A Single Man is a short novel, first published in 1964, by American author Christopher Isherwood. It tells the story of a day in the life of – you guessed it – a single man, George. He’s a middle-aged professor at a Los Angeles university, still grieving the recent loss of his partner, Jim. You wouldn’t think that it’s a funny story, but this slim volume was chockers full of darkly comic moments that had me literally laughing out loud.
A Single Man is different from Isherwood’s other books. In his own words, it’s “the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do”. The others (including Goodbye To Berlin) famously drew upon his time teaching English in Germany, where he witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis. But it was later, in the ’50s, that he started drafting a film script, then titled The Day’s Journey. It was that project that eventually became A Single Man.
He sought to pay homage to Mrs Dalloway (which he called “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have read”), fashioning it as a day in the life of an English woman; indeed, a later draft was re-titled The Englishwoman. All of these ideas bubbled away on the back-burner of his brain for years. In a diary entry from 1962 (ten years after he began), he records that his lover, Don Bachardy, suggested changing the gender of the central character and making the story more autobiographical. Don later said publicly that he thought Isherwood had written an imagined version of what might happen if they were ever separated. He also said that the writer was “very difficult and very tiresome” to live with as he completed the novel – ooh, snap!
Even though it sounds like Don had a major influence on A Single Man, Isherwood actually dedicated it to Gore Vidal. Vidal, in turn, called Isherwood “the best prose writer in English”. Take this as an important lesson, would-be novelists: if you want renowned intellectuals to say nice things about you, just dedicate a good book to them. That’ll do the trick!
My Vintage edition has a nice, short introduction, written by Tom Ford – yes, the fashion designer, but also the creative mind behind the movie adaptation starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. It’s a touching, personal tribute to Isherwood and his work, without being overwrought or overdone.
So, to the story itself: A Single Man begins when George’s day begins, waking up, going about the usual coffee and ablutions. Right away, I found it hard to believe Isherwood was writing in 1964 – it felt so contemporary, almost timeless. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact.
“George feels a bowel movement coming on with agreeable urgency, and climbs the stairs briskly to the bathroom, book in hand.”Page 7, A Single Man
Throughout the course of his day, George meets and interacts with the people around him, his thoughts and feelings constantly coloured by his grief. He teaches a class, tries to skip a social engagement (and fails), works out, goes to the supermarket, has a drink with a friend, and engages in an illicit flirtation with one of his students. All the while, he tries his best not to present himself to the world as a grieving widower – because, of course, he can’t, and in the eyes of the law, he isn’t one. Still, his sense of loss consumes his every waking moment.
Now, what makes all of this particularly heart-wrenching (spoiler alert, etc. etc.) is that we find out in the final pages that this day is actually the last day of George’s life. The plot fades to black, in a sense. I know that sounds trope-y or cliche, but I swear to Oprah it doesn’t read that way. Isherwood writes it really well, and he knew it, too – he called A Single Man his masterpiece. Most people are surprised to hear that, thinking that Goodbye To Berlin or one of his other more popular works would rank above, but I’m sure he was right.
I really enjoyed A Single Man. It’s a quick read, but a powerful and moving one. All of that heart-wrenching and grief-striking is counterbalanced with humour and insight. I laughed out loud a lot, as I said, but maybe take my reaction with a grain of salt. After all, I have a pretty dark sense of humour, so maybe I responded with more mirth than most readers would. Still, if you’re looking for a shining gem of a book to squeeze into your limited reading time, this one would be perfect.
My favourite Amazon reviews of A Single Man:
- “Sad story with no plot that just kept getting sadder. Very hard to read.” – jared abrahamse
- “‘A Single Man’ was a homosexual who lost his lover due to an accident…Homosexuals suffer a lost just like everyone else, but perhaps it may be more difficult and stressful since the relationship may be closeted” – Beverly Guardino