Month: January 2010

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood’s mellifluous name is not heard often these days.  Until a film adaptation by a fashion designer turned perfumer brought this title back into print, all we had readily available were his Berlin novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, so this overdue reissue seemed an ideal time to revisit.

A Single Man
(1964) is said in one back cover quote to be Isherwood’s “masterpiece”, a claim for once not overstated.  (And if it isn’t his masterpiece, then I’ll be seeking out the rest of his work without delay.)  It tells the story of a single day in the life of a man, from the moment of rousing (“Waking up begins with saying am and now“) to the peaceful rest at the end of the night.  The opening pages are a bravura performance, knitting together the man’s consciousness as he rises from sleep, first a body only –

The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops.  Not because it is heroic.  It can imagine no alternative.

Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead.  Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?

– then ultimately, a person entire (“It knows its name.  It is called George”).

George is an English professor of literature working in California, living alone since the death of his lover Jim in a car crash, and consoling himself with the sight of beautiful young men and the company of literature (“These books have not made George nobler or better or more truly wise. It’s just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood”).  He nurses resentment against a society that considers him, a gay man, to be “unspeakable”, a “monster” (“Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably warped“).  He is lonely.

At the thought of Christmas, George feels a chill of desperation.  Maybe he’ll do something drastic; take a plane to Mexico City and be drunk for a week and run wild around the bars.  You won’t, and you never will, a voice says, coldly bored with him.

In the throes of unresolved grief, George’s emotions transmute to “rage, resentment, spleen: of such is the vitality of middle age.”  To those who believe that “Jim is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife,” he says, “Jim wasn’t a substitute for anything.  And there is no substitute for Jim.”

His role, as he sees it, is to keep calm and carry on.  “George loves the freeways because he can still cope with them; because the fact that he can cope proves his claim to be a functioning member of society.  He can still get by.”  Yet when he approaches another day of his lecturing job as putting on “the psychological makeup for this role he must play”, we can’t help noticing that he really comes alive when imparting his knowledge and passion for literature to his students.  This frequently spills into challenging their liberal orthodoxies on extracurricular subjects (“a minority has its own kind of aggression.  It absolutely dares the majority to attack it”).

George’s spirits lift too when he is reminded, by visiting an old rival dying in hospital, that he is a member of another “marvellous” minority, “The Living”.  A Single Man, written in the early 1960s, has the obsessions of its time in nuclear war and sexual revolution, but also the obsessions of all time both small (campus politics) and large (‘the only end of age’).  George gets his fix of death-denial in the gym, panting in both senses as he challenges a teenager to sit-ups.  “How delightful it is to be here!  If only one could spend one’s entire life in this state of easy-going physical democracy!”

As the day progresses, George will carry on trying to stave off his loneliness, by visiting an old English friend, similarly alone, and also homesick, going to a bar, and spending the night with one of his students.  The digressive control of the narrative, the unguarded sexuality, and the shameless elegance of the prose all made A Single Man seem somehow like Philip Roth rewritten by Alan Hollinghurst.  (Yes. I know.)  All his activities seem geared toward the aim of “exchanging some kind of signal … before it’s too late” – though, now that Jim is dead, it may already be too late.

There is an exquisite pain running under all George’s banter and chat, acknowledged only, for the most part, in his internal monologue.  Just once or twice – when drunk – does he open himself up to another person.  Near the end of this short, masterful novel, George attempts to express to his student Kenny the impossibility of imparting his experience to him, of telling him what he knows.  The accumulations of a lifetime cannot be reduced so easily.  He is like a book, he says.  “What I know is what I am.”

J. Robert Lennon: Castle

I loved J. Robert Lennon’s last novel Mailman – though it didn’t get the attention it deserved – and was surprised to see recently that he published a new novel in March 2009 in the US, which hasn’t yet been picked up by a UK publisher. Castle, with its (literally) Kafkaesque title, has much to live up to.

Castle is a first person narrative by Eric Loesch, who has returned to his childhood home of Gerrysburg, upstate New York, after some time away. Lennon goes to great lengths – with classic unreliable narrator techniques – to withhold essential elements of Eric’s past from us, but these are fatally undermined by the blurb, which tells us that “this particular story has much to do with American’s current military misadventures.” So when, by page two, Eric comments on both a “bronze statue of a Second World War warrior” and a ‘Support our Troops’ bumper sticker, we are fine tuned to pick up on such references and what they might hint to us about Eric’s past.

We also get a clear impression of what we are supposed to think about Eric’s personality. His narrative is meticulous, almost autistic, and we get regular comments on Eric’s view of himself. “I am a highly organized and energetic person and accustomed to getting things accomplished quickly and thoroughly.” “I am not of a particularly imaginative cast of mind.” “I believe powerfully in succeeding at something the first time.” These elements of self-awareness tell us as much about the qualities Eric lacks as about those he possesses. (“I am not deeply moved by beauty, and in fact may even be incapable of appreciating or even recognizing it.”) We know too, from his narrative, that he is impatient with others who are over-friendly, or try to tell him how to do things, which is strange, because “I have been trained to do what I am told.”

For the first fifty pages or so, my overriding thought was that the book should really be called Castle, by J. Robert Lennon, as told to Kazuo Ishiguro. It seemed almost a stylistic homage – and a slightly second-rate one at that. Often the narrative tricks and teases become tiresome – in an aside, Eric refers to his “sad, doomed parents” and to his sister’s “life of promiscuity, rootlessness, and substance abuse” – but at the same time there is a real central force to the story. Eric has bought a house with surrounding wooded lands in Gerrysburg (the place, I think, designed to appear to the reader like ‘Gettysburg’ – and Eric was brought up on Jefferson Street – so elements of America’s history are hinted at, perhaps to encourage us to compare the idealized past with the present). However, there is a large boot-shaped rock on the land, which Eric can see from his house but can never quite get to, and on the map with his title deeds, there is a mysterious blacked-out square in the middle of his land.

This is one of those points where the reviewer must withdraw before spoiling the story, but it is appropriate to say that the development of the narrative is intriguing and strange, bringing into question how much is real or representative of Eric’s state of mind, and whether it is willed or coincidental. What is less satisfying is the way when a man’s name – Dr Avery Stiles – enters the story and Eric professes not to know who he is, yet soon after he gives us a very detailed account of Stiles’ role in his life (which the story turns on). Is this supposed to represent repressed, traumatised memories coming to the surface? Or is it a cheap authorial trick, like Andrew Sean Greer’s carefully plotted detonations in The Story of a Marriage?

The details of how Stiles affected Eric’s behaviour and personality – brought him, perhaps literally, to where he is today – are both utterly implausible and completely compelling. It makes Castle a book which both explores an extreme personality type, and brings that into coherent conjunction with contemporary events. (The doubtful element here is whether it will survive as literature, being so entrained to recent history.)

“It is my feeling [says Stiles to Eric’s parents] that we have civilized our own humanness out of existence. We are too affluent, and too soft, and many of our natural instincts have atrophied. My research means to explore how the human mind reacts when its comforts have been stripped away. I intend to recover those human skills that we have lost, to create a better soldier, and perhaps more importantly, a better citizen.”

So Castle asks us to question the value of training young men into unquestioning commitment to an authority, and of detaching compassion from the multiplicity of a personality. It also invites us to question accepted forms of maleness. During Eric’s training with Dr Stiles, which estranges him from some of his family, he “felt great pride at my ability to lie to my mother, and a mixture of pity and condescension for her, for having accepted my lies. I felt respected, and strong. I felt like a man.” What this leads to in the jarring last chapters of the book is the discovery by Eric that he and his colleagues “discovered nothing about the enemy, except how to hurt him.”

By the end, the reader is unsure whether Eric’s current return to Gerrybsurg and the extraordinary events which befall him there are part of his ongoing ‘work’. Indeed, the whole unusual turn that the story takes once Eric discovers what occupies the blacked-out square in the centre of his land could be an hallucation, brought on the blow to the head he suffers one-third through the book. This is as it should be. Like Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, Castle is a book difficult to address to anyone who hasn’t read it. Anyone who has, therefore, should feel free to revel in spoilers below.