I wish I was more like: George
I first fell madly in love with Colin Firth when he played Mr. Darcy in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) – I was seven at the time. Pride and Prejudice was our ‘rainy-day movie’. Mum used to make us hot chocolate and we’d crowd around the TV in our pyjamas to laugh at Mrs. Bennet and swoon over Mr. Darcy. When he emerges dripping wet from that lake at Pemberly and enquires awkwardly after Lizzie’s family my heart just melts! This love affair then continued on through Bridget Jones (2001) and Love Actually (2003) of course. I turned a blind eye when he did Mama Mia (2008) (wtf?) and was dazzled again when he played George in A Single Man (2009). I tell you this because my love for Colin may have influenced the way I feel about George. It was lucky that Tom Ford did such a good job with his film because shamefully I saw it before I had a chance to read the novel. Thankfully when I did read it my love for George was only reinforced. On the back of my Vintage Classics copy of A Single Man (1964) there is a quote from Gore Vidal about Christopher Isherwood: “The best prose writer in English” and I am quite close to agreeing. His words wash around inside your head like warm milk and make you want to stop people in the street and read to them. I tend to feel this way about a lot of books I suppose but with A Single Man I really irritated my friends.
A Single Man is a story about nothing and everything. George lets us in on a day in his life, from when he wakes in the morning to when he goes to sleep at night. The stream of consciousness style of narration manages to do quite a lot with little plot. Through his consciousness we learn what it means to be a middle aged, English, gay man living in Southern California. We are introduced to a parade of characters, from the students at the University George teaches at, to his separated female friend Charlie, to George’s lost lover Jim. George’s strength is subtly communicated through devastatingly relatable descriptions of his thought processes.
And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken-off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.
If you’ve ever lost someone, particularly a lover, this will hit you like a shovel to the face. There is so little to it word-wise but you can feel the sinking feeling in your stomach, your tear ducts shiver ever so slightly, then you shake it off just as George does. This connection is established very early in the novel so we see the events that follow through his pain-filled but brave perspective.
George is a fighter and a survivor but he is also somewhat bitter. He seems to accept his misfortunes in a stoic manner but has little patience for the ignorance of other people. Even when it comes to his best friend Charlie he seems to be more disgusted than empathetic. For this though I cannot manage to blame him. Even when he loses his temper to his students his words are too precise, too passionate and too refreshing. In fact his little outburst might be my favourite part of the novel.
Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! Then why would it make them nice to be loathed? While you’re being persecuted, you hate what’s happening to you, you hate the people who are making it happen; you’re in a world of hate. Why, you wouldn’t recognise love if you met it! You’d suspect love! You’d think there was something behind it – some motive – some trick –
The whole speech is a little controversial and given the oppression we assume George has experienced as a homosexual it is confronting to hear him talk about minorities being in competition with each other. To be honest I haven’t quite worked out why I like this part so much, or even what George’s real point is – although he doesn’t know either. Perhaps it’s simply the eloquence he maintains while losing his temper. When I lose my cool I tend to lose my already sub-par grasp on the English language too, so it is certainly admirable. But what is more admirable is the fact that even though George in an outsider in so many ways, he has not let it completely spoil his respect for human connections. We learn this as he relishes his drunken exchanges with Kenny.
He tries to describe to himself what this kind of drunkness is like. Well – to put it very crudely – it’s like Plato; it’s a Dialogue. A dialogue between two people. Yes, but not a Platonic dialogue in the hair-splitting, word-twisting, one-up-to-me sense; not a mock-humble bitching-match; not a debate on some dreary set theme. You can talk about anything and change the subject as often as you like. In fact, what really matters is not what you talk about, but the being together in this particular relationship.
So I wish I was more like George for all of the above and more. He is resilient, intelligent, independent, eloquent, and dayam sexy!
Originally published 7 June 2012.