beehived hair in a constant state of collapse.)

But the subtlety and acuteness Isherwood brings to these elements are overwhelmed by his inability to let a spade be a spade. George spends much of the book trying not to dwell on Kenny, understanding that a relationship with a student is not in his best interests, until towards the end he gives in somewhat to the boy’s advances. After they meet one night in what seems to be a cruising bar, Kenny dares Geore to join him for a spot of skinny dipping, and is delighted when his professor agrees: we see, therefore, the spark of spontaneity and fun returning to the mourning George: “I thought you were bluffing,” Kenny says in surprise, “about being silly.” There follows a scene in which your reviewer felt like cowering from the hammer-blows of Symbolism besetting him: there’s a railing they have to jump over to get onto the beach, and while Kenny easily vaults it, George is “clambering over the rail, rather stiffly”. Off they scamper into the vast “barely visible” black waves, and just in case you hadn’t picked up on the nuances, “Their relationship, whatever it now is,” Isherwood intones solemnly, “is no longer symbolic.” All these quotes are from p.132; p.133 is given over to George’s “rite of purification” in the black waves, which of course seem overwhelming and terrifying but soon wash him clean of “thought, speech, mood, desire”, and we see him and his student disporting themselves in this wonderful darkness, their mutual attraction never overtly expressed, while a couple of hundred yards away are the lights of cars and “dry homes”, going about their business entirely unawares of this delihtful jiggery-pokery in the waves: “George and Kenny are refugees from dryness; they have escaped across the border into the water-world” (p.134).

Well, quite.

Isherwood was sixty when he published this book, reasonably happily partnered, an author of note. What this book reminded me of was that other peculiar short novel by a senior man of letters, Philip Roth’s The Humbling (which I reviewed a couple of years ago): like Roth’s misstep, A Single Man reads like an overt fantasy rather than a fully worked-throuh novel. Unlike the Roth, however, Isherwood seems here to be aiming for a fable-like profundity that really doesn’t sit well with the fairly slight plot. We lose sight of the emotional centre of the book — and while that isn’t something I always feel the lack of, this book is overtly set up to be the story of what we’d call these days, horribly, the “emotional journey” of George Falconer. Instead of profundity, we get a self-parodically portentous brand of unrelenting symbolism. I hope I haven’t misremembered, but it seems to me that Isherwood is a much better author than this.

 

Other reading in Week #34:

Thierry Jonquet Tarantula (Serpent’s Tail)

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