Category Archives: Christopher Isherwood

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?

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

Goodbye To Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

This new method of just mooching through my shelves is already a vast improvement on the bookish burn out I was in danger of a while ago, and I am only on day four! Actually over lunch yesterday myself and Kimbofo were discussing the merits and possibilities of doing ‘a Susan Hill’ and bar being bought books by friends and sent review books not buying a single book in 2010. Neither of us has said we are definitely doing it but we mused it for some time. Anyway I didn’t have a book to read after the weekend so when I got an invite on Sunday night to see Cabaret yesterday I went and found my copy of the book that started it all off ‘Goodbye To Berlin’ by Christopher Isherwood.

Goodbye to Berlin is less a novel, though it classifies itself as one, and more a collection of four stories and two diary entries. All these tales are based around the underground and lower end of society in 1930’s Germany as the Nazi’s slowly come to power and there is a great time of change in Berlin. Though written from the perspective of Christopher Isherwood a young writer at the time these, the author clarifies in the introduction, are all works of fiction – I wasn’t sure if I believed that as the characters we meet are so vivid.

One of the stories in the book, which do all interlink, and possibly my favourites is Sally Bowles and was the story that inspired the film I Am Camera that then became the iconic Cabaret. Sally is a wonderful character living on the wrong side of town and hanging out with the wrong kind of people invariably getting herself into trouble. She moves into the same apartment as Christopher that we see in the first Berlin Diary where we also meet the wonderful landlady Fraulein Schroeder who is a wonderful motherly, yet incredibly nosey landlady who takes in the tenants other people wouldn’t rent to.

We also see how men who liked men coped with such a forbidden love in On Ruegen Island, and tales of poverty in The Nowaks and The Landauers before a wonderful final Berlin Diary as Isherwood, both the character and the narrator bid farewell to the city and the love affair they have had with it and the people who walk its back streets. Through all of these tales we meet the minorities and the rejects of Berlin who give an unusual insight into Berlin during its history that I hadn’t read the likes of before.

Actually I tell a slight lie as some of the characters that you meet in the wonderful The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin are part of the Berlin Cabaret set though maybe not so vivid and that in part is why I find it hard to believe that the characters we meet, emotions we feel and the streets we walk are purely fictional they come so fully formed and so full of life even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I really loved this book, I sadly really didn’t love the version of Cabaret that I went to see this week though but I shall say no more. I thought all the characters I met in this book were wonderful and think Sally Bowles may be one of my favourite characters of the year. I also loved seeing that period in history and the lead up to WWII and the Nazi Regimes rise to power through such a different perspective utterly enthralling. It’s also wonderfully written evoking the emotions of the people and the sounds and smells of the streets.

I already have the other of Isherwood’s Berlin books Mr. Norris Changes Trains and may have to read that very soon. I may break one of my reading rules as normally I like to hold off from another read by a wonderful author I have just discovered, does anyone else do this? However with my new ‘read whatever’ whim takes me on or follow whatever journey the books I read lead me on and I feel Isherwood’s Berlin has much more to tell. Has anyone else read these or any other of Isherwood’s non-Berlin based books?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Christopher Isherwood, Review, Vintage Classics