What is it?
A novel by Christopher Isherwood, originally published in 1967. As it turned out, it was his last novel.
There are much better known novels by Isherwood. Why are you reviewing such an obscure one?
I was in a second-hand bookstore in Nottingham, England, and looked for a book by Isherwood and it’s what they had. Sometimes it’s just as well to let chance take a hand.
Okay. So what’s it about?
It’s the story of two brothers who meet up in Calcutta just as the younger one is about to be received into a Hindu monastery. The story is told through letters the older one writes to his mother and wife back in England and a (male) lover in Los Angeles, as well as the diary entries of the younger.
Did you say he has a male lover? What’s that all about?
I’m just a bit mystified by that, but I got the feeling that Isherwood was contrasting the ways in which the two brothers are seeking, essentially, the same thing: a sense of peace and fulfilment. While the younger brother is seeking it by renouncing the world, the older one is (somewhat desperately, one senses) trying to hang on to his attachment to the pleasures of this world by taking a much younger lover.
How does that work out for him?
Well, influenced, I suppose, by the example of his younger brother’s asceticism and focus, he ends up renouncing his lover and re-committing himself to his marriage and two children. And, weirdly, in the letter in which he breaks things off with the lover, he advises him not to close himself off from the love of a good woman, should that happen.
These guys are bisexual, then.
I guess that’s what we’d say NOW. Then, fifty years ago, sexuality didn’t have so many labels. It’s actually pretty refreshing. If there’s any message in this book about sexual behaviour, it would seem to be: love whomever you like, of whatever gender, but strive for loyalty. In the end, Oliver decides to be loyal to his wife and two daughters. There’s no sense that he’s doing violence to his sexual preferences in renouncing his boyfriend. Rather, he’s choosing faithfulness to a woman who’s loved him faithfully.
Bit old-fashioned, then.
It’s definitely a novel from another time. Oliver is very excited by the simple notion of having sex with another man, as if it’s something very transgressive—which of course it was, at the time. Things have changed a lot, but I sometimes wonder if they’ve changed as much as we think. But sexual preferences seem to be always seen in the light of individual choice now. Any idea that one is being revolutionary, or making a bold spiritual choice (akin to Oliver’s becoming a monk) by engaging in same-sex activity—does that still exist?
How can a man having sex with a man be a bold spiritual choice? It’s just sex, isn’t it?
That’s how we think of it now. But Patrick sees his relationship with Tom as an attempt to “live a life beyond their taboos, in which two men learn to trust each other so completely that there’s no fear and they experience and share everything together in the flesh and in the spirit.” He talks of it as an extension of the brother relationship. He loves his brother, but “taboos” say that you can only love your brother to a certain point. Same-sex relationships allow you to transcend that point.
It’s all a bit metaphysical.
Well, yeah, the whole book deals with metaphysical themes. So same-sex relationships are seen in that light. To the extent that the book focuses on that (and it’s not the main theme of the book), it asks what same-sex relationships mean in the larger scheme of things, beyond the simple sharing of pleasure.
It sounds as though this book stimulated some thinking. Are you going to give it some stars (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?
1 star. I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, but it’s intelligent, enjoyable, thought-provoking. Definitely worth a read.