A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

You probably all know by now that I am someone who actually has to read a book before I see the film (unless I don’t know it’s a book or I was young and had no idea it was a book) and so naturally I wanted to read ‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood before I see it, for me its one of this years must watch movies. I was told by someone over dinner on Saturday night ‘to skip the book and simply watch the film… the book is well… just watch the film.’ This of course only made me want to read the book even more, that and the fact since reading ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ Christopher Isherwood is an author I have wanted to try many more books of.

‘A Single Man’ is the tale of a day in the life of George. A British man teaching English and living in California who’s life has changed through the complex emotions grief bestows upon someone since loosing his partner Jim. Though you are never quite told when the book is meant to be set I got a feel of the late 1950’s, the book was written in the early 1960’s a time when homosexuality really wasn’t still accepted though there was a slight change in the air. We follow George through his day and in doing so learn how a man copes with the loss of a loved one, for he is technically a widower, when he cannot discuss it.

“George is ashamed of his roarings because they aren’t play-acting. He does genuinely lose his temper and feels humiliated and sick to his stomach later. At the same time, he is quite aware that the children want him to behave this way. They are actually willing him to do it. If he should refuse to play the monster, and they could no longer provoke him, they would have to look out for another substitute. The question is – is this play acting or does he really hate us? – never occurs to them. They are utterly indifferent to him, except as a character in their myths. It is only George who cares.”

For such a small book it is brimming with ideas, emotions, and people and actually took me a while to read at there is so much to take in. It’s utterly remarkable. Through George’s ordinary day as he gets up, gets ready, drives to work, works, visits a hospital, has a dinner with a friend and gets very drunk Isherwood crams different emotions behind all his actions. Sometimes bitter, inept, nostalgic, angry, sad, aroused, giddy – basically the whole gambit that grief with put you through and so far in my ready experience I have never read it better and though its not written in first person you can feel it all. We also get his back story, Jim’s too and then we have the wonderful character of Charlotte a fairly close neighbour.

“In any case, she absolutely refuses to learn to drive. If she needs to go someplace and no one offers to give her a ride, well then, that’s too bad, she can’t go. But the neighbours nearly always do help her; she has them utterly intimidated and bewitched by this Britishness which George himself knows so well how to employ, though with a different approach.”

Charlotte is another lost person and the two cling together despite that fact that when they are apart she repulses George slightly, but she knew about Jim and is one of the few people to which he can talk about him, relive those times. I was fascinated by her though only in the book for 30 pages her character is just as complex and destroyed as George only she turns to alcohol and lets every emotion be seen. She also adds a dark comedy towards the end of the book which adds a different perspective. Speaking of the ending, I will say no more than I wasn’t expecting it and don’t read it just before you go to sleep, I lay awake for about twenty minutes after.  

I could go on and on about this book but really what I should simply do is urge you to read it. It’s a small book filled with subtlety and a such a deep and clever internal dialogue which says so much you feel you want to read it again and see what you missed. People have said this is Isherwood’s masterpiece and he himself said that it was his favourite of his own works. Having only read one other of his books myself so far I don’t feel qualified to comment on that, I can say I will be reading much more of him and comparing in the future.

Have you read this? What did you think? I have Mrs Norris Changes Trains on the TBR but as my birthday is looming what other Isherwood have you read and would recommend I throw myself in the direction of, or throw people wanting to buy presents in the way of?


Filed under Books of 2010, Books To Film, Christopher Isherwood, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

27 responses to “A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

  1. I’m glad to see a review of this. I’ve read Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris but haven’t read this one, although I’m intending to go and see the film this weekend! I do recommend Goodbye to Berlin (read it in the city if you can – haha!)

    • I already read Goodbye To Berlin I popped a link to my thoughts in the post. I think I will go for Mrs Norris CHanges Trains next though. Was nice to read something not Berlin between though.

  2. You’ve hooked me Simon. I think this would be a perfect addition to Read the Book/See the Movie, especially since the movie is nominated for an Oscar. I never would have come up with the idea otherwise!

  3. I’m writing about this once I have seen the film, so hopefully next week (I am not impressed that there is a limited release).

    It’s set in 1962; it’s funny how different readers pick up different things but there are a few historical markers to indicate the year (mainly at the beginning of the novella).

    • Is it really on limited release? Thats really shocked me. It’s on a lot near me but its all independent cinema’s that dont show tripe like Valentine’s Day instead of things like this hee hee.

      I have no idea why I thought it was earlier and history was meant to be one of my stronger subjects at school – whoops.

      • I’m really surprised at its limited release but, as you say, it’s mainly the independents where it’s on; I thought that with the wider appeal that the Oscars would bring that its release would be wider but apparently not. Going into central or North London this weekend to see it doesn’t fit in my with my plans. Grrr.

        You weren’t that far off, Simon, and it’s not a huge deal. I picked up on a reference to the Kennedys and something else, I think, which pinpointed it.

  4. Great review – I’m always interested in books that can build a whole story
    on emotional description and dialogue rather than action. Is the whole thing literally one day?

  5. I read this in grad school and only remember that I loved it. I’be been meaning to read it again before seeing the movie as well. What do you think of it as a book club choice. It’s my turn to choose books. I can’t decide what to pick.

  6. I meant to tell you that there is a wonderful documentar about Isherwood and his long term love Don Bacardy called Chirs and Don. Isherwood wrote A Single Man during the time the two were seperated and thinking of splitting. They did get back together and remained together until Isherwood’s death.

    • I had never heard of that CB so thanks for the recommendation. I heard a little about Isherwood and his life around the time of writing this on the radio (Open Book) this weekend just passed.

  7. Deb

    I haven’t read this book, but your review made me put it on my tbr list.

    I haven’t seen the movie either, but the poster is a bit misleading. It shows Colin Firth and Julianne Moore reclining on a bed or a sofa, so I thought the movie was a standard hetero-adult-romance. (Realized my mistake after I read a review.)

  8. fleurfisher

    I’ll second Verity’s recommendation of Goodbye to Berlin. This one is definitely calling me. I’m a book before film person too, but sadly here at the far end of Cornwall we are not likely to see the film in the cinema and have to wait for the DVD. There are lots of things I don’t miss about London, but I do miss bookshops, galleries and having a cholice at the cinema.

    • As I mentioned to Verity I have read Goodbye To Berlin and popped a link to my thoughts at the top of the blog. I am going for Mrs Norris Changes Trains next I think. Galleries bookshops and cinema I can imagine becoming very, very missable.

  9. I read this one not too long ago myself, also in preparation for seeing the movie (which was fantastic – Colin Firth is just withdrawn and tortured enough to make a fantastic George) and I have to say that I was hooked on my first Isherwood. I found the relationship between George and Charley to be absolutely fascinating, mostly because of how much they are enablers to one another – providing the veritable sand, especially for Charley, into which she can hide her head. I also loved the last ten-ish pages, mostly because of the way they framed everything as an actually-happening hypothetical: “imagine if…” while still being aware that it doesn’t have to be imagined because it’s actually happening. Thanks for the great review, Simon!

    • I am so pleased that it sounds like the film lives up to the book. If done right I can imagine this being achingly beautiful to watch on screen, though I dont think films can ever be as good as the book.

  10. gaskella

    I’ve never read any Isherwood, but I’d like to – I’m also v. v.keen to see the film – Mark Kermode did a great interview with Tom Ford on the Culture Show the other night. Enjoy!

  11. I have barely heard of this before now but I think it might have to be one I pick up at some point. I think it may give me insight into something I’ve always wondered about (a family situation). Thanks for the review!

  12. It is indeed a book club choice. Many open ends on this one. The movie skips the part when George goes visit someone at the hospital who was vying against him for Jim’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. This book is meant to be re-read over and over again.

    • Yes I would agree with you Matthew, I can imagine a lot of discussion coming out of this book its length is deseptive to how much there is in the book. Plus its good if your book groups dont like books that are too long yet full.

      I haven’t seen the movie yet, maybe at the weekend!

  13. I, too, love to read a book before seeing the movie (and would concur that your friend who said to skip it would influence me to read it more). I enjoyed this very much.

  14. Pingback: A Single Man « Care's Online Book Club

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