I saw the film version of this novel a couple of years ago, and I still remember one episode vividly: George and Jim are sitting on the couch, both of them are deeply immersed in their books, but all the while their bodies are touching – casually, naturally, non-sexually – and from their positions, attitudes, light touch it’s obvious that they can talk to each other any minute, and it’s obvious that if one of them starts talking, the other won’t be annoyed.
Isherwood describes this more beautifully than I ever could, and he doesn’t need quite so many explanations, either:
“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home, fixing the food he has bought, then lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself slowly sleepy. At first glance, this is an absolutely convincing and charming scene of domestic contentment. Only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”
This is one of the most beautiful and most succinct depictions of intimacy I’ve ever read, and besides its beauty, it also implies everything that happens before two people can exist with each other like this: observing the other and being observed by the other – but not eating up each other; being constanstly aware of the other, even during times of separation; and most importantly: being aware that the other person is another person, not the continuation, supplement, or copy of the first person.
People, in the plural, can be hell – they are all different, they are all others: unknown (all of them – themselves), frightening, with all their different desires. This episode with the couch depicts that state when the other person (not other persons) still – very probably – wants all kinds of things all on his own, and he’s still unknown (and will forever be, being other) – but he’s no longer frightening.
The main character, George loses his partner, Jim – and following this loss everything reverts to its original frightening state. And the way Isherwood writes about this from George’s point of view – condensing everything into the events of a single day – is desperately, heart-breakingly bitter and angry.
But the novel isn’t only about George’s personal loss – it’s also about the state of being a stranger in a frightful world in general, about the ways people try to become less strange, less frightening to one another, and about the realization how random, selfish, ridiculous, and meaningless these experiments in taming other humans can be.
And George is very smart and experienced, and he knows all too well what social interactions mean. He knows that his neighbor doesn’t want to invite him over when she has other guests because she’s afraid the other guests might notice that George is gay. He knows that his eager student at the university only invites him for dinner for the second time because two dinner engagements – according to a weird social code – already signify intimate friendship, and two dinners with George will enable him twenty years later to boast to his university friends: yes, George and I used to be good friends. And he also knows that his friend living next door only requires his company because she needs a manly shoulder to cry on.
Everyone wants all kinds of everything, and – as it often comes up in the novel – everything is symbolic. The relationships, the conversations, the way Americans live – are all symbols for something, but they themselves are not something. At the same time there’s the hope, knowledge, certainty in the novel that finding – or rather: building – something is not impossible. Not impossible – but it takes long. And it’s difficult. And at any moment you might wake up to realize: there won’t be time for it anymore.