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A Single Man

July 3, 2011

nick's picks
Identifying as a gay man can leave weighted blockades at the forefront of youth, our twilight years or whenever one chooses to open the door and in middle age here it is coupled by being A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.

Protagonist George feigns interest in life as his many states of mind leave him as an object of solitude, uncertainty and bitter discontent.

To pass through these pages is to follow our friend George through one solitary day. Routines of roles speak to the many facades we all wear at times to make it through work, an unwanted dinner or awkward encounters with people from our past. This man looks in the mirror each morning and prepares the state of mind and face to sell to the world. The state they want to see.

A lover has passed, many lonely mornings are spent, and George regresses into his sad mind as multiple personas emerge. It is in these lost moments that George escapes his bitterness. His morning commute is spent as the “chauffeur.” Another character emerges in the classroom recognized only as a “talking head” to which his students are more than accustomed. One student sees beyond this head and towards the end of this day gives George a glimmer of what may have been and in turn George shares a subtle truth to this unsettled youth.

Fear and the ongoing use of labels are tacked on to our friend as “Mr. Stunk… tries to nail him down with a word. Queer, he doubtlessly growls” (pg. 27). While George appears numb to biting remarks a harmless comment can be viewed with scorn such as in this parenthetical quotation from page 34, “(‘old,’ in our country of the bland, has become nearly as dirty a word as ‘kike’ or ‘nigger’).” Named insults that puncture the deepest are those which ridicule unalterable, innate qualities.

The inevitable acceptance of mortality and decay coupled with the ongoing desire for companionship ground this story in a place of common roots. A standing hospital is likened to a doorway into the next stage through which we will all pass (pg. 94). George visits Charlotte over endless drinks; she entertains the fantasy of the two of them being together which ends with one of those, groping, repeated “drunken long shots” (pg. 145). Near the end-and much alcohol later-I believe we start to see the real George emerge. He becomes fearless, flirtatious and dominant with the young man paying him due attention. Ironically rescued from drowning in the nude by his hunky student (pg 164), Kenny will be the last face our friend sees but only after a shared awkward truth I know all too well.

by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, click here to buy the book

For such a short novel (186 pages) it left me with a lot to say and like George I am in my head. All of my reservations about growing old, processing ridicule and abuse from my early years and the future of taking a partner only to later endure the loss of love are lettered here in black and white. After beginning this article, I let it rest as a draft for over a week before publication as I thought it was too personal. While these grey thoughts jumble my review the light of this little book rests in it being an excellent introduction to the great voice of Christopher Isherwood. This is the man who wrote the fictional work that later turned into the film Cabaret. His history ties intimately with poet W.H. Auden and a visit to Berlin. In an effort to somehow organize my opinion of this dense and somehow witty prose I peaked at older reviews and am looking for a loaner copy of the movie with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

In close and timely fashion, finishing this book as New York gay marriage passed made me think that if only all states followed (and we all embraced equality) real life characters such as George would have less cause to experience looming suicidal solitude and far more reason for acceptance and celebration. States of mind are at stake. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood directs my thoughts to which state will be next?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 04:10

    “A Single Man” is an all-around beautiful film. It is visually beautiful, using its lighting and color palettes to their full potential to dazzling effect. The score, a slow, meditative, haunting orchestral arrangement by Abel Korzeniowski is also beautiful, and flows seamlessly with the cinematographic offerings of the film. But the true beauty in “A Single Man” lies in its characters, who are flawed and broken and striving to be human in this cold, cruel world in which we live.

    The film is mostly the story of one character, the titular single man, George, played flawlessly by Colin Firth. George is a college professor in California in the 1960s. George is gay in a time when being so is not particularly acceptable. George had a partner, Jim, who was the love and light of his life, until he perished in a car accident, and now George has nothing. George is a broken, hollow, empty man who is simply going through the motions.

    The film is almost a stream of consciousness, following George as he goes about a day in his life. They day is not unusually eventful: George teaches a lecture, goes to the bank, has dinner with an old friend. And yet the film revels in every minute of this man’s life, observing him with a careful, watchful, nonjudgmental eye. The film focuses on George’s interactions with everyone around him, and capture beautifully the distance and isolation George experiences from everyone else in the world. George is single not only in relationship status, but he feels ultimately and tragically alone, unable to form connections with anyone around him. The story in the film may seem light to some, and in many ways that is the point: this is an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man. George is not some action hero, and this isn’t an action-packed day from a season of “24.” The film’s beauty is in its subtlety and nuance, and the way Ford’s camera patiently follows its characters in rapture, although nothing earth-shattering is happening, the focus of the film is on the little interactions that make up the human experience.

    The theme of homosexuality is handled very well here: this is not a movie that has any sort of political agenda, nor should it ostracize viewers of any sexual persuasion. The film is about raw human emotion, about love and loss and the grief every human being feels when he or she has lost someone important. The emotions George feels, the experiences he has are all part of a greater universal, the Human Experience. In perhaps the best crafted scene in the film, George goes swimming with another character, and in that silent, wordless moment as they’re tossed about by the violent waves, there seems to be a greater level of understanding than there is between anyone in all the rest of the film, no matter how many words are exchanged. Perhaps that is the great unifier: the thing we have in common is that we are each of us alone in our search for understanding, and that the moments of human connection that come and go are what we live for. George’s individual concerns, therefore, are not his alone, but shared by all of humanity. George is, after all, but a single man.

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