Christopher Isherwood’s mellifluous name is not heard often these days. Until a film adaptation by a fashion designer turned perfumer brought this title back into print, all we had readily available were his Berlin novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, so this overdue reissue seemed an ideal time to revisit.
A Single Man (1964) is said in one back cover quote to be Isherwood’s “masterpiece”, a claim for once not overstated. (And if it isn’t his masterpiece, then I’ll be seeking out the rest of his work without delay.) It tells the story of a single day in the life of a man, from the moment of rousing (“Waking up begins with saying am and now“) to the peaceful rest at the end of the night. The opening pages are a bravura performance, knitting together the man’s consciousness as he rises from sleep, first a body only –
The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops. Not because it is heroic. It can imagine no alternative.
Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?
– then ultimately, a person entire (“It knows its name. It is called George”).
George is an English professor of literature working in California, living alone since the death of his lover Jim in a car crash, and consoling himself with the sight of beautiful young men and the company of literature (“These books have not made George nobler or better or more truly wise. It’s just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood”). He nurses resentment against a society that considers him, a gay man, to be “unspeakable”, a “monster” (“Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably warped“). He is lonely.
At the thought of Christmas, George feels a chill of desperation. Maybe he’ll do something drastic; take a plane to Mexico City and be drunk for a week and run wild around the bars. You won’t, and you never will, a voice says, coldly bored with him.
In the throes of unresolved grief, George’s emotions transmute to “rage, resentment, spleen: of such is the vitality of middle age.” To those who believe that “Jim is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife,” he says, “Jim wasn’t a substitute for anything. And there is no substitute for Jim.”
His role, as he sees it, is to keep calm and carry on. “George loves the freeways because he can still cope with them; because the fact that he can cope proves his claim to be a functioning member of society. He can still get by.” Yet when he approaches another day of his lecturing job as putting on “the psychological makeup for this role he must play”, we can’t help noticing that he really comes alive when imparting his knowledge and passion for literature to his students. This frequently spills into challenging their liberal orthodoxies on extracurricular subjects (“a minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it”).
George’s spirits lift too when he is reminded, by visiting an old rival dying in hospital, that he is a member of another “marvellous” minority, “The Living”. A Single Man, written in the early 1960s, has the obsessions of its time in nuclear war and sexual revolution, but also the obsessions of all time both small (campus politics) and large (‘the only end of age’). George gets his fix of death-denial in the gym, panting in both senses as he challenges a teenager to sit-ups. “How delightful it is to be here! If only one could spend one’s entire life in this state of easy-going physical democracy!”
As the day progresses, George will carry on trying to stave off his loneliness, by visiting an old English friend, similarly alone, and also homesick, going to a bar, and spending the night with one of his students. The digressive control of the narrative, the unguarded sexuality, and the shameless elegance of the prose all made A Single Man seem somehow like Philip Roth rewritten by Alan Hollinghurst. (Yes. I know.) All his activities seem geared toward the aim of “exchanging some kind of signal … before it’s too late” – though, now that Jim is dead, it may already be too late.
There is an exquisite pain running under all George’s banter and chat, acknowledged only, for the most part, in his internal monologue. Just once or twice – when drunk – does he open himself up to another person. Near the end of this short, masterful novel, George attempts to express to his student Kenny the impossibility of imparting his experience to him, of telling him what he knows. The accumulations of a lifetime cannot be reduced so easily. He is like a book, he says. “What I know is what I am.”