Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book #7 of 2010

Title: A Single Man
Author/Editor: Christopher Isherwood
Year Published: 1964
Category: Novel, literature.

Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it "a sad book, with a biological melancholy running through it, a sense of relentless reduction, daily diminishment." It is a novel of arresting sensitivity and composition.

A lot has been written, academically and otherwise, about this modern classic, and I won't attempt to go into depth about the totality of the work here. Instead, check out these to reviews, which discuss things in some detail and provide a lot of interesting commentary:
I would like to offer some extended discussion of one specific example of Isherwood's technique which I found exquisite. On first reading, it appears to be a straightforward descriptive passage. But there's subtle, sophisticated, almost invisible complexity right beneath the surface.


Sitting on the john, he can look out of the window. (They can see his head and shoulders from across the street, but not what he is doing.) It is a gray lukewarm California winter morning; the sky is low and soft with Pacific fog. Down at the shore, ocean and sky will be one soft, sad gray. The palms stand unstirred and the oleander bushes drip moisture from their leaves. (p. 17)

Here are just some of the things going on in this five-sentence paragraph:

--Notice the careful phrasing of the first sentence that mutes the sense of action, letting us know this is going to be about something else: "he can look." Not "he looks." This also implies George is in a familiar, comfortable setting: he's aware of his options, of what his surroundings permit and what they don't. He's presumably looked out the window in this fashion before. We don't necessarily know that he's even doing so now; merely that he is aware of the possibility, that he could if he desired. This also suggests mild languor, consistently developed in many other ways throughout the novel, part of what Hardwick summarizes above.

--The fact that he's on the john puts him in a vulnerable situation. It's an intimate setting. Whatever's about to come next therefore has heightened impact, because we tend to be more susceptible to experiences when we're in vulnerable places. The next parenthetical annotation serves to reign in the vulnerability just slightly, but it also cleverly doubles in that it adds a voyeuristic note. George can observe the world in tranquility, and though the world can observe him back, it's not fully reciprocal, since It can't see what "he is doing." The choice of the phrase "what he is doing" is also a rich one; it's ambivalent. It begs the immediate question: just what is he doing? Well, toiletries are the obvious response, since he's sitting on the john. Biologically, he's purging himself. But, situated right after the sentence indicating his ability to look out, we know that's at least as important a part of what he's "doing": namely observing. As he rids himself of biological waste, he intakes the world around him, focusing on the texture of his perceptions.

--"It is a gray lukewarm California winter morning..." It's happened. We've shifted from potential gazing to actual gazing, and this is what George is witnessing. Or is it? We can't be sure. Maybe the camera is moving just beyond him. The sentence is a strong, declarative affirmation, with little room for doubt or misunderstanding. There's nothing inherently surprising about what kind of day it is, of course, given earlier details of setting. But the pairing of this sentence and the very next one is nothing short of masterful.

--"Down at the shore, ocean and sky will be one soft, sad gray." The sky "is" low and soft; we've been told this. That's the way it is. But notice the slip from present to future tense. Now the "ocean and sky will be" whatever comes next. What's Isherwood up to with this shift? Why not simply continue as in the previous remark and tell us that the "ocean and sky are"? Changing tenses does a lot:

(1) It is implicit in the narrative that the camera is moving outward. If George were to look further out, he would see the ocean and sky. He can't, presumably, specially through the fog. But we're moving beyond his Immediate Perception. But then how can we know what the ocean and sky would be like?

(2) Ennui. George knows; things are predictable; he's experienced this before. The configuration of the sky and ocean follows from the observation about the winter morning. There's little sense of mystery or anticipation. George can look. [yawn] Things are X. Things will be Y [if George pursues them further.]

Now, with all of the above underway, Isherwood repeats not only one but two words, "soft" AND "gray"!! How can he get away with this without making the passage sound redundant or unimaginative? The primary reason is that his effect is achieved by using the words in different ways. Part of the effect is a sense of things blending into one another. The vantage point of someone who's depressed or apathetic tends to fuse sensations, because it lacks sufficient energy or determination to resolve things sharply. It's a gray morning and the sky is soft. The ocean and sky will be one soft, sad gray. This implies contiguities, equivalences, abstracted synesthesias: The morning is gray, but the ocean and sky are too, so the morning is in part the same as the ocean and sky. Light is the same as water. The sky is soft and the ocean and sky are as well; namely, everything is soft. It's a little out of focus; it's unreal; it's made gray and diffuse by the beholder. I love how this last sentence unites the ocean and sky into abstractness, making them a color, in turn modified by one physical and one emotional adjective.

--"The palms stand unstirred and the oleander bushes drip moisture from their leaves." Now we've reached the edge of our camera arc. We know we're stopping because the tense has reverted to the present tense again, once more depicting reality-as-is. Potentialities are behind us; we've settled into this. We also sense that we're not going to travel any farther because the palms are "unstirred" ; everything has slowed down. Finally, there's enhanced granularity, higher resolution, which suggests we won't going beyond this. It was all about the sky and ocean and morning before, but now can see actual bushes, drops of moisture. We've zoomed in on much smaller phenomena. "Drip" does invoke motion, but it's slow, and not directed. It's an assertion of the natural world. There's a nice, delicate juxtaposition in this sentence too; we tend to associate "palms" with sunshine and possibly happiness, but here they're paired up with oleander bushes that drip moisture, which again returns us to a more lethargic state. And, finally, there's an almost subconscious return to where we started four sentences earlier: George is on the john, and the bushes are dripping moisture. Processes are running their course, both within and without.

I'll be seeking out more Isherwood over the years. But even if I never had the opportunity to read another word by him, this novel was enough to convince me he's a master.

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