Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"A Single Man"

Currently playing in cinemas, the film "A Single Man" is certainly worth seeing. The movie depicts a day in the life of an English gay expatriate, George Falconer, a professor at a mediocre public college in Los Angeles. The director Tom Ford, whose background is in fashion, has taken a great deal of trouble to reconsruct the appearance and manners of Southern California as they were in 1962. I know because I was there. It is true that the houses of Falconer and his best friend Charlotte are almost unbelievably lavish, but this kind of lifestyle enhancement is normal at the movies.

The film makes one major departure from the 1964 archetype by Christopher Isherwood. In the novel George is simply depressed about the accidental death of his partner Jim a few months before. In the movie Colin Firth repeatedly brandishes a pistol, with which he intends to kill himself. As in the book though, Falconer dies at the end from a seizure.

The film took me back to the book itself, which I had read in 1965 or so, not long after it came out. Since Isherwood did a couple of turns as a professor and lived in Santa Monica, the basis of the story is clearly autobiographical--à clef, with some invented garnishing thrown in. What struck me at the time was the absence of the lurid melodrama that characterized novels about gay men in those days. Allowing for his English origins and evident prosperity, George is a fairly ordinary citizen. This matter of factness was a distinct advance.

In another way, though, the book was not so advanced. It was a convention in novels of those days--Gore Vidal's "City and the Pillar" comes to mind--for one or both of the male lovers to die prematurely, usually violently, at the end. They could enjoy happiness for a while, perhaps a few years, but then a big price must be paid. (In fact "A Single Man" is dedicated to Gore Vidal.)

Unfortunately, Isherwood's novel conforms to this baleful pattern. At the beginning of the novel, Jim, the architect partner, is already dead; George will die at the end. There is a more specific similarity. Typically sold in a brown wrapper, James Barr's Quatrefoil (1950) was a gay novel we all read in those days. It is about a love affair between two virile naval officers. One of them dies in an accident. In Isherwood's book Jim is a naval officer when George meets him at a bar in Santa Monica. He dies in an accident. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Isherwood seems to be echoing Barr's book.

I also have some reservations about Firth's performance, which makes George much too prissy and reserved. I was privileged to meet Christopher Isherwood several tiimes in his later years. He was not prissy at all, but rather earthy, curiously enough. He went about calmly in a leather jacket, occasionally tossing off some well-chosen salty remark. He was altogether a real person. By contrast, Colin Firth is merely acting.

POSTSCRIPT. A sly touch is the surname Isherwood gave to Falconer's nosy Santa Monica neighbor, Mrs. Strunk. This moniker is almost certainly a kind of hommage to William Strunk, Jr., coauthor of a popular writing manual called "The Elements of Style." Strunk and White (as is is usually termed) appeared in its classic edition in 1958, six years before Isherwood's novel. After further revisions the little book still ranks as THE canonical manual of "good writing" on American campuses.

In addition to a series of dos and don'ts, "The Elements of Style" suggests that the tyro writer stick to simple declarative sentences. That is the safest course for neophytes. As a quondam teacher of English, Isherwood doubtless resented the ubiquity of this little book, which he must have associated with the dumbing down of American culture. However, the joke was on him, since Isherwood's writing, never exactly bravura in the style department, abounds in simple declarative sentences.

However that may be, the English writer gets points for naming Mrs. Strunk's obnoxious son "Christopher."



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