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?