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[259] A Meeting By the River – Christopher Isherwood

Duty often seems to me to be the only thing one can really count on, in the long run. Happiness may be thrown in as an occasional bonus, but one never knows how long it will last. [168]

A Meeting By the River is an epistolary novel about two brothers who are polar opposites in temperament and belief. They reunite at a monastery near the Ganges River in 1960s. Breaking a long silence, a young Englishman named Oliver writes to his older brother, Patrick, to announce that he has embraced monastic order and is about to take final vows. Although Oliver thinks Patrick, a successful publisher in London with a wife and two children, is least equipped to judge him, he longs for his brother to reassure him that the monastic teaching is true.

That’s why I fear for Olly. I suppose that’s what I was trying to express when I mentioned judo—Olly’s very strength, his terrific energy and manic determination, may actually hasten his defeat. [63]

Patrick can disturb me so terribly because he can make me question the way I live my life. I’m fairly sure he doesn’t do this consciously—he doesn’t have to know what he’s doing, because he does it by just being himself. [115]

1Until Patrick reveals his love affair with a man in Los Angeles, Oliver has always taken for granted that his brother has never felt any dissatisfaction with his way of life. As disparate as the brothers’ lifestyle and choices, they are both overcome a fear—fear of not doing what is expected of him. The sense of loss, which imposes in choosing between obligation and true happiness, slowly unfolds: first in the exchange of missives between brothers, lovers, and spouses, which abound in multiple subtexts as blindspots exist between them; then second in the brothers’ interaction. Oliver pursues a capacity for humanitarian concern that is not adulterated with ulterior motive and sentimentality, and yet such power is, ironically, inseparable from vanity. Patrick vexes over the social taboos of adultery, or rather bisexuality, and even sodomy. In a sense they are both at the mercy of social forces that demands assimilation.

I know only too well what loneliness can do to one—how, if one lets himself brood on it, it distorts everything into a nightmare of isolation and self-pity, until one simply doesn’t stop to consider the consequences of one’s actions, or just doesn’t care what they’ll be. [162]

Although A Meeting By the River is Isherwood’s last novel, published in the 1960s, it is subversively ahead of of its time. It provokes deep thoughts on love and need: Is the need to be needed stronger than love? It challenges the validity of marriage’s being the norm for civil union, when the meaning of marriage fails to acknowledge the human capacity to love. The social taboos, which plant fear and promote self-withdrawal, can never be more prophetic to our society that is so cowardly to address (don’t ask, don’t tell?) the rights of civil union to all people, regardless of their race and sexual orientation.

191 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]