A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood


By Christopher Isherwood
Published by: Vintage Books
Paperback edition: 152 pages
ISBN: 978-0-099-54128-8


Minet Library – http://www.facebook.com/pages/Minet-Library-Lambeth-Archives/182910281761857


A Single Man is the story of George Falconer, an English professor in suburban California, who is left heartbroken after the sudden death of his lover, Jim.  With devastating clarity and humour, as George is determined to carry on with his lifestyle, evoking the unexpected pleasures of life, as well as the soul’s ability to triumph over loss and alienation, due to separation and the death of a loved one and watching a friend dying in a hospital bed, alone. And what say of him when its his turn? As George himself says “The Future ― that’s where Death is.”


This was a book chosen by my local library Reading Group, I enjoyed reading it, although for all the vastly wrong reasons. As I never hate a book, I think I wouldn’t be a book reviewer of honesty, that is in a very direct manner, as also to remain impartial, because I don’t look at a book fancifully, that being in what its trying to say or convey to the reader.  As in any book I dislike, usually I find that it still has a message and that sense of communication of some kind, even if the entire book irks me, it’s usually one that I get a perverse sense of enjoyment out of its content, as to be unforgettable, least not justifiable engaged with tempered hostility, which for me, is the best to read, for it brings out my passioned filled reading like nothing else. I get to say a lot more about it, then I intended, which sometimes you can’t say of a ‘good book’ without running the risk of being short-changed emotionally to be bereft.  

I’ll start off saying that this book ‘A Single Man’ is a plain speaking short novel, which is a contemporary book of post-modernism (1950-1970) in its content. The cover illustration of the book (see picture on the left), I felt wasn’t right as to the content of the book, as George himself was in his fifties, yet only saw youthful fleeting shadows of his former self, when he was young or in his prime, when he looked in the mirror or when visiting the gym for a work-out.  Therefore, I felt this cover jacket of the book mis-leading, to the reader thinking George was a young man going through this passage of his life, and didn’t match the publisher being Vintage either, I know the irony isn’t lot on you listening/reading to this part, of old, elderly or vintaged. Was it trying to convey George as some sort of self-applied Greek God of Apollo type on the cover? That is he’s going through a mid-life crisis.

And of the main character, I didn’t like George that much, as he made me question his personal motives, all the time, because of his behaviour, and not his intellect, and that intention of what he was about wasn’t revealed whatsoever, he was singular indeed, which captures his essence within the phrase of ‘what you see, is what you got’ very well, but wasn’t necessarily in any particular order of character, that one could say you’d figured him out. His whole being was only that of a personality shape-shifter, and I think he knew it, hence his mood-swings which where all over the place.  And the author set this right for the book’s main character to hold the story together in such a novella.  I sensed that the author didn’t want any close to the bone examination of George’s character, only that of one’s expectation of him to express himself suitable well for us to identify with him, and that’s all. But I won’t oblige.

And I didn’t like the patriotic hypocrisy within the book of the things George said, as he slides to and from so easily, from Americanism, colonial as well as the material era of when this book was first written, to a British nostalgia and parental patronising attitude, to the loathing of Europe, but George, quotes Greek God mythology to the students taking his English class at a college campus, like he was born an Italian as Cesar in principle of a panto-dame out of season, that is, all carried out as a sham in performance, to show some superficial elitism to impress others with his beguiling sense of self-importance in how he ‘came across’ to them. Thus each subject he mentioned was picked for that purpose of a desired effect, he was a man on the picket fence, but not the picket line, as you read on wards with the book, a cop-out stance.  

The publishers of the book, should also note the typo error on page 70, as it states: “for the very simple reason that an American motel-room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the Room, definitively, period.” It should have read: “for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in a hotel, it’s the Room, definitively, period.”  Even my grammar checker in Microsoft word program picked up on that. And the reason I point it out was as an iconic one dimensional transgression into symbolism. I do expect standards to be maintained, even at a minimalist level in a novella. Thank you.

The character George’s attention to the minutiae details of his own ‘life-style’ was very symbolic, and somewhat it left you not having or being a progressive style of expressing concern for the character. That is George was making a statement in everything he said or did, thereat it didn’t set any trends of thought, but rather enforced whatever came to his mind upon the reader. It shouted whether or not you like it, this is the real George in words, but not in George in his actions, or the way he choose to live out his life pattern, was ruddy well down to him and not the author, but here in this book there is a snippet of what it could be like for him, as it stated on page 38 “It knows at least three dozen of his best anecdotes. But here, in broad daylight, during campus-hours, when George should be onstage every second, in full control of his performance! Can it be that talking-head and the chauffeur are in league? Are they maybe planning a merger?” but George channelled it out, to the reader of the book, as a worn collateral communications medium of a non-entity, that the author has called George. It knows that its name is George.

It’s not a book where, once you finished it you’ll come out of it with any of the ‘feel good factor’ that is so USA, Californian sunshine as a clique or could the word be clinquant. No. You’ll most likely come out from reading this book piqued and ruffled by the experience, due to his cynicism with life in general. On purpose. Perhaps. No doubt. The post-modernism of unsettling the Establishment. Though I must say, did we ever have an ‘Establishment’ period of writing styles reflecting the society anyway. Was it all about social profaned adult angst spilled over from teenage years. Notice that wasn’t a question either, but a statement comment of implied, explicit, conjure on my part, and should be taken as such, because I’ve written as an informed Reviewer only looking at this contemporary book of post-modernism.

However, ‘A Single Man’ did try to make you think much about the environmental and the political issues, but this I felt was a distraction, as that could be displaced anywhere and anytime even in dystopia novels, and was simply used as a ploy of crafting unrest to the intellectual safe as houses ignorant, with the aim of distrusting society as a whole, rather than the individual construct that made up the social world, similar to what Germaine Greer did to the sixties post-feminist movement, she trivialized it all using pop-culture catch-phrases, intellectually, but of course, which appealed to a certain section of women, whom saw an opportunity to make alot of noise around themselves. 

And to be honest, even though I read it, those issues don’t interest me that much, because I inevitable consider them to be that of the ‘white noise’ within the plot, that some authors what to get over, as to say how they are political or environmentally are on the pulse of what makes any ‘issue’ a credible one, and thus in touch with the common people in their concerns, if they ever had one, but only if it makes good reading, and only from a certain social class perspective, being considered worthy enough (George-skeptism applied) to them to warrant that of an educated sparid, no, think could also be, sprayed rantification. You’re welcome.

What I didn’t like much of is the pop-culture aspects either. For what the hell is ‘Sarah Lawrence trained’? that the author writes about a female character on page 68, that is never explained. I hadn’t a clue, to be honest, and it seemed that one should be in the know of these things as you read it, and I emphasis the point of ‘as you read it’ as the text implies you should. But you aren’t, and when a book makes you look it up on the internet, I felt that I shouldn’t have had too, to find out that it’s a private women’s USA college campus in the state of New York. Either say it and while you’re at it explain it, or don’t bloody say it at all, as I don’t want to do a personalised author’s pub-quiz on it. I felt like the author was writing for a particular audience: the ‘Harlem Intelligensia’, which was called the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ during the 1920-1930s, but during the 1940s-1960s was more likely to have formed another period of cultural enlightenment, hence the term given ‘Harlem Intelligensia’ which would’ve appealed to such persons of ilk-type pursuits, and also because George, the English man, the personality that he was, liked American black women and men of a certain class and type.

The irony of what the author wants you to feel, I think is still lost on you, the reader, as you think in the context to the way George spits it out, that something is wrong with going to such an educational institute for a woman, especially one that been around since 1926 which has the motto ‘Wisdom is Understanding’, is it just pure reverse-snobbery on his part. As George says about her on page 70 that of her being the “kind of bully who likes being challenged; it smoothes the itch of her aggression.” Now to whom does that possibly remind you of, as an illustration, during the post-feminist movement during the sixties onwards? To name but, for example purposes, a few women, such as he could be refering to as: Germaine Greer, Julie Burchill or Janet Street-Porter? Perhaps all free three. Their work happens to be so readily, easily, and accessible, in the public domain.

Therefore can you blame the character in the book called Charlotte for speaking her mind either, as a counter-culture figure, as she says on page 110 “…No, Geo, cross my heart, I am honestly not being bitchy! I wouldn’t have put up with it, either, in the long run.  Women like that ― we’ve simply got to hang on to our roots.  We can be transplanted, yes – but it has to be done by a man, and when he’s done it, he has to stay with us and wither ― I mean water ― I mean, the new roots wither if they aren’t watered.” Now even when drunk, she makes perfect sense, even to George! As he liked her wonderful lack of perception. For irrelevant she wasn’t. 

Although, you do get the feeling that he, being George terminally, doesn’t like those other aforementioned type, and a certain class of female, but prefers the dominance of being male, in a twisted game, to subdue them anyway, to his whimsical whims in playtime, that they still had to please him in some way, even though he’s a closet homosexual, the social-contrary-hard-to-believe thought, was not lost on me however, as to his unease to his all-conquering attitude to which ever gender was before him. And whilst we’re talking about gender, metaphorically speaking, I actually at one point in the story, thought the sea and beach was gay or bi-sexual, at the very least, and that’s why the book was based there, refreshing notion isn’t it. 

And what got to me, was in regards to his bereaved grief, that some I could see what he was getting to as an insight into this process, but in other instances within the book, I felt the ‘how could he!’ as I got nearer the end of the book. For George, in the process of moving on with his life meant replacing someone who he apparently was supposed to care for deeply, with someone just like that of the lover he lost. And for some reason that rubbed me up the wrong way, once I finished the book, and I apologise for those who are sensitive towards the sentimentality of death, but I thought, glad he never got the chance. Hence for me anyway an apt one for the title, excuse pun, as to the way George remained in that status throughout the book.

So, what I felt when I finished the book, was that George, the one that over-hyped, had been playing some kind of parlour game, as he was doing with the female character Charlotte when he was drunk, and when he was sober wouldn’t remember any of it, but you would, as he’d hoped you would to remind him of it, hence the book, when he was long gone, you’d be saying things at the dinner party “and George said in the book A Single Man and I quote…”  It left the after taste of a hang-over, where’s the ice-pack for my forehead. 


“Well ― to put it crudely ― it’s like Plato; it’s a Dialogue. A dialogue between two people. Yes, but not a Platonic dialogue in the hair-splitting, word twisting, one-up-to-me sense; not a mock-humble bitching-match; not a debate on some dreary set theme.  You can talk about anything and change the subject as often as you like.  In fact, what really matters is not what you talk about, but the being together in this particular relationship.  George can’t imagine having a dialogue of this kind with a woman, because women can only talk in terms of the personal.  A man of his own age would do, if there was some sort of polarity; for instance, if he was a Negro.  You and your dialogue-partner have to be somehow opposites. Why? Because you have to be symbolic figures ― like, in this case, Youth and Age.  Why do you have to be symbolic? Because the dialogue is by its nature impersonal.  It’s a symbolic encounter.  It doesn’t involve either party personally.  That’s why, in a dialogue, you can say absolutely anything.  Even the closest confidence, the deadliest secret, comes out objectively as a mere metaphor or illustration, which could never be used against you.”

(extract taken from pages 124-125, ‘A Single Man’, by Christopher Isherwood, first published in 1964)


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Filed under Contemporary, Reading Group

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