Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Commentary on A Single Man

I've been reading David Bergman's The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture, and while I don't necessarily recommend the book as a whole (unless one is extremely interested in the Violet Quill writers, and occasionally aggravatingly academic discussions of the writers' work), there's an intriguing section (pp. 60-67) about Isherwood and A Single Man in the chapter entitled "Gay Writing Before the Violet Quill."

***Spoilers ahead, in case you have not read A Single Man (which you absolutely should!)***

The reason I particularly recommend this discussion is that it takes an interesting, and I think very intelligent, angle on the question of the final scene, which I recall we discussed at great length. Bergman does not think that George dies at the end of the book, but rather that Isherwood is using the playful "let's suppose" of the final two or three pages to both supply and subvert the traditional "the gay man must die" ending of so many prior mainstream gay novels. He also connects the final scene back to the "rock pool" description from several pages earlier, in a way that I wanted to do myself while I was reading but was unable to see my way clear to.

This particular discussion is well worth a look.


Sam Clam said...

Thank you for this pointer. I enjoyed trying to read the final scene in both ways, as an actual death as well as hypothetical or metaphorical. But I certainly hadn't connected it to the rock pool scene, nor did I appreciate the broader literary context of killing off gay men at the end of novels.

I'll look for the Bergman book next time I'm near a decent library.

Terry said...

Thanks for bringing our attention to this passage. It's available online (that is, The Violet Hour is a google book) and luckily pp. 60-67 are included in the pages made available. Having had a discussion this evening on Life of Pi and its religious (among them, Hindu)overtones, one reads the page in A Single Man about the pool with greater clarity (and I must say it wasn't brought out clearly in the film). George does seem to die in the book and the film, but the allusion to the pool scene suggests that George had fused in his dying with Kenny, and thereby regains life. At least that is how I'm reading it....

Tim said...

I second Terry's appreciation for your calling this to our attention. I'd read A Single Man twice, at least, over more than as many decades, and I can't remember it ever having occurred to me that George doesn't die at the end (perhaps having had Little Hanno too much on my mind). Despite my multiple readings, I doubt I've ever owned a copy, thinking in some peculiarly Robespierran frame of mind that I'd always be able to borrow a copy from the library ... any library, no matter how distantly removed. Imagine my shock and chagrin then when I discovered that my County Public Library (Montgomery) owns no copies whatsoever! I'm going to have to haunt used book stores since I have no wish to participate in the merchandising of Tom Ford's visualization.

DCSteve1441 said...

Thanks very much, Philip! I am repeatedly impressed by our little group's erudition and willingness to share insights. :-)

Terry, I had the same reaction as you to the ending of the film, but could not have expressed it nearly as eloquently as you have.

Cheers, Steve

Tim said...

The Book Alcove in Gaithersburg was taken over last year by Wonder Books of Frederick. Unfortunately, the Alcove is losing its orderly, spacious charm to the warehouse-cramming style of Wonder. Still, Wonder/Alcove did have a copy of A Single Man (a first edition), which had been deaccesioned from the Chevy Chase Public Library—the very copy I had read for our discussion just over eight years ago. Small world … and not entirely unjust.

Anyhow, George may die that night, he may not. Isherwood may have been having some fun with the presumptive death of gay characters, he may not. Such presumption in any case had by 1964 been weakened by the novels of Baldwin, Rechy, and Vidal (not to mention Mishima and Renault). Isherwood's "let us suppose" serves not so much to rescue a gay character from certain death in the pages of his own novel but rather to highlight for us that he will die, this night or a next, and however particularly he expires, his "individuality" will dissolve as described.