Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man
Walking in the rain, cowering under a decrepit umbrella I inadvertently caught glimpse of A Single Man in the bookshop window. Having previously read the book and recently seen the film I started thinking about the latter’s unfulfilled promise and that perhaps it is impossible to credibly enact heartbreak. Irrespective of this, Colin Firth did a stellar job playing George Falconer, an impeccably well-groomed and dapper 58 year-old English professor, domiciled in Los Angeles, mourning his recently deceased lover, Jim. Christopher Isherwood opens the book with a somewhat unconventional gambit, an evocation of an ethereal atmosphere relayed by some omniscient narrator. “Waking up begins with saying am and now,” he explains, “That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and there from deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.” The voice is resigned and detached, much like the protagonist is from his immediate environment made unfamiliar by the absence of a loved one. Staring at himself in the mirror George renders himself a “live dying creature… a prisoner for life,” with a face frozen in an “expression of a predicament”. And yet despite his grief he follows his infrangible routine, ensuring the crispness of his white shirts, the spotless shine of his bespoke shoes and the immaculately calculated creases in his trousers, for these are all the inane appurtenances that keep him trudging on. That and the memories.
“It was then [during breakfast], while they were drinking their second and third cups of coffee, that they had their best talks,” remembers George, “They talked about everything that came into their heads—including death, of course, and is there survival, and, if so, what exactly is it that survives.” George is overwhelmed by such recollections throughout the book until they prompt him to “damn all life.” And yet he goes on with his daily routine, trapped in a place where convention and otherness coexist in beautifully counterfeit harmony – a pristine Californian suburb, with lovat-green lawns and aureate cardboard housewives – observing the world through his horn-rimmed spectacles in a seemingly removed, sardonic and curious manner. George appears aloof, uninterested and unperturbed yet under the perfectly-turned out exterior he is making arrangements to sever his life, because he is grieving, because he is frustrated with the lack of political rights of “persecuted minorities,” because he belongs to one and like “everyone with an acute criminal complex” he is “hyperconscious” and angry with all the unjust “bylaws, city ordinances, rules and petty regulations.”
A Single Man is semi-autobiographical as was most of Isherwood’s work and charts a very specific period in America, that of the Cuban missile crisis and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The changing social mores are often relayed in a negative light through George’s cynical internal monologues and a feeling of “a sort of vertigo” he experiences whenever he is caught up in the whirl of it all. As a University Professor he feels obligated to support these social and political vicissitudes yet inwardly he despairs. “Oh God, what will become of them all?” he says surveying his students, “What chance have they? Ought I to yell out to them, right now, here, that it’s hopeless?” But George knows he can’t do that, because “absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of the hope. And the hope is not false. No. It’s just that George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.” Still, the pessimistic Professor makes his feelings clear during a lecture to a plenum of gormless, docile, homogenised drones. A single one of whom, Kenny, enthralled by George’s spiel, latches-on to the wizened bard and pursues him in hope of enlightenment. In truth, there is no point to Kenny and his attempts to rescue George are as authentic as his phoney Californian tan.
George is resolute in his decision to end his life. He carefully sets out his funerary attire and places a note by the tie instructing whoever finds his body to tie it in a Windsor knot, forgetting that the remnants of his face will be impossible to piece together after he fires a pistol into his mouth. What follows is a rather exasperating episode of a man attempting to kill himself. Throughout the book George has several, mostly meaningless encounters. One with his student Kenny; another with a nameless stud straight out of a 1960s Levis ad, who murmurs something idiotic about the dreamland that is America; and lastly and most interestingly with a fellow Brit and former lover, Charley. A divorcee with kohl-black eyes, a marzipan complexion, moiré-like flaxen hair spiraling like a pineal nimbus skyward, Charley flitters in her Mary Quant dress like a sad and aging beauty queen. After an extended boozy dinner and an impromptu jig in the backdrop of period-perfect Italian furniture the two lay on the floor reminiscing. While George grieves his recently deceased lover, Charley reflects on a love lost long ago, a love she has harboured for George since their early days back in London. Her plangent disposition and a dram too much gin results in a temerarious attempt to evoke the past. She “kisses him full on the mouth,” as George is leaving andgets rebuffed. “Do women ever stop trying?” George wonders, “No, but because they never stop, they learn to be good losers”.
I remember watching the film and thinking it was style over substance and would have had even less of the latter had it not been for the performance of Firth. I’m not a fan of the man (who could take him seriously after the Bridget Jones franchise?) but he does do that very English air of resignation incredibly well. While he hardly traverses the emotional spectrum to emerge and a method actor, this film is probably one of the best he’s ever done. And yet I doubt there has ever been an English teacher quite as dashing in literature or indeed in life. I remember my own: he sported purple socks, had hirsute ears, halitosis, imbibed great quantities of Irish coffee and was intolerably verbose. Not quite the matinee idol a la Frith. But life is no matinee, with its waters “swarming with hunted anxieties, grimjawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light.” I have read, understood and misunderstood a lot of books, have done things on my own, have loved, failed, been afraid and felt lost. But above all, I have hoped, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, that my existence has some intrinsic value. Yet, despite wanting to disagree with Isherwood I can’t when he says one’s life, as one’s body is like “garbage in the container on the back porch” because before too long “both will have to be carted away and disposed of.” That’s the truth of it – the real truth – somewhat different from a matinee but life is never really one of those.