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[251] A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove . . . nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge . . . It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.” [12-13]

With precision and unsentimentality of a camera age, A Single Man follows a day of George Falconer’s life. Isherwood’s stream of consciousness has captured with brilliance the texture of life in George, an English professor in a state college who is mourning the death of his lover of 16 years for several months now. Jim’s death has sent him into depression, fueled by spasms of painful memories and undercurrents, as flashbacks of Jim puncture his daily life.

Isherwood imbues a vivaciousness to the most mundane and transcendent details that fill up a day of George’s life, zooming in on the details of eating breakfast, grooming, and accosting neighbors. Most significantly, his loneliness is made complete as the connections he makes throughout the day one by one fall short of the intimacy he shared with Jim. Friends on his school’s faculty are mere acquaintance. In the classroom, George feels misgiving that, despite his oratorial brilliance, he is not reaching his students. At the gym, he enters into a sit-up competition with a teenager whom he finds incipiently attractive. In the hospital he visits a dying man, also involved in the car crash that killed Jim, who was once a rival to his lover’s affection. His best friend Charlotte’s efforts to sentimentalize things crash into George’s homosexuality. Through his loneliness, his love for Jim is made complete because without Jim, George Falconer is a live dying creature.

But does Uncle George want to be obeyed? Doesn’t he prefer to be defied so he can go on killing and killing—since all these people are just vermin and the more of them that die the better? All are, in the last analysis, responsible for Jim’s death; their words, their thoughts, the whole way of life willed it, even though they never knew he existed. [40]

What truly makes George an outsider is not his failing to connect with his daily life (even though he is man of taste surrounded by tasteless people) but his homosexuality. Not for once does the novel ever make an overt reference to homosexuality, except for the ubiquitous undercurrent that is sheerly responsible for that ominous momentum of the book. A gay living in a heterosexual world is best thought of someone in a minority group who looks, acts, and thinks differently from the majority and has faults that the majority does not have. Minority is expected expected to behave within the range of normality defined by the majority.

George’s only hope for a full communion with another person (since he has to find another Jim) is the chance meeting of a student of his, Kenny Potter, at a beachside bar. Their flirtatious but thought-provoking conversation culminates in an ocean skinny-dip and a visit to George’s place. The vast blackness of sea is like the darkness of fear that has imprisoned George, but is receiving him in such stunning baptism, giving him a refreshing new self. The 19-year-old is helping him get out of a cage (he has commented on his being cagey).

As for George, these waves are much too big for him. They seem truly tremendous, towering up, blackness unrolling itself out of blackness . . . Giving himself to it utterly, he washes away thought; speech, mood, desire, whole selves, entire lifetimes; again and again he returns becoming always cleaner, freer, less. [162]

Isherwood captures the quirkiness of someone who faces multiple mid-life crises. George is sudden, wry, and humorous. The novel is a very sad but authentic vision of someone who experiences a relentless reduction.

186 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

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22 Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about re-reading this since the movie came out. I’ve not seen it yet. I remember liking it back in grad-school but don’t recall the details.

    You may want to check out the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story about Isherwood’s relationstip with Don Bacardy. It did dicuss A Single Man which is based on Isherwood’s imagining what his life would be like without Don during a time when the two were thinking about breaking up.

    • Isherwood’s words have the effect of surgical precision. The inside of the book actually announces that Don Bacardy has renewed the copyright of this book. I do plan to see Chris and Don, which I missed when it released.

  2. This is one book that I will definitley be getting from the library this spring as I must read it for your review, because I enjoy Isherwood’s work and because I always have to read a book before I see the film.

    • It’s very stream-of-conscious with surgical precision and unsentimentality. The main character somehow comes through his one day being so much more alive. The unexpected twist is just sad.

  3. The movie trailer looks very interesting and, of course, what not to like about Colin Firth. But it raises the old movie/book first controversy.

    • I have to give Tom Ford the credit for truly living up to the high acclaim that the book has been known for. It’s very faithful to the book down to its minute details.

  4. This sounds like my kind of book. I’m putting it on my list.. Thanks.

  5. My facebook friends brought the new movie by Tom Ford to my attention. Yours is the best commentary on the book. I read a few books by Isherwood many years ago and enjoyed him as a writer very much. This makes me want to read ‘A Single Man.’ I think that Isherwood got very much into aspects of Indian religion and philosophy that must influence the shape of this book. That he can transform it into fiction is his artistic genius.

    • “I think that Isherwood got very much into aspects of Indian religion and philosophy that must influence the shape of this book.”

      Thanks for the comment–very thoughtful perspective. To an extent, yes, George Falconer has been lifted from his troubles and transforms into someone who, if not lives to the full of life, is capable of happiness. The abrupt event at the end makes me think he might actually have lived to the full but that will leave to individual reader.

  6. […] [251] A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood […]

  7. I have to give Tom Ford the credit for truly living up to the high acclaim that the book has been known for. It’s very faithful to the book down to its minute details.

    Wait, what? 🙂 I saw the movie first, then read the book, and I felt it was very similar in spirit but completely different in its details. (I’m new here and found your site through a Google search for book and movie reviews of A Single Man.) I won’t go into details to avoid spoiling it for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story, but Tom Ford not only made up most of the details but invented whole parts of the story, and he changed the qualities and motivations of most of the characters. I had to wonder what he was about. I did really like the movie, and felt in the end that it was faithful, as I said, to the spirit of the book, but it was definitely not the same thing Isherwood wrote.

    • Overall I do think it’s faithful to the spirit of the book, except for a few details, after watching the film for a second time. I rather feel Charlotte in the movie is feeling romantic toward George, and in the book George doesn’t plan to kill himself. What do you think the motivation of Kenny Potter in the film? I don’t get the impression that he wants to engage in any sexual connection with George.

  8. […] were not even within my six degrees of separation, I felt justified to resume the perusal of A Single Man. Out of politeness I put down the book again when companions expressed interests in my reading. I […]

  9. This looks absolutely fantastic. I have yet to see the movie (probably my most looked-forward to at the moment), but a book is a book. 🙂

  10. Wait, what?! I thought it was a woman he visited in the hospital?! Off to go check my copy. I really enjoyed this book and will borrow some of your words in my review if that’s OK? I will link, of course. I am very excited to see the film.

  11. […] A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “…very stream-of-conscious with surgical precision and unsentimentality.“ […]

  12. I just signed up as a subscriber because we read a lot of the same books. Here is my review of this one.

    Like my earlier comment — please let me know if I can add a link to your review on my review post.

  13. […] only exception that I saw the film before reading the novel is A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. Thanks to the hype of the film, directed by Tom Ford, and that Colin […]

  14. I have just seen the movie, and have not read the book. I felt a strong connection between this movie and Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Has Isherwood cited Mrs. Dalloway as an inspiration to his novel? The stream-of-consciousness seems, to me, a style very unique to Woolf, and when used by other authors, it seems Woolf is often cited as inspiration.

  15. Hi– Loved the movie. I’ve forgotten the philosopher reference between George and Kenny at the bar. Any help?

    Thanks and much appreciated!

  16. […] first book you read in 2010: A Single Man Christopher […]

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