Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

“But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until — later of sooner — perhaps — no, not perhaps — quite certainly: it will come.”
~Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

Plot summary

“When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life: the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day.

A Single Man. Photo: Taymaz Valley (CC BY 2.0)
A Single Man. Photo: Taymaz Valley (CC BY 2.0)

An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.” More on Goodreads

On Christopher Isherwood

“Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was a novelist, playwright, screen-writer, autobiographer, and diarist. He was also homosexual and made this a theme of some of his writing. He was born near Manchester in the north of England in 1904, [and] became a U.S. citizen in 1946, (…).

In 1925, Isherwood was asked to leave Cambridge University after writing joke answers on his second-year exams. He briefly attended medical school, and progressed with his first two novels, All the Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932). In 1930, he moved to Berlin where he taught English, dabbled in communism, and enthusiastically explored his homosexuality. His experiences there, provided the material for Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1938), still his most famous book.

In Christopher and His Kind (1976), he returned to the 1930s to tell, as a publicly avowed homosexual, the real story of his life in Berlin (…). The book made him a hero of gay liberation and a national celebrity all over again but now in his true, political and personal identity.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Alone vs. lonely
  • Melodic sadness
  • Getting by invisibly in society

A Single Man is a novel about a single day in the life of George Falconer, an Englishman living in California. On a deeper level the novel is about the melancholic sadness of getting by in the daily rhythm after the loss of one’s loved one. But the grief and mourning is intensified on a personal level since George’s mourning occurs in the private sphere. The society does not acknowledge his mourning of the love lost forever.

In a sense, George is a double outsider, a gay foreigner without connections to his old homeland in England. It is the time not long after the almost nuclear crisis at Bay of Pigs in 1961. The Cold War is in its full blossom, the youth is getting hippier by the day and drugs are commodities. Well, that’s a rather limited view of the times but it bears some truth, although who am I to say. I was not there to witness the whole ordeal.

The novel reflects the meaningless in general and the meaning of small things in life that bring the meaning, if you know what I mean. Christopher Isherwood is candid in his portrayal of caricatures, e.g. in his Berlin novels, but with George he is more careful. In the characterization of George, Isherwood is proportionately sized: he is not over the top but very human in his feelings and struggles.

Tom Ford’s film A Single Man (2009) remains mostly loyal to the novel. The film is an elegant version of the emotions portrayed in the novel and the soundtrack is breathtaking. Visually the film is a masterpiece with detailed consideration of lighting and clothing and other items. Also, in the film, the character Jim calls the family dog a “sophisticated parasite”, which I find both adorable and ingenious 🙂

Isherwood’s other novels take the reader on magnificent journeys into Europe of a different time and place. In his travel novels one can only admire the elegance with which one, if you had the proper financial means to express yourself, could explore Europe in the inter-war period and make the most out of touristic experiences. I would highlight Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Down There on a Visit (1962) and Christopher and His Kind (1976).

What makes Isherwood’s novels so great is the fact that he uses such an eloquent language and his character portrayal are so precise that the characters spring to life. It is also intriguing to make mental journeys into a life style of elegant travelling as well as a Europe that no longer exist but in our minds.

“A few times in my life I’ve had moments of absolute clarity, when for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp. And the world seems so fresh as though it had all just come into existence. I can never make these moments last. I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my life on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be.” ~George Falconer in the film version of A Single Man (2009)

More information
– Elizabeth Hardwick: Sex and the Single Man, published in the New York Review of Books on 20 August 1964, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Robert McCrum: The 100 best novels: No 83 – A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964), published in the Guardian on 20 April 2015, link retrieved on 9 December 2016
– Richard Preston: ‘A Single Man’: on the writer Christopher Isherwood, published in The Telegraph on 5 February 2010, link retrieved on 9 December 2016

Other novels and stories by Isherwood
  • All the Conspirators (1928)
  • The Memorial (1932)
  • Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)
  • Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties (1938)
  • Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
  • Prater Violet (1945)
  • The World In The Evening (1954)
  • Down There on a Visit (1962)
  • Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965)
  • A Meeting by the River (1967)
  • Kathleen and Frank: The Autobiography of a Family (1971)
  • Christopher and His Kind (1976)
  • My Guru And His Disciple (1980)
  • Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960 (1996)
  • Lost Years: A Memoir 1945 – 1951 (2000)
  • The Sixties: Diaries:1960-1969 (2010)

“If it’s going to be a world with no time for sentiment, it’s not a world that I want to live in.”
~Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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