Reading Note:
The Two Georges
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

I’m reading A Single Man, the Christopher Isherwood novel that Tom Ford turned into a movie. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s cattier and less elegiac than the movie. This has everything to do with the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. It’s difficult to be intimate with movie characters, even when you’re taken to the very center of their turbulent hearts. That’s because they live in such powerfully rendered locations, places (usually) utterly unlike the ones in which you spend your time. The George of the movie inhabits an incredibly stylish house, a real work of architecture, and not the upper-Bohemian treehouse of the book. As Tom Ford’s provisional alter ego, George dresses with the maximum of easy but disciplined self-consciousness. Isherwood’s George probably owns a caftan or two — something a bit ratty from Morocco. On film, George is a grand figure, and his plight is tragic. But precisely because it is catty rather than monumental, the book brings home the full weight of George’s loss, the absence of his one and only love. In the movie, Jim is already dead, a creature of occasional flashbacks. In the book, he still bumps into George in the narrow doorways.

Also, because it is cattier, the novel is better at explaining George’s loss. The movie really can’t do more than attest that George and Jim were very much in love. It’s horrible to lose someone you love. But the book shows why George is one of those people who isn’t going to move on, who’s going to be stuck with his loss. That’s because losing Jim confirms something that George learned early about life, something we’re told about at the beginning of George’s day.

He fixes himself a plate of poached eggs, with bacon and toast and coffee, and sits down to eat them at the kitchen table. And meanwhile, around and around in his head goes the nursery jingle his nanny taught him when he was a child in England, all those years ago:

Poached eggs on toast are very nice

(He sees her so plainly still, gray-haired with mouse-bright eyes, a plump little body carrying in the nursery breakfast tray, short of breath from climbing all those stairs. She used to grumble at their steepness and call them “The Wooden Mountains” — one of the magic phrases of his childhood.)

Poached eggs on toast are very nice,
If you try them once you’ll want them twice!

Ah, the heartbreakingly insecure smugness of those nursery pleasures. Master George enjoying his eggs; Nanny watching him and smiling reassurance that all is safe in their dear tiny doomed world!

There is an Englishness about this pessimism. You run into it in the odd highly stylized American, but it’s rare. Why it should have become common among the scions of England’s upper classes I have no idea. George Eliot’s contemporaries, no matter how prone to despair, never sulked, and not just because it was ill-mannered. What happened? The end of empire? The vulgarity of democracy? The nihilism of the Flemish trenches? Somebody is going to raise is hand to remind me that George is a homosexual in an intolerant era. But it’s not that. Everyone in the novels of John Fowles is similarly disaffected, notwithstanding plenteous access to sanctioned booty. It’s as though an intelligent person would be insulted by promise.

Anyway, Jim’s death just proved what George always knew, which is that life sucks. George isn’t going to stick his head out a second time (or so he thinks). There’s nothing particularly homosexual about this “lesson,” either. There are obvious reasons for George’s finding it easier to stick to his resolve than for a straight man’s doing so. Finding a lover whom the world will join you in celebrating is tough enough. Finding a forbidden one has got to be daunting.

The curious thing about the movie — well, it’s about movies generally. In the book, George is a gay man. In the movie, he’s a man who happens to be gay. There’s a real difference, whether or not there ought to be. You might say that “gay man” is a type of homosexual, in the way that “Don Juan” is a type of heterosexual. Actually, if any straight profile comes to mind in connection with George, it’s Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, not because the men share any kind of erotic interest — they certainly don’t — but because of the fastidiousness of their resentment.

It would have been unappealing to watch Colin Firth impersonate Isherwood’s George. But that’s my point about the movies. So far as I know, a gay man like the George of Isherwood’s novel has never been the protagonist of a conventional feature film, even though that’s not what “conventional” means anymore. If I’m not complaining that Tom Ford failed to do justice to Isherwood’s novel, it’s because I’m not sure that I want to watch a movie about Isherwood’s George. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’m very happy to read about him.

Comments are closed.