Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

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.”


  1. Great review of a great book. It’s been a long time, but I remember it being very funny. I read it during lunch breaks when I worked at Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road, and kept having to apologise to my colleagues for laughing out loud (there are few things more annoying than someone sitting next to you laughing at a book).

    He deserves to be revered as one of the best prose stylists in English on the basis of this one.

  2. Gore Vidal certainly took that view, fanshawe, as his line “the best prose writer in English” was on the back of every Isherwood book I had when I read him years ago. (I’d read A Single Man before too, but couldn’t remember a damn thing about it – twenty years ago is it, almost? Crikey.) I wonder if the dedication of A Single Man to Vidal came before or after that glorious praise?

  3. Great review John,and like Fanshawe i found the “dirty old man” very funny at time. I also like the way he use different angles to look at himself, in and out, say or think what he would say, disagree with his toughts, it sort of keep a blur, a mouvement around George and real George.
    I’m reading Prater Violet now and it’s a completly different book. A younger less cynical version of himself, about working on the dialogue of a movie with a mad Austrian director. Lighter in ways and trully funny.

  4. Prater Violet is worth a read too; it’s a rather Waugh-esque novel. And Down There On A Visit is very good as well.

    1. Moin, Moin from Texas!
      If you like the Golden era of the 1920s, you might like Brendan McNally’s dark comic novel “Germania” (Simon & Schuster, 2009), about the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, four somewhat magical, Jewish vaudeville entertainers and onetime child stars who were the toast of Berlin before WWII and who reunite during the surreal, three-week “Flensburg Reich” of Admiral Doenitz, Hitler’s very unlucky successor.

      1. Brendan, your self-promotion is so shameless that I think it goes through unacceptability and out the other side; so on those grounds I will allow it to stand. Hope your book does well.

  5. No I haven’t Trevor, and I suspect it is pretty good (my jibe at the director in the intro was just a cheap shot) – though how it could begin to approach the task of representing even one tenth of the qualities book, I don’t know. I hope Ford has simply gone ahead, let rip and made his own thing out of it.

    Hugo and thomas, thanks for the recommendations. I have read quite a bit of Isherwood in my younger and more vulnerable years – Prater Violet and Down There on a Visit among them (perhaps also, digging deep in the memory banks now, Christopher and His Kind). A friend of mine in university was a big fan. Of course I can’t remember anything about any of them now, so revisits are in order – if I can find my handsome old grey-covered Minerva/Vintage editions.

  6. John – 

    I’ve read two of Isherwood’s novels: A Meeting by the River and Prater Violet. The first i really loved – it stayed with me for a long time. the second, unfortunately, was forgettable. i say this so that, if you do go on with Isherwood, you might have some direction.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, jay. I had forgotten about A Meeting by the River, and definitely haven’t read it in my earlier Isherwood explorations. I’ll seek it out.

  7. A great review of a great book. As much as I loved the four or five other Isherwoods I’ve read, I do suspect this is the best. It’s just a perfect, complete, not-a-wasted-word book.

  8. Sometimes, it is harder for me to admit that the initial hyperbole that surrounds film adaptations inevitably becomes my repository in discovering great works published by great writers. The film “Revolutionary Road”, for example, has galvanized my curiosity to Richard Yates and his oeuvres and American postwar realism in general. Another recent discovery is Michael Cunningham’s novel, “The Hours”, which made me appreciate the film that even more. And, seemingly, Christopher Isherwood isn’t going to be any different from the others, based on your well-written accolade, except this time I’ll get to read the original material before watching the adapted feature.

    I’ve already purchased the book, and it is standing gallantly right now in my bookshelf, waiting to be read. I am presently debating whether to read “A Single Man” or “The Eastern Parade” next after I’m done with Henry James’s “Washington Square”. I’m pretty sure I won’t go wrong either way, but your post certainly made my decision slants favorably to Isherwood’s, not to mention the incentive remarks from the other commenters.

  9. Thanks for your comments, Angelo. I agree that you can’t go wrong with either A Single Man or The Easter Parade (and for Yates, I also recommend Young Hearts Crying, which seems to me to be one of his best but which rarely gets mentioned as such).

    1. It seems I’ve resorted to read “The Easter Parade” first after all, but “A Single Man” should be next, for certain. Oh, and I believe I haven’t mentioned it before, but I’ve already purchased all of Richard Yates’s novels. I’m just reading them sequentially by their date of publication, so inevitably I’ll get to “Young Hearts Crying”.

  10. Isherwood’s perfect little novel would seem an unlikely candidate for a movie. Unlike most of his others, it addresses homosexuality directly, which was a bit of a risk in those days.

    My favorite book of his is Christopher’s Kind, which details his travails in Germany (and after) entre les deux guerres.

    If Isherwood’s name is fading from public consciousness, the public needs to have its head shaken awake.

  11. Thanks for the comments everyone, and the continued recommendations. I must admit that, after making one passing and disparaging reference to it in the intro – without any evidence for that – I am now quite interested in seeing the film, which is being well received. It does sound as though it diverges quite a bit from the book, though.

  12. ” Until a film adaptation by a fashion designer turned perfumer brought this title back into print . . .” is inaccurate. This work, as were nearly all Isherwood’s works, were brought back into print by the University of Minnesota Press in 2001. It was an editor and a non-profit publisher who brought this work back into print.

  13. Thanks for the correction, Robin. Please forgive my UK-centric stance, which tends to make me blinkered in relation to international editions and so on. I should have said: “brought this title back into print in the UK…” Prior to this, A Single Man (along with most of Isherwood’s other works) had been out of print in the UK since the mid-1990s.

    Might I presume you to be the Robin A. Moir who is Electronic Publishing Coordinator (or Digital Content Manager?) at the University of Minnesota Press? If so, your colleagues are to be congratulated for giving Isherwood’s works new life: as you can see from the comments above, despite his low profile in his country of birth, there’s still a lot of interest and affection for his work around.

  14. An exceptional writer, no doubt about it.

    The film is something I’m looking forward to, although the repsonse to a recent interview question from the director – “I’ve always thought of you as a beautiful lacquered box from the 1920s with a platinum handle. But now, after seeing the film, I know there’s something inside the box.”
    – prompts me to hope that the film is a turd and that the w**ker falls flat on his bonce.

  15. The box would be completely empty were it not for Colin Firth’s performance. An hour and a half of L’uomo Vogue.

  16. I would love to agree with you, Linda, I really would, but I found the film a pretty decent effort. Though it’s fair to say that Firth’s career-best performance has a lot to do with my liking for it. One or two things didn’t work at all; some of the jump-cuts in the first few minutes were horrible and totally unnecessary, and Ford largely rewriting the opening was ridiculous and detrimental. The other performances were pretty bang on, though.

  17. Great review indeed!~ I would like to direct you to “The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, 1939-1960 Volume One.” It’s a hefty 1,301 pages but it’s worth it completely. After reading it, I felt all of the people in it, from Garbo to Huxley, were all friends of mine and that life, despite World War II entries, a movable feast…. The second volume is coming out in October 2010… I can’t wait to read it. As for the rest, “The Last of Mr. Norris” (as it is some times titled) is good due to the intimacy level of its narrator–there’s much clarity of story-telling techniques. At any rate, I wanted to say thank you for helping me realize I am not alone in admiring Isherwood.

  18. Thanks GK101 (if I may be so familiar). Sadly, my self-imposed limit for reading books is 1,300 pages. So close!

    Actually, I was just discussing Isherwood’s diaries the other day with Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes, as he has recently acquired an early copy of the second volume. I said to him that despite my admiration for Isherwood’s books, I wasn’t rushing to get to the diaries. I don’t think I’ve read any author’s diaries (though I’ve thumbed Cheever’s fascinating Journals) – perhaps from some (misguided?) notion that the best of a writer must be in their art, and not their life. But the diary, I suppose, combines the two. Thanks for the recommendation – and I presume The Last of Mr Norris is the book titled Mr Norris Changes Trains in the UK?

  19. Isherwood is still frequently namechecked by numerous luminaries in interviews, so much so that you do wonder if they realise he’s not that eminent at the moment, despite a recent, fleeting spike due to the film. Fabulous writer, though.


  21. I am pretty sure that the book contains all the dialogue. Yes, it’s definitely in there somewhere. You know Amanda, there is a wonderfully calming effect to be had by settling down with a good book like this one.

  22. Mr. Norris Changes Trains was my introduction to Isherwood a couple of years ago. I instantly fell in love with his style of writing. ‘A Single Man’, ‘The Memorial’ and ‘Prater Violet’ were the next few Isherwood’s I read (last year). True ‘A Single Man’ was masterpiece and a very quick read. This is a very nice tribute to one of my favourite novellas.
    I loved the film adaptation as well.

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