A Single Man – You’re not likely to ever find Andy wearing Tom Ford clothes… but heyMarch 28, 2010
I’m not usually that fussed about telling people what happens in the books Netty and I read for this blog, especially since nobody actually reads it. However, on the off chance that someone stumbles upon these words and has not yet seen Tom Ford’s cinematic version of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, A Single Man, and is planning on seeing said cinematic version at the movie house of their choice in the near future, can I suggest that you stop reading now. It’s such an amazing film, I’d hate to be responsible for you knowing what happens at the end before you actually see it. Seriously. Stop. Now.
Right. Got rid of that lot, have we? Excellent.
Isherwood was always going to be on my list for what if I remember correctly Netty has labelled “The Challenge Revisited” or some such nonsense. I had planned to read Goodbye to Berlin, his fictionalised retelling of his years in the German capital during the Nazis’ rise to power. Goodbye to Berlin was turned into a film called I Am a Camera, which became the basis for a musical called Cabaret, which then became the basis for a movie musical, entirely reworked around Liza Minnelli, that was also called Cabaret but which differed from the theatrical version quite significantly. (Stunning revelation: Sally Bowles was based on a real person. Read Christopher and his Kind. I’m not shitting you, she was.) But I’ve re-read Goodbye to Berlin so many times and I’ve seen the movie so many times and I’ve seen the musical on stage once (and it had Lisa McCune playing Sally and I so wanted to hate her and she did such a good job, goddammit) and then Tom Ford’s movie version of A Single Man was released and it had Colin Firth in it and… Well, stuff Goodbye to Berlin. It’ll be there tomorrow. I’d only ever read A Single Man once. It was time, I decided, to read it again.
Had to scan my grubby old copy in myself. There are loads of covers available on Amazon and Google but I’m a bit of a purist, me. Would prefer to have the cover of the copy I read. So there you go. That’s it.
I love this book but I’m going to start with one of the problems I have with it. Soz. So much of Isherwood’s work is vaguely autobiographical, and Isherwood at the time he wrote this novel was about the age of his main character, George, and they’re both expats and they’re both gay and you have to wonder: How autobiographical is it? And I have to answer: I don’t know. I know a bit about Isherwood’s life, I know that his last, great relationship was with an artist called Don Bachardy (who gets a pretty hefty name check in the film’s credits, which is nice), who was significantly younger than Isherwood. But presumably Don and Jim aren’t the same people, and presumably Chris and Geo aren’t the same people, either. Or maybe they are. Who knows? Well, the people who’ve read Isherwood’s biography and letters, they’d know. Pretty good chance of that. Still, when you’re dealing with an author who on more than one occasion has used his own name to identify his main characters in novels that would be clearly autobiographical even if his main character was called Benython … you have to wonder.
Goodbye to Berlin is still Isherwood’s best book, I think, having re-read A Single Man. His second-last novel (A Meeting by the River was his last, and it’s also good) is an impressive work of fiction but I don’t know that it’s magnificent. It works spectacularly well as a portrait of late middle age, of loss, of drunken expat friendship. The scenes set at university, and especially in the lecture room, are so good you only need to tweak them slightly and you could catapult them 25 years into the future and they’d be depicting the sort of lecture room I was inhabiting in the late 80s. The last few scenes in which George is being seduced – or his he? – by a student he himself is seducing – or is he? – are beautiful and funny and sexy and oh so terribly, horribly sad – for all the right, tragic reasons. And yes, of course they’re fucking seducing each other. Of course they are. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that they’re not sure if they are.
And perhaps this is why, for me, this isn’t quite (although it very nearly is) a great novel. It was written at a cusp. 1964. In 1964 it was all about to begin and I’m guessing quite a few people saw it coming, Isherwood included. A Single Man is an astonishingly daring novel for its time. A gay man mourns the death of his lover. In suburban Los Angeles. And then goes off to teach kids English Literature. And then gets drunk with a straight chick who tries to stick her tongue down his throat. And then gets drunk with a student and goes nudey bathing. And then weird drunken shit happens at his place later. But despite the “outness” of all this there’s still a closety whiff to it, which I think Tom Ford tries to capture, somewhat clumsily, in one of the (drunken) scenes between Geo and Charley.
I think Edmund White called this a seminal text of gay liberation. And that’s awesome. But being a seminal text of any sort of liberation – gay, female, racial – doesn’t automatically make great literature. Isherwood nearly got there, but not quite.
One possible reason for that is his freakin’ religion. I’m not fond of spirituality in any form. Even gay friendly form. Isherwood in California found a form of spirituality, some kind of Hinduism, that suited him and his sexuality. He embraced it with gusto. I think you can see that in A Single Man and I think it makes his penultimate novel weaker. Isherwood injected his ideas about the meaningless of existence and flesh and experience into A Single Man and it’s a lesser work as a result.
But it’s still good. It’s not great but it’s really, really good. You should read it. And if you don’t you should totally see the movie because I suspect that, along with Cabaret, Tom Ford’s A Single Man will become the second piece of unspeakably awesome cinema that can lay claim to Isherwood as its progenitor. Read the book if you can, wary of its weaknesses. But for the love of god, see the film. (And then, hopefully, you’ll want to read the book anyway.)
And oh, I’ve just realised. Maybe I didn’t need that spoiler after all. Cos I was going to talk about the bit at the end, where he dies.