In which I review A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood’s Californian-set 1964 novel about a middle-aged gay Englishman grieving after the sudden death of his long-term boyfriend.
What it’s about: California, 1962. The novel follows a day in the life of George, a 58 year-old English expatriate and college professor, who is devastated by the sudden accidental death of his long-term boyfriend Jim. Alienated from Jim’s family and resentful towards his neighbours who tolerate rather than accept his sexuality, George moves through his day in an existential funk, haunted by memories of Jim. He teaches a literature class at his college, using a Aldous Huxley novel to expound his views about society’s fear of outsiders. He has a long conversation with one of his students Kenny, an avowedly heterosexual ex-Marine who nonetheless hero-worships George and insists on calling him “Sir”. After a gym workout, he goes to a hospital to visit Doris, a former lover of Jim’s who is dying of cancer, and struggles to hide his jealousy and contempt for her. He then visits a liquor store, where he has a brief encounter with a young hustler, and goes to dinner with his friend Charlotte, a fellow Brit expatriate who is nursing her own loneliness after being abandoned by her lover and adult son. They get drunk together, George reminiscing about a holiday he and Jim took to England, while Charlotte laments that she and George could never be a real couple and debates returning to England. Prying himself away from Charlotte, George goes to a seaside bar, where he first met Jim at the end of World War II. He re-encounters Kenny, who flirts drunkenly with him, and they head to the beach, stripping naked and swimming in the night-time surf. Invigorated by “the stunning baptism of the surf“, George invites Kenny back to his house, and rants to him about desire in an apparent attempt to seduce him, but stops himself. George wakes in the night to find a note from Kenny, and masturbates to orgasm while thinking about Kenny. As he falls back into sleep, he resolves to stay in Los Angeles and to go on living, leaving Jim in the past and look for new love. The story concludes with the sleeping George joining “that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present and future“, and dying in his sleep, his body “now cousin to the garbage… to be carted away and disposed of, before too long.”
Why it’s a classic: Isherwood published A Single Man in 1964, a novel that re-ignited his career and brought him a new generation of fans. He’d been a literary celebrity since the 1920s, as part of a new generation of left-wing Oxbridge-educated poets from the interwar period (a group including his friend and lover W H Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis MacNeice). After moving to Berlin in the early 1930s, he had a second wave of literary success with his Berlin stories, chronicling the decadence and social upheaval of Weimar Germany as Nazism progressively took hold. His novel Goodbye to Berlin was adapted by John Van Druten into the 1951 play I Am A Camera, focusing on Isherwood’s most famous character, the careworn cabaret singer Sally Bowles. As World War II approached, Isherwood emigrated with Auden to America, settling in California, briefly pursuing a career as a screenwriter, and becoming friends with a talented young gay writer named Truman Capote. Eventually, he settled into a quiet life not unlike George – teaching English literature at a Los Angeles college, and living quietly in Santa Monica with his much younger boyfriend Don Bachardy.
A Single Man was Isherwood’s first significant work since his Berlin writings, and hailed as a major reform to form. According to Bachardy, the genesis for the novel grew out of their relationship difficulties in the early 1960s. In a 2009 interview, Bachardy explained: “Chris got the idea for that book when he and I were having a domestic crisis. We’d been together 10 years. I was making a lot of trouble and wondering if I shouldn’t be on my own. Chris was going through a very difficult period [as well]. So he killed off my character, Jim, in the book and imagined what his life would be like without me.” The book was hailed not only for its forensic snapshot of Los Angeles in the early 1960s, with America in the grip of the Cuban Missile Crisis and fearful of impending atomic war, but for Isherwood’s fearless depiction of life viewed through the perspective an openly gay man, who was neither freak nor victim, and apologetically pursuing his desires – a remarkable feat, given that homosexuality was still illegal in California and the Gay Liberation movement of the late 1960s hadn’t yet ignited.
A Single Man had arguably the same impact on American gay consciousness as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had on African-American life a decade before. From that point, Isherwood’s cultural currency grew and grew: in 1966, Kander & Ebb’s musical Cabaret, based on Isherwood’s Berlin novels and the Van Druten play, became a Broadway hit, followed in 1972 by the even greater success of Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. By the mid 1970s, Isherwood was hailed as a gay pioneer, a position solidified by the 1976 publication of his autobiographical novel Christopher and His Kind. Unsurprisingly, his work became hugely influential on later generations of writers. Edmund White, the great chronicler of 1970s gay New York, called A Single Man “the first truly liberated gay novel in English,” praising the book for breaking away from grim Freudian visions of homosexuality as an illness and instead presenting a hero who “wasn’t a freak but a normal guy“.
A Single Man had a further surge of popularity in 2009, with the release of a film adaptation by fashion designer turned director Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth as George and Julianne Moore as Charlotte. Pleasingly, Ford didn’t shy away from the sexual content of the novel, and takes time to sketch in scenes of George’s and Jim’s apparently idyllic relationship. There’s a sense, too, of George’s outsider status and his palpable anger at the rest of the world, though George’s misogynistic tirades get discreetly deleted. Otherwise, the film reads as a gay fashion designer’s wet dream of the 1960s, with the immaculate costuming and art direction of one of Mr Ford’s Gucci commercials. The nearly 60 year-old and vaguely Bohemian George is upgraded to a suave power-suited stud living in a glass-and-wood-panelled mid-century mansion, while Charlotte’s dotty earth mother becomes a stunningly dressed Glamazon lifted from the pages of Diana Vreeland-era Vogue. This high-end aesthetic, while gorgeous to look at, sands away most of the rough edges from Isherwood’s text. It’s difficult to imagine how two such physically perfect people could possibly have a bad hair day, let alone experience prejudice or loneliness. While Ford should be praised for drawing a new generation’s attention to Isherwood’s work, it’s ultimately a rather safe, anaemic, capitalist-friendly adaptation of a book that’s surging with anger and atavistic queer energy. I’d love to have seen what a bolder and more subversive director – like Pedro Almodóvar, perhaps – could have done with the same material.
Bouquet or Brickbat: An atomic bomb-sized bouquet, though I sense George would have little time or patience for bouquets of flowers. Isherwood is one of those authors who’s been on my radar forever – his career was so long and took so many intriguing hairpin turns that he seems hewn into stone, like the patriarchs of Mount Rushmore – but perhaps that longevity and quiet consistency makes him easy to overlook. Up till now I’d read and enjoyed his Berlin novels, admiring his sleek modernist prose – every sentence perfectly crafted, not a word out of place and not a word more than there needed to be – while feeling at an emotional remove from the turmoiled lives he describes. By comparison, A Single Man hit me with the force of a brick slammed against the skull. It’s an angry, pulsating, subversive fireball, that somehow never loses its aesthetic poise and crisp, masterfully controlled style. Even its length feels perfectly judged – my Vintage paperback was a neat 152 pages, with only the twelfth-hour lapse into Vedic philosophy feeling extraneous to the text.
Encountering A Single Man for the first time in 2021, I was astonished (as I was with Capote’s Other Voices Other Rooms) at just how queer this novel is. Isherwood shows us, precisely and unsentimentally, what is to inhabit a gay male body within a homophobic world. Even the middle-class environment George lives in, with well-meaning suburban moms explaining away homosexuality as a harmless affliction, fills George with a self-righteous rage, as does the total disappearance of his relationship when Jim dies. Like most queers surviving in the pre-Stonewall era, George is, of course, complicit in his own self-erasure – to the neighbours and Jim’s family, George is (or was) Jim’s “roommate”, and Jim’s disappearance is explained away with a story about his returning to Oregon to nurse his sick parents. Their relationship has survived for 13 years largely because of their practising this caution and secrecy, though it’s that same isolation that devastates George as he realises that his grief must largely be expressed in private, cut off from any public support or sympathy. Isherwood understood intuitively how that isolation and exclusion festers into anger, fifty years before psychologist Alan Downs made the same argument in his seminal gay self-help book The Velvet Rage. What’s so refreshing about George is that his rage doesn’t get channeled into irony or camp (a mainstay of much gay experience and quite a bit of gay literature), but festers away undiluted, till he becomes a potentially bigger threat to society than the Soviets’ atomic bomb.
Some of George’s rage is deeply unpleasant, especially his hatred of the dying Doris, of whom he thinks: “Gross insucking vulva, sly ruthless greedy flesh… demanding that George shall step aside, bow down and yield to the female prerogative, hide his unnatural head in shame. I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State exist to support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.” This misogyny is obviously deeply unpalatable, especially for a post-feminist audience (and hence its deletion from the film). That said, I’m pleased that Isherwood put it in and made George so flawed. Gay men of George’s (and Isherwood’s) generation were thwarted and angry at heterosexuals for enjoying the social approval they were denied, and often women became targets for that anger because they were lower down the food chain and easier to abuse.
Isherwood understands this sliding scale of privilege, and has George explain himself earlier on (which is why I think it’s important to separate George from his author. In his class on Huxley, George expounds: “A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority…. It even hates the other minorities – because all minorities are in competition; each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more the all hite, and the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? You know it doesn’t! Then why should it make them nice to be loathed? While you’re being persecuted… you’re in a world of hate. Why, you wouldn’t recognise love if you met it! You’d suspect love!”
What’s remarkable about A Single Man is how astutely and sensitively Isherwood balances all that hatred with a visceral sense of George’s love for Jim. Isherwood doesn’t give us much about the relationship – just a few vignettes that glitter like gold dust amidst the arid landscape of George’s day. In a brief but especially poignant scene, George remembers “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.” Exquisite moments like that can stop your heart beating for a second or two, and Isherwood can land them with the precision of an archer.
But it’s not all cosy domesticity either. George isn’t a polite, straight-friendly neighbourhood gay stereotype from a TV sitcom, but a flesh and blood man with bodily functions (more than one scene is spent on the toilet) and a propulsive, often predatory sexual desire. A scene where George listens to a colleague drone on and on while he focuses on two beautiful young man playing tennis with their shirts off is a minor masterclass in erotic writing: “The game is cruel; but its cruelty is sensual and stirs George into hot excitement…. From his heart, he thanks these young animals for their beauty. And they will never know what they have done to make this moment marvellous to him, and life itself less hateful.” The same can arguably be said about Isherwood, who in writing A Single Man gave a voice to gay male consciousness, and one that was allowed to exist in all its thwarted imperfect and messy beauty.
My only quibble with the book is its bizarre ending, in which George’s story gets co-opted into a quasi-spiritual fantasia of global consciousness and eternal return. Like Huxley and other Californian liberals of the 1960s, Isherwood was a dedicated student of Vedanta (Hindu-based) philosophy, and translated a number of important Vedic texts into English. In this context, it reads as an awkward attempt to shoehorn in a (then-fashionable) idea into what until then has been a taut realist psychological drama. It’s the only moment when Isherwood’s “writerly” voice imposes on and interrupts the story. That said, his writing is so gorgeous that you almost forgive him this intellectual posturing.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Along with Capote, Gore Vidal, Edmund White and Armistead Maupin, I’m so grateful to have Isherwood as one of my gay godfathers, ploughing a course for me and the generations of single men who followed him.
Quotable Quote: “What are they afraid of? They are afraid of what they know is somewhere in the darkness around them, of what may at any moment emerge into the undeniable light of their flashlamps, nevermore to be ignored, explained away. The fiend that won’t fit into their statistics, the gorgon that refuses their plastic surgery, the vampire drinking blood with tactless uncultured slurps, the bad-smelling beast that doesn’t use their deodorants, the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name.”