“A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man” by Christopher Isherwood (1964) – 186 pages

“A Single Man” is a ‘day in the life’ novel like Ulysees or Mrs Dalloway or Ivan Denisovich.

A long time ago, I read Christopher Isherwood’s two collections of short stories from the Thirties, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ and ‘Mr. Norris Changes Trains’ which were combined into ‘Berlin Stories’ that became the basis for the play and movie ‘Cabaret’.  These short stories captured the decadent and jaunty feel of Berlin just before the Nazis took over.  After reading these two collections, I couldn’t find another notable book by Isherwood to read.   Many of his books from the Forties and Fifties were about eastern religion which was not of interest to me.  Then in 2009, movie producer Tom Ford rescued Isherwood’s 1964 novel ‘A Single Man’ from semi-obscurity and turned it into a fine movie. 

Christopher Isherwood was born in England, lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, then emigrated to the United States in 1939 with his good friend W. H. Auden.

The ‘day in the life’ in “A Single Man” is that of George, a college professor at a small Las Angeles college.  The day occurs in December, 1962.  George is 58 years old.  He lives near the ocean in a cabin-like house that used to be part of a somewhat artistic community, but now has been overrun with suburban families.  George is still mourning the death of his younger roommate and lover for sixteen years, Jim, who was killed in a car accident.   George’s mind still flashes back to their time together.  Their love affair was just as romantic, sentimental, fulsome, and mundane as any heterosexual love affair.

One particular thing I enjoyed was George’s indulgent eye on his hetero neighbors.

    “Every weekend there are parties.  The teenagers are encouraged to go off and dance and pet with each other, even if they haven’t finished their homework; for the grownups need desperately to relax, unobserved…And two or three hours later, after the cocktails and the guffaws, the quite astonishing dirty stories, the more or less concealed pinching of other wives’ fannies, the steaks and the pie, while The Girls – as Mrs Strunk and the rest will continue to call themselves and each other if they live to be ninety – are washing up, you will hear Mr Strunk and his fellow husbands laughing and talking on the porch, drinks in hand, with thickened speech.”

No wonder there is so much Mad Men nostalgia now for the early Sixties.

One of the strong points of the novel is the crisp clear dialogue which also carries Isherwood’s philosphy, as this quote from the flirtatious repartee between George and his student Kenneth shows.

    “The point is you came to ask me something that is really important….You want me to tell you what I know…oh Kenneth, Kenneth, believe me – there’s nothing I would rather do!  But I can’t.  I quite literally can’t.  Because don’t you see, what I know is what I am.”

“What I know is what I am.”  Isn’t that true of each of us? We emanate what we know by who we are.

After reading the novel, I watched the movie.  I enjoyed the performance as George of Colin Firth, who is an actor whom I’ve admired in several previous movies, especially in “Love Actually”.  It was interesting to see what was cut from the novel and what additions were made to the movie. 


5 responses to this post.

  1. Nice review Tony. I haven’t read the book, but I did see the movie. I thought it was wonderfully done on so many levels – its exploration of grief, of the “narrowness” of the 1960s were well done I think. And, it was so stylishly done, so beautiful to look at.


    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      Yes, it was a very good movie. Thinking of you, I just remembered Colin Firth’s performance in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ which was also awesome. ‘A Single Man’ was a different role for him, and he carried it off perfectly.


  2. Well, I lived through the 60s and don’t remember it being quite like that! But then Isherwood had rather a reputation didn’t he.

    We are what we are, we know – or what I know is what I am. We probably don’t progress in life until we get to know that some parts of our being are pretty much unchangeable.


  3. Hi Tom,
    The Sixties were not at all like that for me either, but that doesn’t stop me from fake-remembering and romanticizing it with shows like Mad Men. ‘What I know is what I am’ seemed profound when I first read it in this novel, but is beginning to sound sort of ‘pseudo-profound’, sort of like Isherwood himself.


  4. LOL Tony, well said – “fake remembering and romanticising” though, really does Mad Men romanticise? Must admit, I’ve only seen Series 1 which I loved but, oh dear, so scary. Who’d want to go back to that! I also like that idea of things seeming profound at first and then seeming pretty obvious when you stop and think about it.


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