• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,081,304 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[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]

[251] A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove . . . 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 . . . 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.” [12-13]

With precision and unsentimentality of a camera age, A Single Man follows a day of George Falconer’s life. Isherwood’s stream of consciousness has captured with brilliance the texture of life in George, an English professor in a state college who is mourning the death of his lover of 16 years for several months now. Jim’s death has sent him into depression, fueled by spasms of painful memories and undercurrents, as flashbacks of Jim puncture his daily life.

Isherwood imbues a vivaciousness to the most mundane and transcendent details that fill up a day of George’s life, zooming in on the details of eating breakfast, grooming, and accosting neighbors. Most significantly, his loneliness is made complete as the connections he makes throughout the day one by one fall short of the intimacy he shared with Jim. Friends on his school’s faculty are mere acquaintance. In the classroom, George feels misgiving that, despite his oratorial brilliance, he is not reaching his students. At the gym, he enters into a sit-up competition with a teenager whom he finds incipiently attractive. In the hospital he visits a dying man, also involved in the car crash that killed Jim, who was once a rival to his lover’s affection. His best friend Charlotte’s efforts to sentimentalize things crash into George’s homosexuality. Through his loneliness, his love for Jim is made complete because without Jim, George Falconer is a live dying creature.

But does Uncle George want to be obeyed? Doesn’t he prefer to be defied so he can go on killing and killing—since all these people are just vermin and the more of them that die the better? All are, in the last analysis, responsible for Jim’s death; their words, their thoughts, the whole way of life willed it, even though they never knew he existed. [40]

What truly makes George an outsider is not his failing to connect with his daily life (even though he is man of taste surrounded by tasteless people) but his homosexuality. Not for once does the novel ever make an overt reference to homosexuality, except for the ubiquitous undercurrent that is sheerly responsible for that ominous momentum of the book. A gay living in a heterosexual world is best thought of someone in a minority group who looks, acts, and thinks differently from the majority and has faults that the majority does not have. Minority is expected expected to behave within the range of normality defined by the majority.

George’s only hope for a full communion with another person (since he has to find another Jim) is the chance meeting of a student of his, Kenny Potter, at a beachside bar. Their flirtatious but thought-provoking conversation culminates in an ocean skinny-dip and a visit to George’s place. The vast blackness of sea is like the darkness of fear that has imprisoned George, but is receiving him in such stunning baptism, giving him a refreshing new self. The 19-year-old is helping him get out of a cage (he has commented on his being cagey).

As for George, these waves are much too big for him. They seem truly tremendous, towering up, blackness unrolling itself out of blackness . . . Giving himself to it utterly, he washes away thought; speech, mood, desire, whole selves, entire lifetimes; again and again he returns becoming always cleaner, freer, less. [162]

Isherwood captures the quirkiness of someone who faces multiple mid-life crises. George is sudden, wry, and humorous. The novel is a very sad but authentic vision of someone who experiences a relentless reduction.

186 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]