Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Edge of Night

Last weekend I reread Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man, about a day in the life of a man grieving for his younger lover who has died in an auto accident. It was at least the fourth time I've read it over the past thirty-odd years. Ex-Gucci fashionista Tom Ford's new film version has been getting positive reviews, and there's been some noise in the blogosphere because the trailer has been re-edited to eliminate gay content. (Apparently the same was done with the trailer for Brokeback Mountain.) I'm not going to say anything here that I haven't seen in published articles about the movie, but if you want to see it or read the book without knowing anything about it, you should stop reading here.

What prompted me to reread the book just now was that some reviews said that the protagonist, George, was planning to commit suicide. I was pretty sure that wasn't in the book, but it had been awhile since I'd read it, so I got it out of the library and settled down to read.

Nope, there's nothing in the novel about suicide. That's director/writer Ford's touch. According to this fawning interview at The Advocate,
Ford’s imprint on A Single Man includes his decision to have George walking through his day planning to commit suicide at the end of it; the revolver he removes from a drawer is almost fetishized throughout the film.
Ford also decided to make George six years younger than he was in the novel, dropping his age from 58 to 52, a lot closer not only to Ford's age (forty-eight) but that of the actor, Colin Firth, who plays George. This is understandable, though it changes the situation of the story drastically. In the novel, George is on the verge of old age and he knows it; his future at 58 is markedly less hopeful than it would be at fifty-two, let alone forty-eight -- which also happens to be the age at which Christopher Isherwood met his partner Don Bachardy, whom he shared the rest of his long life with. It's not unheard of to remarry at George's age or older, of course, and maybe it's just because I'm 58 myself that I think it's a bit whiny to feel that your life is over at 52. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I'd chosen to reread A Single Man at just the age of its protagonist; but then, as Ford says in the interview, he identifies with George too.

Which is why, apparently, he decided to make George's house more chic than the cramped rabbit warren of the novel (and judging from the photo in the article, also the house of George's fellow expat Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore). He decided the same for George himself. (And -- a minor detail -- to give George a last name for the film, the same surname as Ford's first serious boyfriend.) Well, it's the Hollywood mentality. Have you ever seen the atrocious gowns and accessories plastered onto the actresses of the studio system's golden age? Of course you have. And Ford is a fashion designer after all; as he says in the interview, "If I were working in a different period, I would have been working at MGM." I think the introduction of a drama-queen plan for suicide is a much more telling detail than the production design.

In the novel, George is a 58-year-old expatriate Englishman who teaches at a small college north of Los Angeles in 1962. Since I haven't yet seen the movie, I kept comparing George to Isherwood, a 58-year-old expatriate Englishman who also taught at a small college during at this time. George was a sort of smaller version of his creator, who was also a world-famous novelist who'd lived and worked in Hollywood. A number of readers have speculated that the novel was a thought-experiment for Isherwood: what if I were single again at my age? It struck me, not for the first time, that killing off the lover instead of having him leave was a (subconsciously?) hostile move on Isherwood's part. As Don Bachardy said in this joint interview from 1985:
I always suspected he was imagining what it would be like if we split up because I remember that period was a very rough time for us, and I was making a lot of waves. I was being very difficult and very tiresome ... Just by being very dissatisfied. I was approaching thirty, and thirty for me was the toughest age of all. I started suffering from it around twenty-eight, and I didn't really get over it until about thirty-two.
A Single Man's Jim is not Don Bachardy, though: he's older, for one thing. George and Jim met in 1946, when Jim was just being mustered out of the military at the end of World War II; Isherwood and Bachardy, who never served in the military as far as I know, met in 1953 on the beach near Isherwood's home, and Isherwood had previously dated Bachardy's older brother. (Bachardy was twelve years old in 1946, so Jim is at least ten years older.)

Making George a widower also heightens the reader's sympathy for him. He chooses not to tell any of his straight neighbors (except Charlotte) or coworkers that Jim has died, rather that he chose to stay in Ohio while visiting his family there. At the same time George is prickly, not always likable; as much because of Isherwood's religious faith, I suspect, as because of his novelist's instincts, he refused to make George a suffering saint. And this is a very religious novel, not merely "spiritual": Isherwood's Vedantic beliefs are often explicit, though unnamed, in the text.

Ford is, I think, totally wrong when he says,
If you said name 10 things that define me, being gay wouldn’t make the list. I think Isherwood was like that too. There are many gay characters in his works because his work is so autobiographical, but their gayness isn’t the focus. The one thing I liked about Isherwood’s work—especially when I was younger and grappling with my sexuality—is that there was no issue about it in his writing. That was quite a modern concept back during the time when he was writing. Quite honestly, I just don’t think about my sexuality. But maybe this has to do with being a part of the first generation to benefit from all the struggles of the gay men and lesbians that came before us.
I'll give him credit for that last admission, though, which I think is more correct. Isherwood talked in later years about the constraints he faced as a writer, not just from publishers but from readers. In his Berlin Stories, which ultimately inspired the musical Cabaret, he didn't make the narrator queer partly because he knew that it would make him more prominent than the impersonal, almost invisible "camera" Isherwood wanted him to be. There seems to have been more openness to gay characters and narratives in Europe and Britain than in the US in those days, and it's important to remember that much of the inexplicitness of American gay writing before Stonewall was due to necessity, including government censorship of 'immoral' representations.

In that context, A Single Man stands out for me because it strains against those limits. George muses on his straight neighbors:
Mr. Strunk, George supposes, tries to nail him down with a word. Queer, he doubtless growls. But, since this is after all the year 1962, even he may be expected to add, I don't give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me. Even psychologists disagree as to the conclusions which may be reached about the Mr. Strunks of the world, on the basis of such a remark. The fact remains that Mr. Strunk himself, to judge from a photograph of him taken in football uniform in college, used to be what many would call a living doll.

But Mrs. Strunk, George feels sure, takes leave to differ greatly from her husband; for she is trained in the new tolerance, the technique of annihilation by blandness. Out comes her psychology book -- bell and candle are no longer necessary. Reading from it she proceeds to exorcise the unspeakable out of George. No reason for disgust, she intones, no cause for condemnation. Nothing here that is willfully vicious. All is due to heredity, early environment (Shame on those possessive mothers, those sex-segregated British schools!), arrested development at puberty, and-or glands. Here we have a misfit, debarred forever from the best things of life, to be pitied, not blamed. Some cases, caught young enough, may respond to therapy. ...

But your book is wrong, Mrs. Strunk, says George, when it tells you that Jim is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife. Jim wasn't a substitute for anything. And there is no substitute for Jim, if you'll forgive my saying so, anywhere. [from the 1987 Farrar Straus Giroux trade paperback edition, 27-29]
Even better, as George drives along the freeway to his teaching job, he begins to fantasize about organizing a terrorist campaign against antigay bigots and crusaders.
No. Amusing is not the word. These people are not amusing. They should never be dealt with amusingly. They understand only one language: brute force.

Therefore we must launch a campaign of systematic terror. In order to be effective, this will require an organization of at least five hundred highly skilled killers and torturers, all dedicated individuals. The head of the organization will draw up a list of clearly defined, simple objectives, such as the removal of that apartment building, the suppression of that newspaper, the retirement of that senator. They will then be dealt with in order, regardless of the time taken or the number of casualties. In each case, the principal criminal will first receive a polite note, signed "Uncle George," explaining exactly what he must do before a certain deadline if he wants to stay alive. It will also be explained to him that Uncle George operates on the theory of guilt by association. [page 38-39]
I remember enjoying this fantasy when I first read it, oh, thirty-five years ago. It's remarkably ahead of its time, and I still enjoy it. (There's some interesting comment on this passage in the Paris Review interview from 1974, pages 18ff., and on the gay movement and homosexuality in literature.) I also enjoy Isherwood/George's disdain for psychobabble, which as A Single Man shows is not a new development but was well-established in the early 1960s. But I think it belies Ford's reading: Isherwood, like any reasonably mature adult, was more than his sexuality (though how many heterosexuals, especially men, recognize that about themselves?), but he had a sophisticated understanding of the situation of people who love their own sex in American society. He saw bigotry and condescending contempt as the problem, not homosexuality, and this is still a pretty advanced view even today. Reading A Single Man reminded me, as it should remind everyone, that such understandings didn't arise out of nowhere during the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

There's another feature of A Single Man that was common in its time and hasn't died out yet. When Isherwood taught at Los Angeles State College, he may have been relatively isolated from gay friends and social life, as George is. The only other gay character in A Single Man is a young student in his lecture class. (Though George met Jim at a gay bar on the beach, we're told discreetly.) But Isherwood had many gay (and straight) friends, among them fellow writers W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Tennessee Williams. His relationship with Don Bachardy, though controversial because of their thirty-year age difference, was known to everyone, and if Bachardy had been killed in an accident, Isherwood would not have mourned alone as George does. (I should say "nearly alone" there, since George's fellow expatriate, the heterosexual Charlotte, knows about the relationship and Jim's fate.) To this day, though, it's relatively rare in gay fiction and films to show gay men in gay society, let alone gay community. Those who read A Single Man nowadays should remember that George's comparative isolation has a dramatic function in the novel, and wasn't the universal condition of gay men then or now.