“The prefect evening…lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself sleepy…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.”
A Single Man
Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)
What would it be like, the main character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man wonders, if the dead could come back and visit the living? “At best, surely, it would be like the brief visit of an observer from another country who is permitted to peep in for a moment from the vast outdoors of his freedom and see, at a distance, through glass, this figure who sits solitary at the small table in the narrow room, eating his poached eggs humbly and dully, a prisoner for life.”
In Tom Ford‘s lovely, tragic movie version of Isherwood’s book, Colin Firth plays that “prisoner for life” — a middle-age professor who lives in a glass house near the California coast, and is yet invisible. It is 1962 and he is gay; his lover Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode) has died, but he may not mourn. We see glimpses of the couple in happier times — laughing on the beach, lounging companionably side-by-side on a sofa (George reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jim reading Truman Capote‘s Breakfast at Tiffany’s) — in comparison with George’s stark, lonely existence now. He goes quietly through the motions of his life; it’s as if he’s fading away.
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Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)
Sorry. The, uh…
mic’s not… work–working. Ahem.
welcome to the launch of “Kafka’s Motorbike”…
“The Greatest Book of OurTime.”
Obviously exceptfor your books, Mr. Rushdie…
which are also very good.
And Lord Archer…
yours aren’tbad, either.
[Clears throat] Anyway…
uh, what I mean is, uh…
welcome, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for coming to the launch of…
one of the top thirty books of ourtime.
Anyway, at least.
And here to introduce it is the man we all call…Titspervert.
Titspervert….Fitzherbert, because that…is his name.
When Helen Fielding wrote the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, she based the character of Mark Darcy on Colin Firth‘s depiction of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton, 1995). In addition to the inside-joke casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, there are several other allusions to Jane Austen‘s story: Mark disparages Bridget to his mother within earshot of Bridget. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy disparages Elizabeth to his friend Mr. Bingley within earshot of Elizabeth. Daniel Cleaver lies to Bridget about a dispute between him and Mark, claiming Mark stole his fiancée; in fact, it was the other way around. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s a dispute between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy, and Wickham lies about who’s at fault. The Darcy in both stories fails to disabuse the heroine’s misinformed notion until it’s almost too late. Bridget works at Pemberley Press; Mr. Darcy lives at Pemberley estate. Crispin Bonham-Carter was in both productions (his scenes were cut out of the film, although he can still be seen in the job-quitting scene and can also be seen at the Kafka book launch where Bridget asks Salman Rushdie where the toilets are – he is seen as the man on the left in the conversation). When Bridget stops at a mall to see her mother, she begins the scene by saying (in a voice over) that, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as one part of your life starts looking up, another part falls to pieces.” This is an update of the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, 1970)
Written by Herman Raucher, it tells the story of an extremely bigoted 1960’s era White insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge), who wakes up one morning to find that he has become Black. As Jeff tries to come to terms with this unexplained phenomenon that has befallen him, he soon becomes the victim himself when all of his friends and neighbors suddenly shun and harass him. This puts a strain on his marriage and loyal wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) , who begins to crack under the pressure. When all medical attempts to change his skin back to his former color fail, Jeff accepts that Kharma has caught up with him. Jeff tries to see the light of being a persecuted black man in this cruel and segregated world with the help of some of some new black friends, some of whom were people he, as a white man, taunted and harassed.
The premise for the film was inspired by Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis, and by John Howard Griffin‘s autobiographical Black Like Me, which is based on the true story of a white reporter who, at the height of the civil-rights movement, temporarily darkened his skin so that he could experience the realities of a black man’s life in the segregated South.
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
“When I sit down to work, I keep a small bowl of garlic croutons on my desk. These are little rewards for good ideas and strong lines, Pavlovian pellets to keep my spirits up. Recently, I began to wonder what fuel writers have relied on, and the answers turned out to be all over the culinary map. Walt Whitman began the day with oysters and meat, while Gustave Flaubert started off with what passed for a light breakfast in his day: eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The novelist Vendela Vida told me she swears by pistachios, and Mark Kurlansky, the author of “Salt” and “Cod,” likes to write under the influence of espresso, “as black as possible.” For some writers, less is more. Lord Byron, a pioneer in fad diets as well as poetry, sipped vinegar to keep his weight down. Julia Scheeres, the author of the memoir “Jesus Land,” aims for more temporary deprivation. “When in the thick of writing I minimize food intake as much as possible,” she told me. “I find I work better when I’m a little starved.”
The New York Times. Sunday Book Review, July 29, 2011