Isherwood, Christopher (2001), A Single Man, Minnesota University Press
A Single Man is a great novel. Read it. It is the first book I read by Christopher Isherwood, a multi-talented writer who was born in Britain, lived for a while in Berlin among other places and finally died in California. I haven’t read anything else of his work, or about his life, except for the portions of it that he shared with Auden, whose work, in contrast, I know quite well. Isherwood wrote novels, stories, memoirs, screenplays and a disturbing amount of tracts on Vedanta and, with help from Swami Prabhavananda, produced Hindu translations. In Isherwood’s work there are a lot of tangents, and in this light, it’s astonishing how brief, slim and purposeful A Single Man, which was originally published in 1961, is. There are no doubt numerous allusions, meanings and reflections in it that touch upon Isherwood’s rich life and work, but the book wears these lightly. It is, first and foremost, a great read and an inspiring, elegiac novel about one man’s life passing through one phase into something else. But, although is admirable on almost every level, it will not appeal to everyone. Like Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, (click here for my review) this novel is highly dependent on the voice of its protagonist. It’s his thoughts, feelings, disturbances that reel you in, but these same concerns could put you off. I don’t, however, think it will. It’s that good.
The plot follows George, a professor at a California university, during an apparently wholly ordinary day. We start with an image of him shaving and leave him as he slips into a deep sleep. George is relatively old, and is living in California after having grown up in the UK. He’s ‘a single man’ after the death of his partner Jim, which he hides from his neighbors. A Single Man can be read as one long exploration of the exigencies and contradictions of his character, the complexities of his identity. The day in George’s life that the book depicts is a working day, and as George ambles through what’s left of his life after Jim’s departure, we see how much his everyday reality, his everyday habits, how all this is shrouded in lies, illusions, subterfuges. George his hiding from the people around him, but he’s also hiding from himself. The novel brilliantly unsettles the well-wrought construct that George set up for himself, by focusing with an unusual intensity upon gazes. From the very first section, where we encounter a kind of camera, or rather: we follow a tracking shot that zooms in on the character, until the narrative finally settles on him, snug like an expensive tailored suit, we are averted to the importance of gazes. In fact, it is this section, written in a voice and a tone that we will not see again until the last pages of the book, that puts the rest of the narrative into perspective.
All novels have a gaze they work with, a vantage point, the difference is the amount of reflection that writers invest in the tools they use. A mediocre writer like Paul Auster with his fixed, incredibly normative, moralistic, simplistic points of view appears to be unable or unwilling to engage them in his small pubescent literary games. A different case is China Miéville, whose work evinces a strong awareness of situations and the way he’s situated himself within frameworks of centers and peripheries, narrative and cultural norms, and can even find striking images within his books to exemplify these issues (most brilliantly maybe in his most recent, The City & The City, which is a long disquisition about gaze, perception and performativity post-Derrida). Isherwood’s choice here is different but no less effective or ingenious. As his camera-like narrator settles into the story, a personal third person narrator takes over the reins. Suddenly we ride in George’s head, although we don’t. There are tweaks here and there that disrupt the narrative illusion and ask us to look at the narrative from the outside, swivel the camera around, so to say, and look at this guy, as he walks down a street, as he gets heavily drunk twice in one night, bathes in the nude and is hit on, twice. And as the book progresses, this reader’s gaze, made a part and a reflected requirement of the narrative, is accompanied by other gazes.
There are the neighbors, his students, a pretty boy in a bar, an old friend. George is obsessed with his appearance, “he looks – and doesn’t he know it! – better than nearly all of his age-mates at the gym”, but also with appearances in general, obsessed with maintaining the fiction about himself that he decided to invent earlier in his life. His obsession doesn’t show through meticulously maintained obsessive thoughts about this, but in the fact that his thoughts keep returning to the same worries, that he keeps telling us about the cover stories he presents, but that commentary is so sparse, that we are left wondering how many of the stories he tells others, such as the wonderfully sentimental plan to buy a pub and retire to a life as an innkeeper, whether these stories, although he doesn’t disavow them explicitly, are untruths as well. Or whether he’s even capable of being honest to himself. But these recurring thoughts share one more characteristic: many of them have to do with the fact that he’s homosexual, a lifestyle that his neighbors disapprove of. It’s not that he hides his sexual preference. On the contrary, his relationship with Jim was pretty well known, and among his students it appears to be common knowledge that he frequents a specific gay bar.
But in the way George looks at himself, in his convoluted narratives, we find what W.E.B. Du Bois, in writing about the black experience, famously called the “double consciousness”, which describes a very simple perceptual mechanism that is active in many people that belong to groups that are not part of the general, restrictive and restricted norm. It has been applied to women, and it can also be profitably applied to homosexuals. People in these groups often have conflicting identities. As part of their nation-wide culture, they see themselves with the same gaze that the white, male, heteronormative society trains on them. But there is also one’s own, personal part of identity, the part identifying as someone who isn’t necessarily part of the set that is described by the general norm. Between those identities, or: those parts of his identity, conflicts turn up, naturally. From these conflicts, different problems and anxieties can arise. In every look, thought, stifled word of George, this kind of consciousness is visible; I think George is a man haunted by his identities, and somewhat oppressed by the roles he is supposed to inhabit. To quote the book, he “knows what is expected of” him. At the same time, there is no heaviness in his character. His voice isn’t dark, brooding or moping. Isherwood manages to raise issues like these without bogging the book down in them.
George is “oppressed by awareness”, but his voice is light, he’s a very humorous, likable guy, or he’s presented to us that way. Isherwood isn’t the first to attempt or to succeed in mixing the heavy and the light in this way, there are countless other writers doing this, but this isn’t a mark of unoriginality on Isherwood’s part. Isherwood is content in presenting a fully fleshed-out and original character to his readers. As for the echoes of other books, they are clearly intended, as Isherwood places A Single Man firmly in several literary traditions, and then makes ingenious use of the reader’s recognition of these traditional stories and structures. The most obvious reference is to the modern line of novels that are set in a single day and show a character coming up and to terms with his time, his life, his culture. From Ulysses through Ivan Denisovich and Seize the Day, the number of books that deal with this theme are legion, and Isherwood was clearly counting on his readers’ knowledge of books from this genre (among some others) when he wrote A Single Man. In each of these novels the inner conflicts of the characters or the petty, mundane conflicts that these characters may have with their immediate environment have an almost allegorical status, bespeaking the state of humanity, the fate of man in the modern world.
These broader implications are true, as well, for George. Isherwood’s skills both create a highly believable, specific environment and story for his protagonist, as well as a matrix that would work for anyone. We are all George, to a degree. His cowardice and his bravery are ours. The pain of his desire and the dulling ache of his loss, they are ours, as well. This is what elevates the book from merely ‘good’ to ‘great’. And all through this, we are swayed, we are moved along by Isherwood’s impeccable language that can make the elegiac throb of guilty desire just as palpable and incisive, as a scene where a man hurries from the toilet to pick up the phone with an unwiped ass. Isherwood’s ability to pull off a description of the latter kind of activity with such aplomb, to make it part of a generally smooth and musical book is just one aspect of his skills. Within his style, different registers and kinds of reference merge. Scene by scene, this is stunningly realized, and one of the reasons why it all coheres so well is, I think, that Isherwood writes with a notion of, well, “unrealism”, you might call it (yes I stole that word from Lowell). His protagonist, going off on a rant, gives a great explanation of how that might work, when he rebukes a student for attacking American motels for being ‘unreal’:
Unreal. American motels are unreal! My good girl-you know and I know that our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. […] And it’s a symbol […] for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.
In an odd way, this is also a perfect description of the book which uses the realist elements as parts of its “building code” which is, at the end of the day, part of Isherwood’s unrealism, as so many other things.
And Isherwood’s breadth and appetite for texts and myths to incorporate in his work seems endless, without letting any of this show in a very obvious manner. I’ve hinted at a few things, but there’s so much more. He works both with what seems to me a very modern notion of the grotesque (Bakhtin would come to mind), and a slightly older contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements (Nietzsche, anyone?). His use of travel as an image, and a recurring metaphor, and a structural device, too, is fascinating. And there’s so much more, but none of this is burdensome. It’s not baggage that the reader has to deal with, it’s a bonus that he can access if he wants to. But even without all this, it’s a great, if brief ride through one day full of hope, desire, disappointments and, finally, hope. George battles with decay, with dark shadows on his soul yet he, deeply, rejoices in life. He is incredibly smart, fully capable of making strong and intelligent choices in his life, yet, like all of us, he’s also propelled, moved, driven along by the obscure river of his life, and the big events of this life of his, they crash through the fabric of his stories, like large rocks, redirecting the river, and hurtling him elsewhere. But he walks upright, making his choices, wielding his mind. George’s dignity, which is what much of the book is ultimately about, humbles us. This is a great book. This is a great writer.