Thursday, January 14, 2010

"A Single Man" Part One: A Novel By Christopher Isherwood

Here's a novel to put at the top of your to-read list. Written in 1964, and until recently nearly forgotten, "A Single Man" observes the American cultural and intellectual landscape of the early 1960's, a look into the mind of George, a gay literature professor unable to cope with the loss of Jim, his husband.

It's a slowly mounting quiet cry of anguish against society's refusal to characterize their relationship as such; and how his invisibility as a gay man, and his inability to grieve, wreak emotional and even physical devastation on him.  The very title is a disparaging phrase used to describe bachelors of a certain age at a time when homosexual desire was still "the love that dare not speak its name".

With the release of the film version of "A Single Man", there is renewed interest in the writings of Christopher Isherwood, on whose novel the film was based.  Isherwood has been terribly neglected in modern literary circles and is not frequently studied, even though his use of descriptive language to explore the psyche is exquisite; and even though the essential and classic American  musical "Cabaret"  (reviewed here November '09) was based on Isherwood's youthful memoirs, the "Goodbye to Berlin" stories.

The idea of a man with a husband was unfathomable at that time, and the issue is as relevant to the story as it is to modern history. Isherwood's "A Single Man" has achieved a surprising, visionary relevance, suddenly appearing as timely as today's Proposition 8 headlines.  Written almost 50 years ago, it reads like a subtle manifesto, arguing for the societal, familial, and emotional recognition sought by gay and lesbian couples even today.

Isherwood's "A Single Man"  is more than worthy of attention.  It is a mesmerizing novel, perfectly proportioned.  There is not a misplaced word, the point of view is consistent, the tone is rich and even.  It is a brief book--not quite 200 pages--filled with incident and detail that alternates in perfect pace with the narrator's bitter monologue about life and loss. Although it is a quick a read (it requires only a few hours to finish in one sitting) a reader should linger over Isherwoods language, well-constructed ideas, and emotional portait of a man struggling with an inner emptiness after the death of his partner.

Ishwerwood succeeds in creating the character of George in the tricky second-person point of view:  the bitter rants against the futility of modern education, the encroaching suburban sameness into a world of order and beauty and aestheticism, the furtiveness of desire that must always remain hidden, and the denial of those around him that his love for Jim was real and not a subsitute for a "normal" one, could only emanate from George's mind.  But George, seven months after the death, has disengaged from life, needing all of his energy to attend to the physical details of his person and his environment.  He cannot even refer to himself as "I".

The story takes place in one day in November.  George's most mundane routines are described in painstaking detail.   Isherwood's George devotes much attention to the descriptions of  his bodily functions, and to his efforts at creating his public persona (voice, clothes, grooming).  His is a world of order and refinement, and Isherwood's prose perfectly captures George's despair at a world that is disappearing around him.  His saving grace was his deep love, and not only is it gone, but it is treated as though it never existed.  Even his best friend (and "old flame" Charlotte) believes that she can once again seduce George, now that his "phase" with Jim has ended in death. 

What was remarkable about Isherwood and his partner, Don Bachardy, was their unabashed honesty as a couple and  their refusal to characterize their relationship as anything less than a marriage. Isherwood wrote this book during a period of trial separation from Bachardy.  Probably because of their difference in age, Isherwood felt the terror of isolation as he reached an age where his body would give out, and he wrote "A Single Man" as a meditation on his life without a partner. Isherwood is at his most personal, ironically, in the most ambiguous chapter of the book, in which George visitis the decaying deathbed of Doris, who may have been Jim's lover once in Mexico.  George seeks to forgive, but in doing so, he loses one more facet of Jim from his life.  By refusing to elaborate on Doris' character or what exactly her relationship was with Jim, Isherwood achieves for the reader the sense of disorientation and guilt George feels for being angry with Jim and needing that anger to hold onto him.

During the course of his day, George tries and fails to connect with his neighbors, regards most of the students in his class (who will graduate into unremarkabe lives) with contempt, and tries to find happiness during a private dinner with a drunken, needy Charlotte, while all the time he refuses to give her the affection she craves. 

George is a difficult character, and not always likeable, but one gets the sense that he sees the whole world in anger and bitterness because he has not been given an appropriate social outlet for his grief. That, to modern readers, will be one of the book's most resonant ideas.

George goes off on erotic reveries, as he observes the "cruelty" of a mismatched tennis game, and later as he captures the attention of one of his fascinating, and fascinated, male students, Kenny.  Chapters late in the book build unbearable sexual tension through imagery and innuendo, as Kenny finally brings George back to the ecstasy of his physical being, and we wonder if Kenny will finally pull George back into a life of the living.

Some readers may grow impatient with these characters dancing around the obvious, devoting pages of dialog to merely make the point that a romantic attraction exists. But as a product of a more repressed time than our own, the indirectness is appropriate.  One can't deny that the slow build is done beautifully and gives the book a kind of romantic suspense.

"A Single Man" is scathing in its assessment of American culture, symbolized by its sterile, "symbolic" hotel rooms, and provides equal venom for the European tendency to preserve the past and revere history.  As a gay person, George realizes that he has only the "now", that the past is useless to him, and the cultural decline of the future is bleak.  Will he die of a literally "broken" heart?  Isherwood drains even this notion of all sentimental trappings, preferring instead to view it as a merely clinical physical function.

Here's a book for our time, a record of a time not too unklike our own, universal in its understanding of human decline, an intimate look at an intelligent, devastating character who allows us into the depths of his anguished heart.  Repeat readings will yield many more riches; it is a book to be studied and savored for its characterizations and rich, masterful use of language.  Highly recommended.
Tomorrow: Part 2: "A Single Man", the Movie


  1. Another great post Tom! "A Single Man" sounds like a very interesting read. As a writer Isherwood really sets the bar high as he paints a vivid portrait of George and his life with consummate skill and dexterity. Kudos for a great review, Tom. You obviously don't have to mine the depths of this book very often to find the gems buried within, and it shows in your writing. Keep up the great work!

  2. Tom, it was an interesting exercise to review the book and film together. Not too many people have the opportunity to do that. I might not have come to the book so soon if the film were not being made, so movies do serve a valuable literary function at times. This book may serve me as a model for the kinds of things I want to ccomplete.